The Hamline Church Dining Hall marks 125 years at the Minnesota State Fair this year, with a special event at 9 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 25. The celebration of the state fair’s oldest food concession includes a look at the role early church women played in launching the dining hall.
Como resident Mary Bloom is co-chair of this year’s dining hall committee. “Looking at the history of our dining hall, it began with women,” she said. Hard work and creative ideas have flowed since those early days, with many dining hall innovations coming from women of the church.
Hamline-Midway resident Jean Thilmany co-chairs the Hamline Church Women. “Women played a key role in starting what is now the dining hall and raising money for the church, even though they didn’t have the same standing in the church as men,” she said.
Methodist denominational historians have largely ignored Ladies Aid Societies. But the organizations, which date from before the Civil War, played key roles in funding early churches. Ladies Aid Societies nationally helped pay pastoral salaries and cover other bills.
The Hamline Methodist Episcopal Church Ladies Aid Society had its first meeting on Sept. 29, 1887, at the home of Mary Bridgman, wife of Hamline University President George Bridgman. Helen Evans was elected as the first society president.
The women decided to raise money by holding “sociables” or social events on a monthly basis. The society raised $91.96 in its first year.
Soon the Hamline Ladies Aid Society became a powerful fundraising arm of the church, even though women often didn’t have a direct say in how money they raised was spent.
One early focus was to raise money for the congregation’s own building. Meeting at Hamline University meant scheduling congregational doings around the university’s schedule.
In 1897, the society opened what is now the Hamline Church Dining Hall, taking the lead in raising money for a church building. The women sold cold drinks and sandwiches, bringing in $373.97 in 1897. The food stand was in a larger building with other attractions, near the bandstand.
The first church, designed by noted architect Clarence Johnston, was dedicated in 1900 and was valued at almost $20,000.
The dining hall was one fundraiser to support the church and its operations. Another way the ladies aid society brought in revenue was by catering the Hamline Six O’Clock Club, a group of male movers and shakers who met bi-monthly on Mondays at the church for dinner and talks by community leaders.
The talks were often covered by the St. Paul daily newspapers. Candidates for elected office vied to attend. In 1901-1902, topics included state universities, city government, the mission of the daily press, and the life and times of George Washington.
Only women who were guest speakers could attend the Six O’Clock Club. Ladies Aid Society members toiled in the kitchen.
A 1925 Christmas fire not only destroyed the church, it changed the work of the Ladies Aid Society. While a new house of worship had already been envisioned by then-Rev. George Zentz, the sudden loss of the first church accelerated those plans.
The Six O’Clock Club dinners and other kitchen activity moved to neighboring Knox Presbyterian Church for a time, by invitation of the Knox Ladies Aid. Within a few years the dinners would end. But the dining hall continued, with added pressures for fundraising.
The Ladies Aid Society rolled up its sleeves to assist with fundraising, making a $15,000 pledge in early 1926 from dining hall proceeds. They also took on the task of equipping the new church’s kitchen.
By the mid-1920s, dining hall operations were turned over to a church committee. But women still played active roles, cooking much of the food and transporting it to the fairgrounds, doing food shopping and taking on other tasks.
Part of this year’s dining hall proceeds support an effort the church women first supported in 1917. What is now Emma Norton Services began as a residence for young women, with support from Hamline and other Methodist churches. It evolved into family housing and housing for women in transition.
The new Emma Norton Services residence, Restoring Waters, will receive financial support from the dining hall. The new women’s housing facility will be built as part of the Highland Bridge project on the former Ford Motor Company Twin Cities Assembly Plant in Highland Park neighborhood. Read more about Emma Norton and its new housing at https://emmanorton.org/.
Read more at www.hamlinechurch.org
Jane McClure co-chairs the Hamline Church Women and is a member of the church’s Ministry of Memory Committee. She’ll be a morning greeter at the dining hall’s breakfast shift.
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