BATH — Memory attaches itself to things.

Oriental rugs. An antique secretary. Skillets, scratched on the bottom by countless wooden spoons and a century of community cooking.

Coffee urns, candy dishes, and tea cups held by generations of women at the annual Morse Senior Tea.

So many tea cups.

All for sale.

The remaining members of the Cosmopolitan Club – whose numbers have dwindled from 150 in 1913 to just a handful over 100 years later – sifted through the treasures of their history last weekend in advance of their clubhouse’s impending sale.

The Cosmo Club purchased the Greek Revival at 894 Washington St. in 1915, when the house was just 74 years old. It was built in 1841.

For the last 103 years, women made friends, hosted parties, attended lectures, and – in 21st-century business-speak – networked every month in the Great Room, kitchen, and on the wraparound porch.

But this was no sewing circle.

A century of civic engagement

The Cosmopolitan Club was founded two years earlier in 1913 as a fellowship of working women.

According to a newspaper report at the time, the Cosmopolitan Club was “strictly for the young women, who year in and year out, on account of working hours, have little opportunity to know the young women of Bath other than those employed under the same roof.”

Long before Gloria Steinem and the feminist movement, homemaking wasn’t the only thing on women’s minds.
The Maine Legislature honored the Cosmopolitan Club on its 100th anniversary in 2013 for its years of civic engagement and volunteerism.

“For a hundred years, the Cosmopolitan Club has been an active participant in community improvement programs,” said Seth Goodall, then Senate Majority Leader, D-Richmond.

“The club’s positive impact has been immense and diverse,” he said. “From supporting French victims of war in World War I to adopting an orphan from Smyrna, and to supporting domestic violence awareness, the club’s members have always been united by a common cause for bettering society.”

And the clubhouse, according to secretary Rebecca Brooks, has been the hub – and like any home, the heart – of it all.

“We had a common goal of making a difference in our community and the clubhouse was the center,” Brooks said, as she arranged stemware on a sale table.

Naturally, food was a big part of that. In recent decades, the club hosted the Gingerbread Social in November, Strawberry Shortcake Festival during Heritage Days, and the Senior Tea.

Lynn Seekins Galvan, a 1983 Morse graduate who stopped by last weekend looking for treasures, remembers visiting the clubhouse with her mother, who was a member.

“So many dishes and silverware and serving sets … it was always hustle, bustle, bright, shiny and overwhelming …,” she said.

“All the dishes the ladies would cook, bake, or bring would put Martha Stewart to shame.”

That’s something member Pam Pinkham remembers, too. “I’ll miss just being with the ladies,” she said as she found a prominent spot amid an array of kitchen utensils for the strawberry masher, used for decades to prepare for the club’s biggest event.

But last year, the Cosmopolitan Club didn’t have enough members to pull off the Strawberry Shortcake Festival. It was canceled just weeks before the July 4 holiday when typically it would have been held.

“The Strawberry Festival requires many days of labor and we just didn’t have it. It’s our signature event,” said club president Michele Ober.

“We didn’t want to not do it well.”

The cancellation wasn’t a surprise. The board had already voted in May to sell the clubhouse.

Signs of the times

Ober became president of the Cosmopolitan Club in November 2012.

She had modest but ambitious plans to see the club generate income again by increasing membership, renting out the downstairs of the clubhouse for private functions, and turning the upper stories of the six-bedroom property into transitional housing for women.

Through her work at the time as volunteer coordinator for Habitat for Humanity/7 Rivers Maine, Ober arranged for the club to lodge Americorp volunteers who worked for Habitat. In exchange, they did small improvement projects to the house.

But deferred maintenance had built up over many decades and projected costs to renovate the clubhouse were estimated between $250,000 and $400,000. The club invited public input about the house’s future at a hearing in July 2015.

And paid memberships over the last five years grew from about a dozen to 32. At $25 each. that’s income of only $800.

“Women are striving for more professional networking. When the Cosmo Club started, they were secretaries, nurses, teachers looking for social connections,” Ober said

Those needs get met in different ways these days. “Social media has changed the way people meet,” she added.
It seems people don’t get out much anymore. At least not to be part of anything that requires a commitment of even a little bit of time.

“We did recruit several very professional women, who were going out and pursuing so many professional endeavors that it was challenging for them to find time for this, too,” Ober said.

In a state where only 20 percent of people – mostly those over age 60 – go to church regularly, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center study, the Cosmopolitan Club also faced the challenge of an aging membership.

Brooks is one of the younger ones, joining the club four years ago. In between collecting 50 cents for a set of tablecloths and carrying boxes down from the rooms upstairs, she reflected on what she appreciated most about being a member of the club.

“We were all women – mothers, wives, daughters, sisters. It didn’t matter your age, your religion, your race, your occupation,” she said. “I’ll miss the camaraderie at the clubhouse. We were so different, but we shared a belief in what we wanted for the community.”

In May 2017, Ober “suggested it was time” the board decide the future of the club, starting with the house.

They voted unanimously to sell it.

History changing hands
Memory attaches itself to things. Perhaps none more so than to the structures in which our lives unfold.
Homes, schools, churches, clubhouses.

The Cosmopolitan Club has worked with Maine Preservation over the last several months to ensure their clubhouse, so cherished by its members for over a century, would be handled with great care by a new owner.

“There are exterior easements and any rehabilitation of the house has to remain historical in perpetuity. It’s part of the deed,” Ober said.

The clubhouse was listed at $125,000 with Bisson Real Estate on Feb. 2. It went under contract on Feb. 9, just seven days later.

The sale is expected to close in April.

The club will donate many of its historical items, plus its archives to Bath Historical Society.

Certain tea cups and club memorabilia will be passed into the care of the Bath High Schools Alumni Association so that it can continue the 64-year tradition of hosting the Senior Tea for graduating Morse seniors (originally just for girls, but in more recent years, boys, too).

Every table runner, each mixing bowl holds a memory for the club’s members. But for longtime members of the Bath community, it’s probably the tea cups.

“It’s sad,” Ober said, “But it’s time.” She spoke through a medical face mask as people filed through the side door of the clubhouse to take home a piece of Cosmopolitan Club history.

A microwave oven. A rollaway bed.

Ober was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in November and is on extended medical leave from her job at Habitat for Humanity/7 Rivers Maine ReStore in Topsham. In May, she will undergo a stem cell transplant.

Until then, she’s guiding the club through its final milestone. On April 11, the Cosmopolitan Club will celebrate its 105th anniversary.

“Maybe I’ll mix one more round of Cosmopolitans,” she said. “I’ll bring the vodka, Triple Sec, cranberry juice and lime.”

$1,700 was raised at the Cosmopolitan Club estate sale.

 

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