100 Years of YWCA
Oil City boasted many social clubs for women as 1900 dawned. However, there were few opportunities for younger women and girls to gather and enjoy conversation, put on a program, plan a service project and more.
The Federation of Women’s Clubs in Oil City believed that ought to change and in 1923 Mrs. E.C. Beatty, federation president, asked Miss Myra Chickering of Oil City to travel to New York City. Her mission was to visit the national Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) national headquarters to inquire about establishing a YWCA in Oil City.
Myra met with Mabel Krall of the national YW and arranged for her to visit Oil City. Once here, the Federation hired Miss Krall, a graduate of Dickinson College, to “organize a strong girls organization” in the city. The Federation chose the existing but tentative Hi-Tri Girls Reserves organization in Oil City to be the forerunner for a YW.
An announcement was made about the proposal to establish a YW and a meeting was set up on June 11, 1923 at the Oil City YMCA building on Seneca Street. A total of 131 girls showed up for the presentation. Several of the young women were Hi-Tri Girls Reserves members.
On June 23, a second meeting was held to formally vote to launch a YWCA in Oil City. Headlines in The Oil City Derrick newspaper the following day noted: “YWCA organized here with 480 charter members.”
The guest speaker was Mrs. C.T. Evans, president of the Titusville YWCA and a member of the national YWCA board. She told the young women that the letters YWCA meant “You Will Come Again” and “You Women Can Accomplish.”
The motion to join the YWCA network was made by Mrs. E.A. Burch and seconded by Mrs. E.R. Gnade, Federation members. Membership was open to women and girls of “any race, color or creed” declared the club charter.
OIL CITY: 1924
The nation was flourishing in 1924 and Oil City was no exception as the oil, gas, banking, investment and retail sectors were booming.
The year spawned the first Winter Olympics, held in France, and the first round-the-world air flight. President Calvin Coolidge made the first ever radio broadcast from the White House that year. Walt Disney created his first cartoon and George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was popular. The first Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade was held.
In Oil City, a community marking more than half a century as an incorporated city, the population topped 25,000. There were two daily newspapers – the Oil City Derrick and the Oil City Blizzard – that enjoyed a nationwide reputation.
The city boasted 42 manufacturing plants that produced everything from wagons to lubricants. There were seven refineries either in the city or adjacent to it. The city had five major banks.
The previous year had set a record for the construction of new houses – 698 – within the city limits. Oil City property was assessed at $14 million-plus in 1924. There were 13 Protestant churches, four Catholic churches and a synagogue in the city. The educational system included 12 public school buildings and four parochial schools. Three major railroads served Oil City as 26 trains traveled through each day.
A board of directors was elected and an $8,000 budget was proposed to hire a secretary and find a meeting space. Committees were formed to find available rooming places for young women in Oil City and to organize an employment agency to help young women find jobs. A community campaign was launched to raise the $8,000 budget for the new YWCA program. The response was generous and quick, helped in large part by the vigorous advertising from local businesses advocating for the new women’s organization. Many businesses insisted that while the city had a YMCA for boys, it was only fair that the women have a similar organization.
“A program to reach out for the groups of girls needing direction and leadership in this, the plastic period of young womanhood! If such training is good for and considered essential for our boys, surely it need no other argument to secure like privileges for Oil City’s girls. The Federation thinks not and has taken official steps to advance the work to the point above stated,” editorialized the newspaper.
The newly organized Girl Reserves group met at the Oil City YMCA on Seneca Street in June 1923. A total of 131 girls attended. Within a year, the members would reorganize as the new Oil City YWCA.
The meeting locations were varied as no permanent headquarters had yet been established. The first site for the new organization was a small meeting room above a West First Street store. Early records show the store was Jerko’s ice cream shop, now the site of the YMCA facility. The group soon outgrew the location and rented the second and third floors of the Lynch Building on Seneca Street. The space, located above the popular Sugar Bowl Restaurant, consisted of a few club rooms and a small gymnasium.
The Oil City YWCA roster of members continued to grow and one YW board member decided she could help with securing a permanent headquarters. Fanny Perkins, a Vermont native, moved to Oil City in the 1880s to each Latin and Greek at the Oil City High School, then located on Central Avenue. While teaching, she had rented a room in the 18-room, three-story Maxwell home on Central Avenue just a few blocks from the school. Fanny eventually married George N. Reed who later became president of the Oil City National Bank. Active in the community, Fanny served on the Oil City School Board and the Oil City YWCA board.
