Guardians of Tradition

In its bustling beginnings, Oil City offered an enormous array of social, benevolent, recreational and service organizations for its residents. Many of those clubs and groups aligned themselves with specific causes while others existed purely for social purposes. There were labor organizations, professional societies, literary and musical clubs, religious groups and others.

The titles chosen by those who came together ranged from the direct – the Winifred Tonkin Branch of the Needlework Guild of America – to the obscure – Rathbone Sisters of the Knights of Pythias.

Regardless of their names and origins, the organizations were comprised of members who met regularly, took up civic challenges, represented their interests and more.

The Busy Years

Most of the long-standing organizations were launched in the 1880s in Oil City with the earliest groups being the Petrolia Lodge No. 363, a Masonic affiliate, and the Oil City IOOF Lodge No. 589, both in 1866.

In 1904, city directory records show Oil City sported nearly 100 organizations that fell under one of five categories: 4 military, 27 clubs and associations, 11 religious and temperance, 21 trade groups and 35 “secret and beneficial” societies. The city’s population at the time hovered near 25,000.

The military group listing emphasizes the veterans of the Civil War just four decades earlier. They included the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), Rutherford B. Hayes Post 167. Members met, under the leadership of commander P.C. Boyle, the first Monday of each month at the Cornplanter Hall on Seneca Street.

The GAR Auxiliary, led by President Jennie Carrington, was known as the Women’s Relief Corps No. 30. The Civil War vets were also represented by the Union Veteran Legion, Encampment No. 12, that met every other Saturday.

The South Side Businessman’s Association traditionally erected the Christmas tree on the Central Avenue Plaza. Several members are shown completing the task in this 1940 photograph. The holiday observance also featured the arrival by horse and buggy of Santa and Mrs. Claus to the plaza.
Oil City hosted an Odd Fellows convention that featured a grand downtown parade. This scene shows the corner of Spring and Center streets. The Odd Fellows hall is at the top of the street and later became the site of the Oil City Opera House. The church building came from Pithole where it was dismantled as the Presbyterian Church and rebuilt on Center Street.
Civil War veterans are shown in a downtown Oil City parade. The procession was part of a Grand Army of the Republic reunion. The archway sign includes the word “Appomattox” and two soldiers, one Union and one Confederate, atop the platform.
The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) veterans held numerous gatherings for local men in the Oil City area. The Civil War vets met at the fairgrounds at Hasson Heights in 1898.

Also in the 1904 directory was the National Guard/Co. D of the 16th Regiment, with members drilling every Wednesday night at the YMCA gym. D.K. James was the captain. A few years later, the detachment would be deployed to France to fight in World War I.

Jewish, Catholic and Protestant churches all offered clubs, societies, educational programs and other pursuits to their worshipers. There were a half-dozen Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) chapters in the city.

On the recreation side in 1904, the opportunities were expansive for Oil City residents. There was the Oil City Boat Club, the Oil City Rifle Club, the Venango Club, the Ivy Club, the Oil City Fair and Trotting Association, the Oil City Fishing and Hunting Club, the Oil City Golf Club and the Oil City Gun Club.

There were 21 trade organizations that reflected the city’s robust commercial and industrial employment. The labor groups catered to locomotive engineers, typographical, plasterers, railroad conductors, musicians, sheet metal workers, bartenders, bricklayers, masons, machinists, tailors, retail clerks, plumbers and carpenters. Professionals, too, were represented by the Oil City Dental Society, Oil City Lawyers Association and Oil City Medical Club.

Women had a vast array of social and service clubs from which to choose in 1904. Some, such as the Belles Lettres Club, Schubert Club and Children’s Aid Society, remain active in the city. Many others were auxiliaries attached to men’s organizations and bore unusual names such as Ladies Auxiliary to the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Oil City Hive No. 194 and Second Onward Hive No. 70 of the Knights of the Maccabees, and Ancient Order of United Workmen/Knights of Phythias.

Under the classification of “secret societies” were the mainstream Knights of Columbus, Masonic groups and IOOF as well as their many affiliates such as Knights of Pythias, Ancient Order of Hibernians, Knights of the Maccabees, Royal Arcanum, Tribe of Ben Hur, Patriarchs Militant, Knights of Honor, Philae Sanctorium and others.

The IOOF Lodge building on Seneca Street is shown in this 1926 picture of a downtown Oil City flood. Also visible are the Lyric Theater and the Veach building.

The registry of clubs and organizations remained relatively unchanged in the city until the 1929 collapse on Wall Street and the ensuing Great Depression. The number of social clubs fell dramatically while the service organizations stayed static. There was a change, though, in the military-related groups in reflection of the times. Gone in the early 1930s were the Civil War-related organizations but new to the city were the United Spanish American War Veterans club, the Sons of Veterans club and World War I veteran groups within the established VFW and American Legion.

A Changed Listing

More changes to the city’s social, labor and fraternal organizations would be realized in later years.

