LIMA — It was 1949, World War II and the lean years in its aftermath were history and Lima was on the move. The city had new industry, new stores, five railroads, highways going off in every direction, a seven-story addition to St. Rita’s Hospital and a population that would top 50,000 in the 1950 census.
So where, one new resident wondered, was the welcome mat?
“All the Lima newcomers to whom I’ve spoken, and that’s quite a few since they seem to be the only ones willing to speak to another ‘outsider,’ agree 100 percent with me,” the new resident wrote in The Lima News in September 1949. “Do we have to be Lima-born to rate a hello from those to whom we’ve been introduced a number of times? It takes more than one friendly girl on the Welcome Wagon to make a town of this size friendly.”
That “one friendly girl” soon would have help helping new residents feel at home in their new home.
Welcome Wagon, founded by Thomas Briggs in 1928 in Memphis, Tennessee, was introduced to Lima in 1935. Although Welcome Wagon visits were suspended because of gas rationing during World War II, Welcome Wagon resumed activities in Lima after the war.
The idea behind Welcome Wagon, however, was not new. “Pioneers moving westward were welcomed into new towns with goods that came from a covered wagon. Later women toting baskets of information tried to persuade people to settle in their town. This was the first form of a welcoming organization,” Welcome Wagon hostess Carol Grisez told the News in July 1968.
Welcome Wagon hostesses paid homage to this past during the 1951 Allen County Fair when they were based in a covered wagon. “The Welcome Wagon distributed more than 1,700 programs and maps of the fairgrounds Wednesday, more than 600 in one hour. It also gave away 68 orchids to women above the age of 65,” the News noted Aug. 24, 1951.
“In modern 20th Century times — the Welcome Wagon hostess brings a basket, too,” a Welcome Wagon ad in the Sept. 4, 1949, edition of the News proclaimed. “Gaily decorated and filled with welcoming gifts for the newcomer. She’s a goodwill ambassador for the civic-minded merchants in our community — and a goodwill ambassador for the community itself in the eyes of the newcomers to the city.”
The Welcome Wagon hostesses, who attended training sessions in New York City, called on recently engaged women as well as newcomers to the city and soon, the ad promised, would have a division to call on new mothers. That division, it turned out, was not added until November 1958.
Soon after the letter to the News in 1949, the hostesses, who were employees of the Welcome Wagon Co., got some unpaid help making Lima a more welcoming place — from the new residents themselves.
“Welcome Wagon Newcomers Club, recently organized in Lima, will hold its first monthly meeting at 8 p.m. Thursday in the club rooms of the Equity Dairy Store, 213 N. Main St,” the News reported Nov. 1, 1949. “The organization, sponsored by the Lima Association of Commerce, is open to all new residents of the city. Membership will be limited to a year.”
Welcome Wagon hostesses, who represented local sponsoring merchants, referred the people they visited to the newcomers club. In January 1956, the News announced the club was forming an auxiliary. The new club was named the Welcome Wagon Alumni Club and was open to anyone who had been a member of the newcomers club for two years.
Newcomers club meetings featured talks by local civic and business leaders designed to help the new residents get acquainted with their new city. At its annual “Crazy Hat” luncheon in May 1959, the members actually heard from a bird. “A two-year-old talking myna bird entertained the 54 women attending after prodding from its mistress, Mrs. W.D. Neal,” the Lima Citizen reported.
The club also met for dinner and dances, such as the “Tulip Trot” and the “Mad Hatters” dance, and formed their own bridge and bowling leagues. “Newcomers Bowling League enjoyed dinner at the Milano Club Monday evening and awarded trophies to the first place team, the Beatles, and original trophies to everyone,” the News noted May 19, 1965.
In January 1972, the president of the club told the News club activities included an antique club, crafts club, garden club, gourmet club, lunch club and euchre club as well as the bowling league. The activities changed, she said, as the interests of the club members changed.
And an important activity was giving back to the community. In the early 1950s, club members took a turn staffing the serviceman’s canteen near the intersection of the Pennsylvania and Baltimore & Ohio railroads. On Jan. 22, 1954, the News reported club members were forming a new chapter of the Child Conservation League.
In December 1970, club members were helping decorate the walls of Marimor School as well as the pediatric wards at Memorial and St. Rita’s hospitals with “entrancing pet and animal friends,” according to the News. “As a spokeswoman said, ‘It’s not much. We’ve spent about $60 in cash plus time and it will cost more … but the important thing is our gals want to show how they feel about Lima. Hopefully, the youngsters will like what we’re doing.”
Over the years, among the many causes the club worked for, were the Heart Association bike-a-thon, March of Dimes walk-a-thon, the Kidney Foundation, the Allen County Council for Retarded Children and the Salvation Army.
Welcome Wagon hostesses continued home visits until 1998, when then-owner Cendant laid them off. Changing demographics, the company explained, meant few homeowners would actually be home when the hostesses called. The newcomers club faded about the same time as local industry declined.
Reach Greg Hoersten at TLNinfo@civitasmedia.com.