In 1955, Shirley Wenzel found herself out of the classroom and at home near Elmwood with a new baby.
Unaccustomed to the solitude and isolation, the former grade school teacher called upon other new mothers in the village of 600 to band together.
And on Dec. 1, 1955, Wenzel and 11 other new or soon-to-be moms gathered for what was billed as a "moms' night out."
Sitting around a living room, drinking coffee, eating desserts and talking about the challenges of being a mother and a wife -- these dozen ladies decided to meet monthly.
After a great deal of discussion, they named themselves the Modern Mothers Club.
"'Modern mothers are long gone, now we are more like modern grandmothers," quipped Rosemary Peterson, one of the 60-year-old club's charter members.
Or great grandmothers, giggles another.
But “modern?” Well, maybe not so much anymore, say the club’s eight remaining members.
Which leads us to the second Thursday in December, when Elmwood’s Modern Mothers Club celebrated its diamond anniversary and its final meeting.
They voted back in 2013 that this year -- the club’s 60th anniversary -- would be the final year of the Modern Mothers Club.
“Nobody really wanted it to end,” confessed 55-year member Jeannie Spaulding.
“But nobody wanted to be the last man standing,” quipped Wenzel, who at age 87 shares the honor of being one of the oldest members of the club.
Dressed in flowing dresses, sparkling sequined jackets, fancy hose and not necessarily the most sensible of shoes, these mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers gathered at Elmwood’s claim to fame -- the Bess Streeter Aldrich House -- and closed the book on a six-decade legacy of mother power that built a community park, fought the war on polio, spearheaded 30 years of community blood drives and raised children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Keeping with tradition, they marked the event with an eight-verse poem penned by Spaulding.
“Sixty years of being together
Is really a very long time
For a group of modern mothers
Who started in their prime.
Over the last sixty years
We've all grown together --
Helping better our community
While relying on each other.
* * *
"It all started with an idea to do something for the community," Wenzel said.
They didn’t really have a game plan, as much as a desire to work together. They struggled to define their club.
But on one point they were unanimous, they were not an extension club.
They were independent, free to spend their $1 annual dues as they saw fit. Free to set their own agendas, programs and goals.
They were a club that one night a month got dad off the couch to give mom a break from diapers, bottles and baths.
Wenzel described it as a “study club.” They learned about the community, about motherhood and homemaking. They had a purpose: Give help wherever it was needed.
“If we saw something in the community that needed to be done, we did it," Wenzel said. "That was really our intent.”
The only requirements of membership were to have a child or be pregnant and an invitation to join.
Membership was limited to 24 people -- the maximum any member's living room could hold, said Martha Bornemeier, a member since 1958.
“It would have changed the atmosphere if we would have had to find a place (like a community center or church) to hold our meetings,” Spaulding said.
At times there were waiting lists to join.
In 1962, club members invited 17 guests to a get-acquainted meeting in the Elmwood Methodist Church parlor. The hope was this new group of mothers would spin-off into a second club, but that never came to fruition.
* * *
"We've all raised our families
While sharing each others’ advice.
And when Modern Mothers Club night came
We all went anxiously, without thinking twice."
* * *
There was something special about this core group of moms.
And something mysterious -- at least in the eyes of their husbands and children.
“Our kids were curious about this ‘club’ that was so important to us," Spaulding said. "They wondered what it was all about."
The ladies regale over the little boys who were caught with their ears to the second-floor heat registers hoping to hear what it was that made mom so excited and had dad growling “Modern Mothers again!”
Nothing stood in the way of Modern Mothers Club -- not tornadoes, blizzards or flooding.
“You don’t cancel Modern Mothers Club,” Spaulding said. “Nothing warrants that!”
* * *
“We've had every program imaginable
And we've toured far and wide
Whenever funds or workers were needed
We jumped right in with pride!”
* * *
“The liberated mothers became known throughout the village for their philanthropic and community service,” reads the opening page of “Leaves from a Modern Mothers Memory Book,” a giant three-ring binder filled with photographs, annual reports and memories of the 48 ladies who at one time or another held membership in the club.
“Mothers marched on soliciting for polio, baking goodies and cranking freezers for money-making projects, while enriching their lives with interesting and challenging programs on their ‘night out with the girls,’” the memory book introduction reads.
From the start, Elmwood’s somewhat neglected community park was their baby.
It began simply by hauling buckets of soapy water to the park and scrubbing down picnic tables and benches.
The following year they repainted those benches and tables, and built a sandpile.
In 1959, they made it official, voting to make the park the club’s main project.
In the decades that followed, they purchased swings, playground equipment, picnic tables and trash bins; commissioned a fireplace; raised money to build restrooms and a shelter; planted numerous trees (some in memorial to long-time members) and in 1970 bought in a merry-go-round.
Monthly meetings centered around education programs and activities to help them be wiser mothers and wives.
