Early Illinois Women

Sarah Atwater Denman

Source: Quincy Herald Whig Newspaper, January 30, 1977

Series title: Pioneer Women of Quincy

[headline] Women's study club was bold innovation

By Helen Warning

presented with permission of the author and The Quincy Herald-Whig. Photos courtesy of The Quincy Herald-Whig and Friends in Council.

PlaqueThe lives and careers of six pioneer women of Quincy were permanently enshrined on a red, white and blue plaque at the Women's City Club during public ceremonies on Nov. 21, 1976. "They stand as shining examples of what may be done by women in not only furthering the cause of freedom but adding to the effective quality of life in America," said Rep. Mary Lou Kent in dedication ceremonies.

Co-sponsors of the plague are the Adams County Bicentennial Commission and ten women's organizations, Adams County Homemakers Extension Association, American Association of University Women, American Business Women's Association, Friends in Council, League of Women Voters, Altrusa Club of Quincy, Daughters of the American Revolution, Business and Professional Women's Club and the YWCA. Today, the Herald-Whig begins a series of six stories on the "Pioneer Women of Quincy." Cora Benneson, Elsa Caldwell Browning, Sarah Atwater Denman, Louisa Maertz, Abby Fox Rooney, M.D., and Christiana Holmes Tillson.

It was a daring venture in the fall of 1866 when Mrs. Sarah Atwater Denman gathered together 12 women, all good friends, in her home at Ninth and Broadway.

It was not to share a cup of tea and the light, social conversation of the day that prompted Mrs. Denman's invitation but to formulate a plan for study, a bold innovation in itself since women of the day were not supposed to think, to learn or to know.

It was a turbulent time following the Civil War when the public was far from liberal in its views regarding literary work by women. Some women writers were still publishing under male pseudonyms, for the public did not look upon any literary activity among women with favor. Women involved in these efforts ran the risk of being call "blue stockings."

And so, it was in true pioneer spirit that Mrs. Denman summoned her friends to her home to read aloud and discuss books on philosophic and economic questions.

"Friends in Council (as the group was later named) was summoned into existence to serve a purpose other than a trivial or merely temporary one," according to an 1878 pamphlet prepared by the organization in answer to questions concerning its nature and objects.

"It is an Association formed by women for their own improvement, and its aims are of broader scope than such as may afford variety to monotonous lives, or may meet the immediate and evanescent wants of the passing day and hour. It aspires to the office of awakening in its members and constantly re-invigorating within them a desire for personal, progressive growth in the direction of whatever is noble, beautiful, just and true." The books chosen for study were determined to stimulate discussion and to encourage the women to formulate and express their own opinions.

Original members were Mrs. Denman, Mrs. Agnes Baldwin, Cornelia Parker, Mrs. Josie Clapp, Mrs. Almina Morton, Miss Mary Chapin, Miss Louise Fuller, Miss Elizabeth Watson, Miss Anne Jonas and Miss Lucy Keyes.

Five of the six recognized "Pioneer Women of Quincy" joined the ranks of the Friends in Council during their lifetime. Dr. Rooney, Miss Benneson, Mrs. Tillson and Miss Maertz, in addition to Mrs. Denman.

One of the first sessions of the group was spent studying Plato in accordance with feeling expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson on a visit to the club while a houseguest of the Denmans. Emerson said of the Quincy women, "I never met with a circle of ladies I admired so much in point of culture and intellect, they would compare with any of the world." Another noted visitor, Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May Alcott, was equally as complimentary in speaking of the group.

In early years of the group, it became apparent that a formal society for "mental cultivation" could be established. The necessary steps were taken and at a meeting of 22 women on Feb. 16, 1869, in the lecture hall of the Quincy Young Ladies Seminary, the mission was accomplished. On the suggestion of Mrs. Lorenzo Bull, the name "Friends in Council" was adopted.

The club continued to meet in the seminary's rooms, located on Eighth Street between Maine and Hampshire, for eight years, after which, on Mrs. Denman's invitation, the club met at her house.

In 1895, in accordance with the recommendation of the General Federation of Women's Clubs, Nov. 16, 1866, was adopted as the founding. This was the date of the first meeting of the original group instead of the date of formal organization in 1869 and was in harmony with the methods of reckoning followed by other clubs in the federation. The 1866 founding makes the club the oldest continuous women's study club in the United States.

The little house where the club meets today, located on the grounds of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County, was Mr. Denman's study and the first meetings were held there upon occasion.

Mrs. Denman gave the deed to the house to the club on May 6, 1878. An 1892 Quincy Daily Journal interview with Mrs. Anna M. McMahan, club president, recalls that day:

"Mrs. Denman addressed the members saying that she could not find words in which to express the pleasure that she had enjoyed in the work; expressed the utmost faith in the club and presented the organization with a deed to the house at Ninth and Broadway, 'consecrating it to the use of the Good, the Beautiful and the True'."

"In this house the club has met weekly ever since. They have added adornment after adornment to the interior, collected a library of over 600 volumes (as of 1892) and although they do not own the ground, the house is almost buried in summer in lovely plants and flowers."

Until 1915, the club was located in the garden of the Denman home. When the property changed hands, the house was moved (to the tune of $375. donated by members) in the dead of night along the trolley tracks to its present site. It is believed to be the first clubhouse ever owned by a woman's club in this country. Furnishings are in keeping with the room's vintage dÈcor and have been donated through the years by members and friends.

Mrs. Denman was president of the club for five terms and "the Friends in Council almost idolize the memory of their noble and generous patroness," according to the 1892 Journal interview. "The club then and since annually celebrates the anniversary of her birthday and on April 6, 1876, Mrs. Denman's golden wedding anniversary, the Friends presented their beloved patroness and co-laborer with a beautiful gold locket set in onyx and pearls." Mrs. Denman bequeathed it to Mrs. McMahan.

