“As the pageantry of the years unfolds upon the work of the Wednesday Literary Club and each member steps forth to do her part, you, who read, may visualize if you will, the preceding half century of feminine charm, culture, and costume in Las Cruces.”
– Miss Lottie Sweet, 1943
The Wednesday Literary Club has been going strong since 1892, making it the oldest book club in Las Cruces. Find out how they got to where they are today and see if one of the books on their recommended reading list piques your interest.
Written by jessica Muncrief
Photography by Renee Boudreau
In 1892, the population of Las Cruces was about 2,500 (including the roughly 100 families living in Mesilla Park). Thanks to the railroad, many had settled here to work in agriculture or because of the newly established New Mexico State College of Agriculture and Mechanics. Las Cruces had St. Genevieve’s Church, a butcher shop, a bakery, two hotels, a barber shop, and a store. There were two newspapers, one practicing physician, a judge, and a surprisingly high number of lawyers. And now, thanks to Katherine Hadley, a club devoted to “the education and enlightenment of women.”
Hadley and two friends persuaded four other women to join them and, in October 1892, they held the first meeting of The Arcadian Club. (The name changed to The Wednesday Literary Club four years later). It is the oldest book club in Las Cruces, only the second ever formed in the state of New Mexico—and it’s still going strong today.
That first year, one member resigned and a new one joined. The ladies began making things official, setting down a constitution and by-laws, including a 10 cent fine for tardiness, an invitation-only membership policy, and a ban on refreshments.
For the next decade, enrollment in the club ranged from 11 to 20 ladies, some of whom “car pooled” in together on horse and buggy from Mesilla Park. Dues were set at two dollars per year. (Except during the Depression when they dropped to one dollar.) Each member was required to serve at least once as “speaker” and once as “hostess.”
Over the years, the group ran across one major problem: a lack of books to read and discuss. Many were favorites brought in by the ladies themselves when they moved West. The college’s library had just 1,300 books, most of which were uninteresting to the layman. The few bookstores were in El Paso, more than 40 miles away. Dona Ana county’s first public library opened in Hatch in 1915, but it was small and just as far away.
According to a history of the club written in the late 1990s by club member Ilka Feather Minter, “the gallant members floundered around around with the old masters—The Bible, Shakespeare, Longfellow, Thackeray, and the Brontes.”
From 1897-1917, they took advantage of the Bay View Course, a collection of study packets covering geography, history, and foreign politics, sold by the University of Chicago to literary clubs “avid for new material.”
The rules and by-laws of the club evolved over the years. The no refreshments ban was lifted and husbands were invited to the annual banquet. Ilka writes that, “with the introduction of speedier forms of transportation, the tardy fine was dropped.” The group also hosted four male guest speakers between 1932 and 1983.
Today, 125 years since they held their first meeting, things at The Wednesday Literary Club are still much the same. Dues are still two dollars (albeit per meeting, not per year now) and hostess and speaker duties rotate. Group membership is by invitation only and is capped at 16, with a few honorary members who for health or other personal reasons can no longer attend meetings regularly. From the beginning, the group made a “yearbook” and they still maintain a scrapbook to this day.
At gatherings, they discuss a book selected by the speaker. Most selections are non-fiction and subject matter ranges from art and history to biographies. The speaker gives an overview of the story and generates conversation amongst the women about the themes of the book. “Some books generate great conversation, others not so much. But we manage to have good conversation anyway. We can always find something to talk about,” laughs Marie Dwyer, who joined the group in 1994.
While the club may not be as formal as it once was—the ladies say meetings used to involve lace tablecloths, hats and gloves, and absolutely no pants—they do still try and make the events classy, elegant affairs something akin to English tea time. Club member Lacy Simpson says, “We serve coffee and pastries. It may not always be on fine China, but we do try and set a nice table and make it a fun occasion to get out of the house and spend time enjoying each other’s company.”
Get In On the Reading
Invitation to this group may be by invite only, but you can still read the books they’ve enjoyed. Here are a few of their favorite recommendations from recent meetings.
I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban
By Malala Yousafzai & Christina Lamb
“This is a story about a Pakistani girl who fights for the right for girls to be educated. She started with money from grants and she’s opened schools all over the world. Maybe it’s because I’m a retired teacher, but the story spoke to me. She has an amazing courage, especially for a girl of her age. It was neat to learn about the impact she’s had on the world.” – Club Member Barbara Hall
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
By Laura Hillenbrand
Barbara also recommends this book about Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini and his amazing story of survival as an airman during WWII. “I love reading about things that people have done that are unusual. I was fascinated by how interesting this man was,” she says.
My Brilliant Friend
By Elaina Ferrante & Ann Goldstein
“This is a coming of age story fiction story about two women in Naples, Italy in the 1950s. This is the first in a four-part series. The writer is exceptional in her detail. I loved experiencing the characters’ different personalities and discovering how things ultimately ended up for them.” – Club Member Marie Dwyer
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
By Daniel James Brown
“This is the story of the University of Washington’s crew team that won the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, right under Hitler’s nose. These were farm boys that crewed because they could get free food and help with schooling. It’s a really heart-warming story.”— Club Member Lacy Simpson