The Modern Mothers Memory Book reads like a cultural time travelogue.
* In 1957, they learned about insurance, savings plans and dental care.
* In 1958, the state patrol taught them about safe driving.
* In 1959, they learned about civil defense.
* In 1962, the club watched the film "Communist Encirclement." Lincoln pediatrician Dr. Paul Bancroft presented a program on "Facts of Early Childhood." The following year Bancroft returned, presenting "Teen-agers and Nebraska: A Good State to Live."
* In 1968, they learned about soft water.
* In 1979, they learned how to conserve water.
* In 1981, they learned how to cook in a microwave oven.
* By 1985, they had learned how to use food processors. Educational topics evolved from personal grooming and space-saving secrets in the early 1960s to arthritis, menopause and “mental aerobics” in the ‘80s and '90s.
They crafted ceramic tile ashtrays, flower arrangements, dough Christmas ornaments, plastic shrink art (aka Shrinky Dinks), wallhangings, fabric-covered shoes, papier mache topiary trees and centerpieces for the area nursing home.
They toured Southeast Nebraska: a trip to Nebraska City to see the community park; a chartered bus to Omaha for the big screen opening of “The Sound of Music”; tours of Lincoln’s Gooch Mill, Pershing Auditorium, Earl May Nursery, the Cornhusker Hotel, and an unplanned side trip to a Syracuse taxidermy shop.
They played games: hearts, bingo and chicken foot dominoes.
They raised money -- $5 and $10 at a time -- through bake sales, a lunch stand at the Elmwood Garage Sale and summer watermelon feeds.
“If we needed rain, we had a watermelon feed,” quipped Martha Bornemeier, noting how the fundraiser proved to be a better barometer than a meteorologist.
They paid for books for the Elmwood Library, music equipment for the Elmwood schools, red wagons for the Helping Hand School for the Retarded, draperies for the Bess Streeter Aldrich House, Christmas street lighting for downtown, shrubs for the Schools, sponsored a Girl Scout and later Boy Scout troop, and gave money to the Weeping Water and Alvo rescue departments and the Elmwood Fire Department.
The also funded a new Santa suit.
“We started out working in the park,” Martha Bornemeier said. “And our last project was cleaning the cemetery.
“That tells you how much we have evolved over the years.”
* * *
"After raising our families
Our grandkids came along --
Then it was their turn to ride our club floats
In the parades of years that are gone.
"We've been very well rewarded
For our club's good deeds done.
For along with all the hard work
We always had so much fun!
* * *
In 1962, the club received a Good Neighbor Citation from the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben "cited by neighbors for unselfish and patriotic deeds beyond the field of personal gain or welfare, thus exemplifying the good neighbor spirit in Nebraska."
Fifty-three years later, the citation is still an emotional source of pride for these ladies. As is the inclusion of the club’s Memory Book in the Nebraska Historical Society archives.
“We put our footprint down. We are a part of history,” Wenzel said.
More importantly, they are a sisterhood -- sharing joys, sorrows, frustrations and accomplishments.
Perhaps the club’s biggest controversy came in 1962 when, “a lively discussion was held about dropping ‘modern’ from the club title,” the annual report noted. “No action taken.”
The ladies smile, dirty laundry -- no matter how minor -- shall not be aired.
But the memories … oh how many there are.
They giggle like school girls regaling in an impromptu “remember when” session, including:
* The mystery lady who showed up at the Halloween costume party: “I remember grabbing her leg and thinking ‘That’s a man’s leg,’” squealed Roberta Bornemeier. “I didn’t know who it was, I certainly didn’t know it was my husband.”
* The time they borrowed a Model T and it backfired so loud that kids scattered thinking it was a gunshot.
* The time Wenzel and Spaulding commandeered an old abandoned home for the Halloween party, rebelliously ignoring “no trespassing” signs. The party was interrupted by a sheriff’s deputy.
“Do you know you’re not supposed to be here?” he asked the costumed ladies.
Wenzel’s sister, the wife of the school's principal, turned pale. What if they were written up in the local newspaper? Oh, her husband would be mad.
It wasn’t until much later that Spaulding confessed she and the deputy had been in cahoots.
“But two of the girls never ever believed it was a set-up,” Spaulding said with a grin.
There were lots of parties over the years: an Easter Parade of “extreme hats,” a taffy pull, “hard times” parties recalling gatherings of the Great Depression era, the annual gathering to decorate a room in the Aldrich House followed by the formal attire Christmas party, and a surprise performance by the Belly Whistlers, a rather unsightly group of middle-aged, untoned men dancing in the anonymity of paper bag-covered heads.
* * *
"We've shared lots of laughter
And we've shared many tears
While bonding as true friends forever
Over all of these past 60 years.
So, we very lovingly say, 'farewell for now'
To our beloved Modern Mothers Club.
We know we'll all have a grand reunion -- some second Thursday,
Among those shining stars way up above."