This is part four of an occasional series about the history of the Chagrin Valley.
By the end of the 1940s, the need for summer programming for youth in Chagrin Falls Park was becoming more apparent. A group of women from the park started raising money to be able to employ someone to run a summer program. They called themselves the Thrift Sisters. Magnolia Strickland cooked dinners in her home to help raise funds. Mrs. Strickland also sold subscriptions to the Chagrin Valley Herald, giving all of her proceeds to the cause. A singing group known as the Echo Singers also raised money. By early 1950, they had raised sufficient funds to hire a trained supervisor and had secured permission from the Geauga County Board of Education to use the school building in the park for summer community activities. They hired a young Army veteran named Edward Bowman to run their first summer recreation program. He had been recommended by the Cleveland Recreation Department. They were overwhelmed by the response. More than 100 children registered, and they quickly realized the school facilities were inadequate for what they wanted to do. Activities included knitting and crocheting, Bible story hour, embroidery, sewing, choral singing and music appreciation along with a variety of sports activities. All activities were run by residents of the park.
At the corner of Bedford and Woodland roads, a 1-acre parcel became available that included a two-story brick home and separate brick garage for $5,500. The garage had been used to raise minks, and the previous owner had also planted numerous Christmas trees as another source of revenue.
The residents of the park formed a “committee of 20” to help plan for a community center and began working with a dedicated group of individuals from the surrounding communities. Hilda Kiebler, a realtor in Chardon, had developed the concept of a Share-it-Shop, where people would donate clothing and household items that could be sold to make money. She engaged Geauga Common Pleas Judge William K. Thomas and County Health Commissioner Dr. William Edmunds. Dr. Edmunds said if they could set up a nonprofit, then he would be able to loan the group $4,500 toward the purchase and renovation of the buildings. The Rev. John Townsend of the Federated Church also played a large role, as did many in the church congregation, including Paul Neidhardt.
The Chagrin Falls Park Community Center was created as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 1951. The charter members of the interracial board included 25 individuals, 12 from the park and 13 from the surrounding communities. Judge Thomas was elected board president in May of 1951. The Board decided to initiate a fundraising campaign and produced a brochure entitled “Opportunity For All.” Their goal was to raise $15,000 to pay off the mortgage, provide for needed repairs and to pay the salary of a community worker to supervise the recreational, educational and group activities at the center.
Also in 1951, the Chagrin Falls Junior Women’s Club formed and decided to create a canteen for the older youth in the Chagrin Falls Park Community. There was no programming at all for teenagers. Their committee met with the community center director who arranged for them to meet with a group of youth. The canteen would be held in the old garage that still smelled of mink. At this initial meeting, they developed a whole set of guidelines and decided to start almost immediately. They brought in old card tables, some decorations, an old record player and started with 43 youths.
What a learning experience it was for everyone involved. Over the next six months, the women dealt with a whole host of issues. These included dealing with their own preconceived notions and prejudices as well as those of the youths and adults throughout the Chagrin Falls Park Community. Sex, drugs, alcohol and even an encounter with a gang from Cleveland and some gunfire were all part of what they had to deal with. At one point, the girls boycotted the canteen for two months.
To work their way through all of the issues they were confronted with, they developed relationships with the Urban League of Cleveland, Karamu House, the Friendly Inn (a settlement house in Cleveland), the Church of the Covenant in Cleveland and the trustees of the Community Center. Their struggles and accomplishments have been preserved in a 30-page report, which we have in our files at the Chagrin Falls Historical Society. Particularly helpful was the executive secretary of the Urban League, Arnold B. Walker.
In 1952, the Kroger Company had a nationwide contest entitled “Build Freedom With Youth.” Local organizations were encouraged to submit their projects. The Junior Women’s Club of Chagrin worked with Arnold B. Walker of the Urban League of Cleveland and submitted their project.They included all their challenges and the means by which they worked collaboratively. They were gratified when they won the state competition, which qualified them for the national award. They entered the national contest and won the $10,000 first prize for their project. The prize not only allowed them to expand their program, it provided the necessary funds to connect the two buildings and create more space for the Community Center. It would be another four years before the new building was dedicated.
One of the additional benefits of the interactions was that many of the women brought their children with them. Local artist Nancy Martt and her children were involved in a whole host of activities. She recounts in her oral history that besides art classes, she started a girls club called the Starettes. Sarah Littlefield (CEO of the Townsend Learning Centers) remembers attending the Community Center dedication in June of 1956. Her father, the Rev. John Townsend, was a force for social justice and instrumental in the development of the Community Center, and her mother, Rose Jane, was instrumental in the development of the canteen and other programs. The dedication was a long drawn out affair and a young boy asked Sarah if she wanted to go to his home. Her visit to this one room home, and the stark contrast with her life, was the beginning of her social justice journey. Local Attorney Stephen G. Thomas remembers attending many of Magnolia Strickland’s fundraising dinners.
A series of articles in the “Cleveland Call and Post” in the spring of 1952 highlight these efforts. The May 17, 1952 article concludes with the statement: “The young housewives of Chagrin Falls have created a living example of cooperative community action.” There also was an in-depth article in the October 1952 issue of the National magazine Family Circle entitled, “How 75 Women helped to build freedom with youth.”
We invite you to stop by the Historical Society and read the history of the development of the Community Center along with the history of the Junior Women’s Club Project.
Mr. Bourisseau is president of the Chagrin Falls Historical Society Board of Trustees.