Lelia Kelly was born in Muskingum County in 1861, married Army officer Frank M. Bell, graduated from Wooster College, taught in the Lima schools, and died at the age of 80 on December 7, 1941, the day the U.S. was bombed into involvement in World War II.
During the decades she lived in Lima, Mrs. F.M. Bell, as the city’s newspapers consistently referred to her, seemingly belonged to every women’s club in the city, including the Shakespeare Study Club. In fact, Bell was a charter member and first president of the Shakespeare Study Club, which was one of the longest-lived of the many women’s clubs organized in Lima in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Shakespeare Study Club as well as most of the others could trace their origins to a 1879 visit by Mr. and Mrs. A.C. Baxter to Chautauqua, New York, for a summer assembly. Chautauqua was the center of a popular adult education movement in the late 19th and early 20th century. According to the 1976 county history, the Baxters returned to Lima with a missionary zeal, organized a “Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle” with 17 charter members and designed a course of study “to give a woman the outlook of a college graduate.”
From those beginnings, women’s clubs, comprised mainly of middle- and upper-class women, proliferated like dandelions in the spring, according to the history.
“During the next few years many clubs were organized: The Twentieth Century in 1889; Sorosis in 1891; Philomathean Round Table and Bay View in 1892; Chautauqua in 1895; Wimodaughsis, 1898; Literary Guild and a club devoted to music, the Etude Club in 1899. In 1893 the T&T Club, a literary club composed of men and women, and limited to 32 members was organized …”
The women’s clubs eventually branched out to become involved in philanthropy, social movements and civic improvement. Club women raised money for hospitals and schools, fought for suffrage and temperance and, at least briefly, for sidewalks free of tobacco juice, as a story from the Lima Daily News in November 1898 related.
According to the story, women’s clubs in many cities were backing ordinances “prohibiting the tobacco chewers from using the sidewalks as cuspidors to be wiped up by the trains of the dresses of femininity. There has been some talk of instituting the same movement in Lima.”
The Lima News judged this right and proper, noting that “in places where men congregate for any length of time, as at our prominent business corners, it is no unusual sight to see the sidewalk so foul that women cannot pass by without ruining their skirts.”
In the early 20th century, the Shakespeare Study Club joined the rolls of women’s club in Lima with 14 charter members. Helen Wood, who served as club president of the club in the 1960s, spoke to The Lima News in April 1980, as the club celebrated its 75th anniversary.
“According to Mrs. Wood, club historian, Lima women formed a study group in 1903 for the purpose of seriously studying Shakespeare,” The Lima News wrote. “Formally organized in 1905, members of the club met every two weeks … until the beginning of World War II, when they dropped back to once a month.”
Over its history, the club, which officially joined the Lima federation of women’s clubs in 1904, met in the Lima Public Library, the YMCA, the YWCA, Argonne Hotel, Barr Hotel, Castle Tea Room, Moose Temple, Faurot Park, Tower Tea Room, Central High School, the Florentine Room of the Milner Hotel, the Lima Club and the Hotel Norval.
“The high point of the club’s membership was during the Second World War period when 184 women were enrolled,” The Lima News wrote in 1980. “There were four classes of membership – active, associate, affiliate and honorary.”
The active membership was limited to 50 and, “therefore associate members had to wait before being voted into membership. There was for a number of years a long waiting list,” Wood said.
In 1945 honorary membership was adopted by the club for those members who had been active for at least 25 years. By 1980, the club’s membership had dwindled to 24.
According to the club’s constitution, its aim was “to stimulate intellectual and moral development and to promote good fellowship among its members.”
Although club meetings initially featured talks by experts on Shakespeare or readings of his plays to stimulate intellectual development, good fellowship began to find a place in December 1913 when the club dove a little deeper into the bard. In notes for her club history, Wood wrote the event was “called ‘An Afternoon of Fun and Frolic with ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ … with Mrs. F.M Bell furnishing both fun and frolic as Falstaff,” according to Wood.
“In keeping with Shakespeare’s ‘the play’s the thing,’ we every year gave at least one dramatic presentation of either a Shakespeare or other classic drama,” Wood said.
On at least two occasions the whole cast was invited to Lakeside to perform. The plays taken to Lakeside were “Winter’s Tale” and “Merry Wives.” Lakeside in Ottawa County on Lake Erie has hosted many Chautauqua events.
The club also took an active part in the civic life of the community.
“Through the years the club has made contributions to the Red Cross, Milk Fund, Penny Art Fund, Loan Scholarship Fund, Allen County Historical Museum, Community Chest and Library Extension fund,” The Lima News wrote in on the club’s 75th anniversary. “In 1931 members planted a tree at Faurot Park commemorating the George Washington Bicentennial. Another club project was an economy shop where members worked for several hours each week and contributed furnishing and clothing for charity.
“Club members gave individual Christmas gifts to youngsters in the children’s ward at Lima Memorial Hospital. According to Mrs. Wood, this was a forerunner of the teddy bear project.”
The Shakespeare Club printed its final annual program in the early 1990s.
Reach Greg Hoersten at email@example.com.