Our city has always offered a variety of leisure activities for its residents. Sports enthusiasts enjoy golf courses, basketball leagues, the Pathfinder Fish & Game Club or gardening. Community-minded organizations like Kiwanis, Lions and Rotary continue to find meaningful ways to support our city. But until recently I never knew that for over one hundred years Fulton was home to a group of women devoted to the work of William Shakespeare.
Founded in 1909, Fulton’s Shakespeare Club was the brainchild of Mrs. William Sylvester. According to Club paperwork loaned to me, Mrs. Sylvester sought to provide culture for women in our city and she began by suggesting to members of her First Baptist Church that they form a group to discuss Shakespeare’s writings.
The club’s format was established in its first few years, with the women meeting on a weekday afternoon to read a Shakespearean play aloud. During its first year, the club devoted its attention to “Romeo & Juliet.” Spending an entire year on one author, let alone one play, seemed extraordinary to me, but a newspaper article about the club noted that in the early 1900s reading Shakespeare was a cultural fad.
I learned more about the club’s meetings. When roll call was taken, each member answered with a quotation from the book or play being read. In later years, members responded by naming a Native American tribe or a landmark in New York State.
As the group gained popularity, more women wanted to join. Early on in the club’s existence it was determined that a membership of 20 women would be maintained. When a new person was invited, she needed the approval of all other members before being allowed to join. Daughters often followed their mothers into the club, which was the case for Darle DeLorme, whose mother, Jane Shaver, invited her to become a member. Recently, Darle shared her memories of the group:
“Meetings were held in the homes of members. Every month, one woman would act as hostess. Tables were set beautifully. Table clothes were ironed, silver was polished, and candlesticks were placed. Favorite desserts were baked; tea and coffee were served. The tradition of a turn-of-the-century tea party became the hallmark of the Shakespeare meeting.”
As Darle explained, after refreshments, the club president would thank the hostess, and the meeting was called to order. Each month a different member presented a program of her choice. Among the club paperwork I reviewed was a scrapbook covering highlights of the group’s ten decades. Inside the book’s front cover I found a folded map of “Shakespeare’s Britain,” a colorful illustration of the villages and points of interest mentioned in his many plays.
By the 1930s, club minutes noted that the group had read 16 plays in its first 25 years. As the club matured, it ventured from Shakespeare’s writings to include reviews on other authors or destinations of interest for travelers. There were even discussions on Broadway plays, artists and musicians. In 1934, club members decided to begin each meeting with ten minutes of current event discussion.
The variety of topics enjoyed by the Shakespeare Club is evident in the overview of their 1934-35 year. Its October program explored the effect of geological conditions on the Settlement of New York. A month later, the club discussed Women Sculptors of America. January 1935’s meeting covered current politics with “The New Deal: Is it Proving a Benefit to the Nation?” Local history was a worthy topic, too, when a club member presented her paper on “Fulton from 1800 to the Present Time.”
Three decades later, a summary of the 1964-65 year included a study of South America’s plants, birds and animals; a review of Milton Eisenhower’s book, The Wine is Bitter,” about Vice President Richard Nixon; and a talk by young Alan Drohan, an American Foreign Exchange student who’d spent a semester in Denmark.
The group even took outings, including, in the 1930s, visits to the Oswego Country Club, Fayetteville’s The Carolina, and Green Gate in Camillus. In November of 1980, two carloads traveled to the Syracuse Stage for a production of “The Comedy of Errors.” Shakespeare’s play was favorably critiqued by the 11 club members in attendance and the trip’s organizer even managed to get the group backstage to meet the play’s leading man!
The Shakespeare Club occasionally donated books of historical interest to the Fulton Public Library, often in memory of a recently deceased member. In 1990, the group chose The Irish Novel: A Critical History, by James Cahalan, in memory of Rita Rowland. “She was proud of her Irish ancestry and was a talented amateur writer and poet,” club member Janice Fay noted in a newspaper article.
Janice was also a writer, as is evident by her 1961 “Sketch of Sally,” an obituary of sorts for her friend and fellow Shakespeare Club member Sarah Schulz McCarty Smith Stacy. Here’s some of what Janice wrote about Sarah:
“Her adult life was full of much happiness, but she bore more than her share of tragedy. Three times she was widowed, yet she remained outwardly a blithe spirit. Her philosophy may be found in some words of counsel she gave about a dear friend who died suddenly. Mourn in private, was her advice; grief is apt to leave others nonplussed if one displays large quantities of it.”
By the new millennium, women’s lives were vastly different from those of one hundred years before. Many women were working outside the home and a free afternoon was rare. In 2017, members of the Shakespeare Club voted to dissolve, and, as Darle noted, “the last official meeting was held in May of 2018. Fond relationships within the group blossomed and became dear through the years. Though literature was the focus, friendships were woven into the fiber of the 1909 Shakespeare Club.”