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Hidden In Plain Sight: Ladies' Literary Club In Ypsilanti

For over a century, a club in Ypsilanti has served as an outlet for local women to discuss literature.  Their history is as rich and interesting as the clubhouse they use for meetings.  89.1 WEMU’s Jorge Avellan visited the Hidden in Plain Sight club and has the story.

Located at the corner of North Washington and Emmet Streets in Ypsilanti is the Ladies' Literary Club.  Four, 20-ft. high columns decorate the front of the white Greek Revival structure built in the early 1840’s.  You can feel the history in the building as you approach it.   

As I walk through the front door, I think about all the women who have used this house as a place of gathering and education.  I’m now joined by former club president Daneen Zureich.  She says the club was founded in 1878 by Sarah Putnam, who was married to a college professor and Mayor of Ypsilanti. 

"Mrs. Putnam came in from Lansing and she had been a member of a ladies group in Lansing.  And so she wanted to get her friends together to read and study.  They did not go to college at that time, so they used it, they took themes for each month, they would study a different country and look into it and that’s how originally, it started," said Zureich.

Zureich says that when the club was founded, it had about 10-12 members.  They met at the Ladies Library down the street before buying the clubhouse in 1913 for $3,000.  They’ve kept the space largely the same; a few additions have been made over the years to offer more meeting space and a bigger kitchen.  As we stand in the living room, Zureich points out and opens wooden shutters that have been part of the house since the early 1900’s.

Jorge: What is that right there?
Daneen: This is a window opener, a lock on the window.
Jorge: It’s the fanciest window opener I’ve ever seen in my life.
Daneen: Its 1800’s, 1840’s they go back.
Jorge: Can you describe what that is. It’s almost looks like a little house.
Daneen: Yes, it's metal, and it has two little turn things here. And it has a scrolling around, it’s a plate which is about two and half, three inches with a little curved edge. And this is two little pillars that stand-up and turn.

The clubhouse attracted more ladies and membership grew to about 150 during the early 1900’s.  Currently, they have 121 members.  That includes lifetime member and current President Jean Nelson, who is part of the club’s poetry group.  She reads one of the recent poems they discussed. 

"This is Emily Dickinson’s 'They shut me up in Prose.'  They shut me up in Prose, as when a little girl, they put me in the closet, because they liked me still.  Still.  Could themself have peeped and seen my brain go round, they might as wise have lodged a bird for treason in the pound.  Himself has but to will and easy as a star, look down opon captivity.  And laugh no more, have I," said Nelson.

Nelson says so far, the club has only focused on poems written by women.

"The interesting part is to fit the poems and the poets into the era where they are and to see how they are breaking out from the norm, what a woman might be doing at that time," added Nelson.

Joyce Novak has been a member for a couple of years now and is also part of the poetry group.  She says the group has allowed her to express herself.

"I find myself talking about my family, how I grew up, where I grew up.  I grew up here in Ypsilanti but things like that, that I don’t talk about almost anywhere else.  And I think that it comes out from the poetry group, and I think some of the others are doing the same thing," said Novak.

The average age for current members is between 65 and 70 years old.  Former club president Daneen Zureich says the group wants to attract younger members.  In addition to hosting their regular Wednesdays at 1:30 PM meetings, they want to offer lunchtime and even evening meeting hours in the near future.  The club also continues its tradition of providing college scholarships to local girls.

"Four school scholarships actually, three Ypsilanti Community Schools graduates going to EMU.  Three $3,000 scholarships a year.  And then we do one scholarship to a Washtenaw County resident that goes to Washtenaw Community College in the health field," said Zureich.

It's been over 140 years since the Ladies' Literary Club in Ypsilanti was established, but this Hidden in Plain Sight group of women continue to not only promote literacy, but the advancement of women in our community.  Public tours of the clubhouse are available upon request.  For information on how to contact the club, click here.

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— Jorge Avellan is a reporter for 89.1 WEMU News. Contact him at 734.487.3363 or email him javellan@emich.edu

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