Saturday, June 5, 2021

Beginnings of the Davenport Friendly Society


The Davenport Friendly Society purchased the  Claus Groth Gilde 
hall at 1228 West Third Street  in 1912. (The Daily Times.
April 10, 1912.)
The People’s Union Mission morphed into the Davenport Friendly Society in 1911. Reverend Ned Lee stayed on as the first superintendent of the society until his term ended on July 1, 1911. Then, Harry E. Downer assumed control.

The society grappled for some time over whether they should affiliate with a specific religion or not. Finally, it was decided to “leave religious instruction to the churches” and follow the societies’ mission of “improvement—moral, industrial, and educational.” They dropped “religious” from the mission statement altogether.

The organizational meeting made it clear the society’s work was not about “poor relief.” Its three principal aims were education, sociability, and recreation.[1]

When the Friendly Society took over, the neighborhood around the old mission was changing and becoming more industrialized. As the factories and businesses crowded in, fewer families lived nearby, so it was harder to serve the society’s target market. The Friendly Society purchased the Claus Groth Gilde hall at 1228 West Third Street in April 1912 for $13,000.

Harry Downer assured Davenport’s residents it was not unusual for missions to move as the neighborhoods around them changed. He had recently visited a similar mission in Des Moines that had moved three times following its clients.

The new building opened on January 1, 1913.

Even with the new building, the Friendly Society struggled as they kept refining their purpose.

“Friendly House, it is hoped, will be neutral and hospitable ground where people of all classes may meet and know each other,” explained Downer. His goal was to build on neighborliness. People could come to society meetings to make friends should they chose, said Downer. No one would be alone except those who wished to be.[2]

From the start, he planned to establish a School of Citizenship to help assimilate foreign immigrants into American life. He envisioned a kindergarten for younger children not served by the public schools and a branch library. All three goals were achieved over the coming year.

The organization repeatedly stressed that the Friendly House was not a charitable organization. They did intrude into the work of other area organizations. Instead, they worked with them and supplemented their activities.

The Visiting Nurses Association was the most significant user/partner of the Friendly House in the early days. Mothers brought their babies for a weekly checkup and weigh-in to ensure they were developing correctly. The cottage next door was used as an office, headquarters, and milk station. 

The new building opened a wealth of new opportunities to the Friendly Society. It had public baths, open to men and boys four afternoons a week, and to women and girls two afternoons a week. The auditorium seated 1200 people and could be used to conduct lectures, dramas, and concerts. Motion picture nights were in the works—particularly educational, scientific, and historical films. In the summer and fall, there would be concerts. Music always made people happy.

The second floor contained a large room where Downer envisioned the society hold kindergarten and sewing classes, neighborhood gatherings, and lunches for the women employees at nearby factories and offices.

The third floor would furnish sleeping quarters for residents of the settlement.


The girl's sewing class drew a large attendance at the Davenport Friendly 
House. (The Davenport Democrat and Leader. July 26, 1914)

 The Davenport Democrat and Leader explained that a “settlement is a place where those who wish to help other people are given [the] opportunity. Some of the workers live at the settlement house, others live at their own homes and give a certain definite portion of their leisure to social work.”

The exact nature of the settlement work depended upon the needs of the community. In 1914, the Friendly House closed the kindergarten and night school for foreign immigrants. Those activities were still necessary to the community. However, the school board provided those classes, so there was no need for duplication.

The public library opened a branch office in the Friendly House in 1914, where books were issued and received two nights a week. The reading room was open to visitors on other nights.

The public baths featured four showers and two tubs. Men were charged ten cents and boys a nickel. Difficulties heating the water and finding an attendant kept them from offering baths for women and girls when they first opened. Later, when they added a water heater, the baths were open to women and girls.

Overall, 72,749 guests visited the Friendly House in 1914. More than 39,000 people alone came to watch the movies shown there every Saturday from October 1 to May 1.

The year 1926 brought a great disaster and a new opportunity for the Friendly Society. The Claus Groth Gilde hall burned to the ground. In its place, the society built a larger, more modern Friendly House. The new building, which cost $150,000, was made possible by a $100,000 bequest from Judge Nathaniel French.[3]

The Friendly House still operates in Davenport. Interestingly, its website lists Reverend Ned Lee as its founder. Still, a 1926 article in The Daily Times credits Judge Nathaniel French as founding the society in 1901. That most likely referred to his relationship with the old Peoples’ Union Mission founded by Ned Lee. A bronze tablet over the lounge’s fireplace in the new building proclaimed French the founder—perhaps because of his $100,000 bequest.[4]

[1] The Daily Times. November 18, 1911.

[2] The Daily Times. November 26, 1912.

[3] The Daily Times. June 17, 1926.

[4] The Daily Times, June 17, 1926.

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