Peggy Keener: The power of a determined woman

Published 5:04 pm Friday, September 29, 2023

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On March 16, 1869, Austin, Minnesota was little more than a hamlet encircling a primitive public square made up of a thicket of scrub oak and hazel brush. Streets radiated out from it that could best be described as rutted wagon trails. To add to the dreariness, the deeply scarred roads were filled with icy slush making them nearly impassable. If this were not depressing enough, an epidemic of diphtheria was also raging throughout the town.

The very cheerlessness of the heavy gloom may well have sparked a determined Esther Mitchell Morse into action for she was about to change things. On this day the first draft of a constitution for the Ladies Floral Club was about to be signed and with it, Austin would never be the same.

“But, will the ladies come out on such a dreadful day?” Esther fretted as she stepped into the frigid, ankle deep muck on her way to the meeting hall. Clutched to her narrow, though deceptively resolute bosom, was a document onto which she needed thirteen signatures. It was a constitution with a two-pronged mission: to create a society for the study of floriculture (to beautify the town) and to establish a circulating library (to beautify the town’s minds).

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Outwardly Mrs. Morse, the wife of the local Congregational minister, appeared serene, while inside a tempest swirled within her as one-by-one the ladies appeared. Then, as the last lady arrived, she realized there were only 12.

They would have to find one more person willing to become a member. Mary McDonald’s name was mentioned only to learn that she was but 16 years old. “How about Miss Julia Lowry?” someone suggested. “She’s right upstairs nursing her ailing brother.” Yes, they agreed. Julia will join anything that is uplifting and educational! And she did.

Within days the newly formed club had burgeoned to twenty-nine women, all of them intent on bringing culture to their dismal little village. Dues were 25 cents a year. Their first function was a flower show. By the following August their targeted goal was to raise money for books through the sale of their flowers. The first sale was a single red geranium. It purchased the first volume. In the end, the group sold an astonishing $100 worth of seed packets and flowers, enough money to buy 123 books.

By now an excitement was stirring among the citizenry. In no time,103 additional books were donated, and with the 226 total, the nucleus for the first Austin library was created.

The search then began for a place to put them. Eight months later the books were moved into the second floor of the courthouse where each member served as a rotating librarian for one afternoon a week. But, there remained a pall over their plan.

The jail house was only one floor below making the location of the library unsuitable for their feminine sensibilities. With no alternative, three women volunteered to store the books in their homes, an inventory which by now had grown to 1,060 volumes. For nearly 15 years, these three steadfast souls rotated the books from house to house.

Then finally in 1884, upon the completion of a new courthouse, the books were at last moved into its basement where they remained for the next twenty years. But, do not think for one moment that the ladies were content. Au contraire! They still dreamed of having their own dedicated building. By now, with $1,200 in the club’s coffers, the women approached philanthropist Dale Carnegie, founder of U.S. Steel, who was constructing libraries throughout America. Would he build one in Austin?

With little hesitation, he agreed, providing the city obtain a site and maintain the building’s upkeep. In 1904, 35 years after

Esther Morse hatched her original idea, Austin’s Carnegie Public Library was completed. By then the town had grown to 6,000 and the book collection had grown to 3,500.

In the meantime, Mrs. Morse remained the club’s president for 32 years which now, at more than 154 years old, remains the longest continuously running women’s club in Minnesota, as well as the second consistently uninterrupted women’s club in the United States. That’s impressive!

On July 4, 2017, Mrs. Morse, writer, poet, educator and seminarian, was honored as a Pillar of the City of Austin. A plaque in her honor may be seen on the flood wall protecting the flood-prone Mill Pond.

In 1964, the Carnegie Public Library was remodeled at a cost of $145,672 to include a wrap-around structure to add additional space. At this time, the book number was 41,638 volumes. The Floral Club gave as their gift a large historical display case as well as an equipped kitchenette.

In 1995, when the Carnegie Library was once again deemed too small and inefficient, the city voted to build a new library. A public fundraising campaign took place and the building was dedicated in 1996. The building is located on Fourth Avenue NE across from city hall. Then the library’s current holdings numbered 103,000 with access statewide to innumerable more volumes, CD’s, movies, as well as a myriad of other items. As you enter the building, note the large medallion built into the marble floor. You will see a geranium with the words, The Ladies Floral Club.

As you have so recently been made aware, the library has had one more renovation. This time the addition of an enlarged children’s section, study rooms and a city meeting room.

I have had the great pleasure to be a part of the Floral Club for the past decade. There I found a group of hard core book lovers whose only purpose is to assist the library in anyway they can. The minutes of all of the 154 years worth of meetings are stored at the Mower County Historical Society. It is an astonishing collection of history, nostalgia and good times.

The Floral Club meets every month at the Austin Public Library. There is always a compelling speaker, and the ladies have a book club, as well. It goes without saying that everyone is welcome. Remember, this is not about flowers, but instead it’s all about books. The next meeting is Oct. 9 at 4 p.m. If you need a ride, please contact Sally Baker at 507-433-2167. She’ll arrange for your pick up and delivery back home. Put on your happy face and get ready to rock and roll!