In 1932, Fanny bought the Maxwell home, built by store co-owner and oil producer Samuel Maxwell and his wife Harriette “Hattie” Finley Maxwell. Seven years late, Fanny gave it to the Oil City YWCA to use as its headquarters.
There is folklore that suggests the Maxwell house is haunted. Hattie’s mother, Elizabeth Finley, lived for a while with her daughter and son-in-law. At the age of 92, she died in 1926 from burns in a heater fire accident in the home. Anecdotal tales over the years suggest one or both women still have a presence in the house as lights randomly are turned off and on, unusual noises can be heard and more.
The five bedrooms upstairs were available for rent to young single women attending college or working. The YW also provided temporary housing for female students attending the new Venango Campus and accommodations were made for “bunking in the gym” for two months.
The YWCA over the years has upgraded and expanded its facilities. In 1951, the organization built a $90,000 annex that included a gym, recreation room, storage area and kitchen. The club bought a two-story frame home next door on Central Avenue and razed to provide more property for future expansion. The latest project was in 1989 when the YW raised $750,000 to add a new wing on to the building.
An example of the dozens of print advertisements calling for financial support from local residents on behalf of the new YWCA was offered by the Welker & Maxwell department store on the city’s South Side: “In all fairness to our girls, we must give them equal chance with our boys for fellowship, recreation, service and development,” insisted the display ad.
In one week, community donations for the new organization surpassed $10,000. On Dec. 24, 1924, the new Oil City YWCA received its national charter. Membership topped 600 women and girls by the end of 1925.
More than a dozen clubs were formed and classes ranging from quilting to investing to tax preparations were offered to members. The clubs included the 50-Up Club, Beta Gamma, Y-Wives, Y-Homemakers, Green Thumb, Morning Magic, Silhouette, Gallivanters and more.
The new YWCA joined a long list of women’s clubs in Oil City in 1924. Nearly all of the existing clubs had representation on the Federation of Women’s Clubs board that coordinated efforts to create a local YW. The women’s organizations included:
Catholic Daughters of America (Court of St. Rita chapter), Pythian Sisters, Ladies Catholic Benevolent Association, Women’s Beneficial Association of Maccabees, Order of Eastern Star, South Side Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Tenth Ward WCTU, American Legion Auxiliary, Daughters of the American Revolution, Women’s Relief Corps/GAR, Women’s Camp/Sons of Veterans, Belles Lettres Club, Business Women’s Club, Council of Jewish Women, & Hospital Flower Mission.
The newest club was the Girl Reserves, formed in 1923 specifically to serve as the core group for a new YW. The club was called the Hi-Tri Girl Reserves and listed about 130 young girls as members.
Over the years the YW has offered a variety of team sports, including volleyball, basketball, softball and pickle ball.
In scheduling such an array of clubs and events, the YW board of directors insisted, “The YW is not a charity and not merely a club but a fellowship of girls and women who will work together to empower each other.”
The Oil City YWCA offered an immensely popular social outing for Oil City teenagers from 1955 to 1970 with its Teen Inn program. Dances featuring a DJ were held every Friday night with the program run by a board of teenagers elected from the four grades at the high school. The popular adult advisors were Jack and Marge McCash. It was during that same period that membership in the Oil City YWCA topped the 1,000 mark, an all-time record.
Today, the Oil City YWCA continues its broad community outreach with the summer playground program which is in its 46th year in 2024, an annual antique show, Sweet Treats holiday event, rental of space to community organizations, teen and tot events, annual spaghetti dinner, adult education programs, numerous clubs, exercise and yoga sessions and an expansive physical fitness program. There are about 500 active members.
The YWCA USA is on a mission to eliminate racism, empower women, stand up for social justice, help families and strengthen communities. It is one of the oldest and largest women’s organizations in the nation, serving more than one million women, girls and their families.
The YWCA has been at the forefront of the most pressing social movements for more than 160 years – from voting rights to civil rights, from affordable housing to pay equity, from violence prevention to health care reform.
Today, the national YWCA network combines programming and advocacy in order to generate institutional change in three key areas: racial justice and civil rights, empowerment and economic advancement of women and girls, and health and safety of women and girls.
As the Oil City YWCA marks its 100th anniversary in 2024, it remains dedicated to eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all.
The YWCA, a United Way agency, has been led by an executive director and a board of directors over the years. The more recent executive directors have been Myrna Flinchbaugh, Martha Reynolds, Gwen Hovis and the current director, Jennifer Friedhaber.
Written by Judy Etzel with research by Kay Dawson and design by Natalie Cubbon.
Helen & Dave Heinzer
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