In 1942, the register of labor organizations within the city jumped dramatically as a result of a booming wartime economy. Oil City’s manufacturing plants were turning out copious amounts of steel, glass, oil and gas equipment and more to meet the demand. The labor organizations were hefty at 23 with a key emphasis on the rapidly expanding railroad services and the new glass industry in the region.

The union groups included musicians, bottle workers, locomotive engineers and firemen, painters and paperhangers, railroad trainmen, building trades, carpenters and joiners, coopers, firemen/oilers, glassworkers, hotel and restaurant employees, bartenders, theatrical/stage employers, moving picture operators, machinists, electric workers, operating engineers, teamsters/chauffeurs/stablemen, plumbers and pipefitters, letter carriers, postal clerks, steelworkers, and truck drivers.

Many of the earlier social clubs as well as temperance groups disappeared from the city’s list. While the steady and nationally-affiliated fraternal and civic organizations remained intact, a few new ones had been added. They included the Adelphoi Club, The Club House, Pickwick Club and Wanango Country Club.

In 1954, the term “secret” was omitted from terminology for the city’s clubs and organizations. The wording was changed to “social” and there were new clubs that included the Business and Professional Women (BPW), the Oil City Club, Oil City Model Railroaders, Sons of Italy, Kiwanis and Lions.

The 29th annual GAR reunion for northwestern Pennsylvania Civil War veterans was held in 1912. Veterans received medallions as souvenirs.
The Masonic Hall on East First Street was constructed in 1903-04. On the left is the former I.R. Grimm and O.O. Finnecy picture-framing business.
The Oil City IOOF Lodge held what its members described as “a womanless wedding” in 1930. The entourage, comprised solely of men, are dressed in an array of men’s and women’s fashions. The event was held in the lodge building on Seneca Street.

One new organization reflected its heritage in a small city neighborhood. The Ukrainian National Aid Society was headquartered in a home at 13 Standard Street on the city’s North Side.

By the late 1980s, the city directory no longer listed labor organizations and had greatly consolidated the lists of social and civic organizations. Remaining were the stalwart IOOF, Masons, Eagles, Moose, PNA and a few others. New to a listing entitled “patriotic” was the Dads of Veterans at the VFW.

Today’s version of the city’s club and organization listing is much abbreviated. The entries range from the longtime fraternal organizations to the Oil City Garden Club, Zonta Club, YWCA and YMCA, and others.

The Zem Zem organization held its annual ox roast at the open fairground area off North Seneca Street on the city’s North Side. The Assumption Church is visible across the railroad tracks.
The Oil City Lions Club annually held a downtown newspaper sale to raise money for the club. Proceeds benefited the Blind Association.

Some early local clubs enjoyed a measure of frivolity. The Thimble Club, organized in 1893, boasted ten members and met in their homes.

“The ladies do fancy work at these teas and they enjoy very much the social chat and the dainty refreshments which are always a part of the meetings. Refreshments consist of usually two courses and are served at 5 o’clock,” noted a newspaper write-up. “The club is justly proud of one thing and that is, that no scandal is ever talked at the meetings.”

The Oil City chapter of the Optimist Club featured a guest night in 1947 at the Hasson Heights Recreation Center.
The June 1890 state convention of the United Maccabees was held in Oil City. The Maccabees and their ladies’ auxiliary were part of the Masonic organization.
Philanthropist Henry McSweeney donated the family home on West First Street in 1923 to the Belles Lettres Club. The organization was founded in 1888 when several local women gathered to form a Shakespearean Club, later renamed the Saturday Afternoon Club & eventually the Belles Lettres Club. The goal was to launch a project for a public library.

A similar club was The Happy Snorers, a group of local men and women who held parties at one member’s cottage at Conneaut Lake. One such 1911 party was held at the Karns home at Miller Park, Franklin. Guests traveled to the party, intended to be a surprise birthday party for member Frank Hays, by trolley car.

“The arrangements were on a very elaborate scale … A large platform, erected upon the lawn, was decorated with electric lights and Japanese lanterns.”

A large rowboat filled with cut flowers and several fishing poles was on the platform.

“Lines were attached to the poles and when the elegant repast was finished each guest was given a rod and secured a favor. I.J. Kellogg, who is the King Bee Snorer, landed the prize favor, a fish, but it was a small one compared to some of the catches he makes at Conneaut Lake.”

Dancing followed and the club members left for home aboard the last trolley to Oil City.

The 1906-07 program guide is shown for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) which had a number of chapters in Oil City.
The WCTU pledge was aimed firmly at supporting the prohibition of alcoholic beverages.
This 1909 invitation is for a reception at the Masonic Hall on East First street. The Acacia Club was one of several Masonic-related organizations in the city.

Written by Judy Etzel with research by Kay Dawson and design by Natalie Cubbon.


Helen & Dave Heinzer

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