The Three Rivers Woman’s Club: Public Health and the Milk Fund

By Helen McCauslin, Three Rivers Woman’s Club

Last month we told the story of the Woman’s Club Visiting Nurse Program and its seventy-one-year history. And we promised to tell you more of the Club’s work in promoting public health. In reading the minutes of the Woman’s Club, we come across references to health issues being addressed in every year’s programming from the first decade of the 20th century. 

In March of 1908, “Professor Waldo of Kalamazoo Normal [Western Normal College] gave a most excellent and instructive talk on the subject of Public Health.” And later that year, Club minutes record a talk by member Dr. Blanche Haines on “What the Individual May Do for the Prevention of Tuberculosis.” 

This interest never abated and the range of the women’s interest in health issues was wide. In 1917 the Club debated acting on a request for them to use the Club’s “influence with southern planters to raise necessary foods instead of tobacco.” 1919 was a busy year with work petitioning the City Commission for a public restroom for women. Reading the minutes of the Club, we come across certain issues over and over. One is this story of the downtown restroom. After the petition of 1919, they went on record again in March 1925 to demand “that the Comfort Station be taken care of by the Commissioners and provided with an attendant, the expense of same to be paid by Commission.” President Mrs. Skidmore had indignantly and emphatically told the Commissioners that the Club rejected their request that, in addition to donating funds, the Woman’s Club will also clean the facility.

In 1920, papers researched by club members were presented on the infant death rate in Michigan and the background of the newly passed federal legislation, “Maternity and Infancy Act,” were presented. In 1923 the Club gave $50 ($781 today) to support the building of a new hospital, and began sponsoring a health booth at the Centreville Fair annually during the 1920s and 1930s.

The Woman’s Club members didn’t just talk to each other about these issues but sponsored presentations to the public on annual Health Days, open to the public with speakers from Three Rivers, Kalamazoo, and Ann Arbor:

A speech in 1921 at the Three Rivers High School by the Michigan State Deputy Commissioner of Public Health on diphtheria (Michigan had the highest death rate in the nation) and the need for teaching child hygiene in every school. 

At the Rex Theatre in 1922 “a packed house greeted the speaker….an illustrated lecture on ‘Cancer’ given by Dr. Case of Battle Creek, very instructive and well received.”

In 1933, at the Riviera Theatre was a speech by Dr. Sundwell of the University of Michigan on Health Conditions in Russia.

In 1934 and 1937 the topic was Mental Health, perhaps a sign of the stress and anxiety caused by the Great Depression.

In a 1937 meeting the Club heard about the support of the Michigan Federation of Women’s Clubs for the “War on Cancer” but also about an issue current today, marijuana, described as “the dreadful Marihuana weed which is becoming so widespread in some sections.” Eighty years later Michigan voted to legalize recreational marijuana and this May 2021 the City Commission voted to allow marijuana facilities within the city.

The Three Rivers Woman’s Club didn’t just educate but also devised programs to address health needs with help from other community organizations and individuals. Begun in 1934 as the depression deepened, by 1936 about 100 children were receiving a morning bottle of milk. This program was organized by the Club with donations from the Club and other civic organizations and citizens. And the principals and teachers emphasized the beneficial effects of the program: “When the milk was served in the mid-forenoon there was a change from the lack of interest to one of alert attention to the work in hand.” The article noted that “these children were from families, some of whom are on relief, and others are attempting to tide throughout with aid.”

They were successful, but the need continued into the 1940s; the February 1943 report on the Fund showed 2,600 bottles of milk given out over four months! And the accounting of income and expenses shows that all students received milk each morning with those whose families could paying for it. And you learn of the local dairies supplying the milk. Today there are no local dairies, but one can still enjoy delicious treats from real ice cream at the locally owned Mr. B’s Dairy Bar on 6th Street or the soft serve “ice cream” at the Dairy Queen. Fun fact for the fat conscious consumer: according to the FDA, to earn an “ice cream” categorization, a product must have a minimum milkfat (or butterfat, as DQ calls it) content of 10%. DQ’s soft serve, meanwhile, has just five percent milkfat.

Sorry to say but we have run out of room and have not yet explored the work of Dr. Blanche Haines after whom our City Airport is named! We will explore her contributions not only to our city but to our state, and nation next month. We hope you, our readers, are enjoying catching these glimpses of the past as much as we do.

Helen McCauslin is a member of the Three Rivers Woman’s Club and its History Committee and the Three Rivers Promise Board of Directors. 

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