Mrs. Anna Jonas Wells, a charter member of the club, wrote her personal recollections of Mrs. Denman in 1908. "The feeling of her exceptional personality, permeated at once by gentleness, never left me. I learned through criticism, not always of a kindly nature, that Mrs. Denman was an independent thinker-to be one 50 years ago was not esteemed commendable."

"She was reserved, persistent in opinion, never aggressive, but strong in the convictions she had arrived at through thought and experience."

"She grew to an early womanhood under a Puritanic atmosphere." (Mrs. Denman was born in New Haven, Conn., in 1808.) "At 16 there came a relaxation of the rigid rules when Lafayette was visiting the country. A splendid ball was given in Philadelphia in his honor. Such an occasion was to be historic and its tradition handed down to posterity, so Sarah Atwater was permitted to go.

"She was gentle, beautiful and dainty-she danced herself into the affections of a handsome and wealthy youth-a worldling. The attachment was not to the liking of the puritanic father, but love won out, and so, while in years a mere child, she was married, and for three years led a gay social life." (Sarah Atwater was married to Col. Mathias B. Denman of Philadelphia, Pa., in 1826.)

"Then came a financial crash and they (the Denmans) were rescued from a life of mere pleasure through lack of means for its continance.

"Availing themselves of an opportunity offered by Mrs. Denman's father, who wished local supervision of his vast land holdings in Illinois and Missouri, the couple located in Quincy."

Though she shrank from publicity, Mrs. Denman rendered great service to the higher interests of the city through her numerous private charities. Soon after coming to Quincy, Mrs. Denman became a member of the Presbyterian church and was always one of the most prominent and liberal supporters, according to her obituary published in the May 17, 1892, edition of the Quincy Whig.

"But her good works have not been confined to the church, extending to all public charities and to nearly every institution of a philanthropic character, and her hand has always been extended to the needy and distressed," the article continued. "Quiet and unostentatious in her donations, very many have received from her material assistance and encouragement of which the world knew nothing."

Sarah Atwater Denman made great contributions to Blessing Hospital, both supportive and financial, during its first seven years. Her and Mr. Denman's home on the northeast corner of Ninth and Broadway frequently served as a meeting place for members of the Charitable Aid and Hospital Association and the Board of Lady Managers. Eventual goal of the Charitable Aid and Hospital Association was establishment of a hospital.

A new hospital, it was believed, would help to overcome a shortage of hospital rooms in Quincy. St. Mary Hospital, founded earlier, was often filled to capacity, unable to accept new patients. Moreover, St. Mary was a Roman Catholic Hospital, and the Protestants of Quincy felt a need for an institution of their own.

Money was raised for the new structure. The chief benefactress was Sarah Atwater Denman, who alone donated $1,000 of the $8,000 needed. Her husband, a real estate salesman, made an equally or even more generous donation, a plot of land on the corner of Tenth and Broadway to be used as the hospital's site. The land was valued at $3,000. According to an article written in observance of the hospital's centennial.

If the outlook of the new hospital seemed bright at the time of the opening, especially since the hospital was paid for, the economic situation by January 1878 appeared dismal. The hospital appeared to be in a financial strait.

A leader was needed and those who were worried about the future of the infant hospital found one in Mrs. Denman. She organized a meeting of Association members and benevolent women in her home Jan. 21, 1878. During the meeting she urged those present to examine the indebtedness of the hospital. The debt was $100. And the assets far surpassed the liabilities, so those at the meeting decided to make an effort to keep the hospital open.

To accomplish this, it was decided that the women, in a group called the Board of Lady Managers, would be elected to the Association and in charge of managing the hospital. Mrs. Denman was elected as board president.

Under her leadership and guidance, Blessing Hospital not only survived but flourished. For that reason, and perhaps others, the board of Lady Managers and the Association felt a great sense of loss when Mrs. Denman died in 1882.

So touched were those involved by her death, that in May 1882, Blessing Hospital was called the Sarah Denman Hospital. Although it was eventually proved that the motion had been made illegally, for over a year the hospital was known by that name.

Annoucement of the death of Mrs. Denman was received with most profound regret by the people of Quincy generally, according to the Quincy Whig.

"In the death of Mrs. Denman, the city has lost an invaluable friend," according to the Whig. "The Whig would find it unfitting merely to announce the fact of her death without some recognition of the great services she has rendered to the higher interests of the city by her always opportune liberality. Fitting mention will doubtless be made elsewhere of the calm Christian faith in which she lived and died; there are many in this community who could tell of her numerous private charities. The charm and culture of her home, the friends who have enjoyed her hospitality, will cherish among their pleasantest memories. The Whig would take occasion to acknowledge the debt the city owes to her wide public liberality and to suggest that in this respect more of our citizens might well emulate her example.

"Mrs. Denman was not only willing to use large portions of her property for the benefit of the city, but she was quick to discern the right time for giving. The Blessing hospital, the fine Presbyterian church, many books on the shelves of the library and the free reading room all bear witness to the wisdom and timeliness as well as to the extent of her benefactions.

"One of Mrs. Denman's last acts was to head with a large subscription a fund for the endowment of our public library. That fund has not yet been completed, though there are doubtless many persons of means who would need but little persuasion to induce them to aid in securing this most desirable object. No better monument to Mrs. Denman's memory could be reared by her friends than the immediate completion of this her last benefaction to the city. The city owes it to the memory of one of its best and most liberal friends to complete this essential work."

[More information about Sarah Atwater Denman and Friends in Council.]

Contributing Library:

Quincy Public Library, Quincy, Illinois

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