By Ron Hayes
BOYNTON BEACH — On a winter's day in 1909, the Norwegian sailing ship Coquimbo ran aground on the coral reef off Boynton Beach, and refused to budge.
But come May, the spring storms at last accomplished what a steam-powered tug from Key West had failed to do. The ship's hull cracked, and a cargo of longleaf pine lumber washed ashore — and became the first Boynton Woman's Club.
The lumber, once bound for Europe, was used to build the fledgling civic organization's first clubhouse, a two-story building at the corner of Ocean Avenue and Southeast Fourth Street. That building is gone now, but a hundred years later the club still thrives.
On Jan. 25, the Boynton Woman's Club will celebrate its first century with an open house from 2 to 6 p.m. at its current clubhouse, a sturdier but no less historic building at 1010 S. Federal Highway.
"We're going to have tours of the building and light refreshments," says Lillian Ostiguy, a past president, "and an actor portraying Addison Mizner."
A gesture of gratitude, no doubt. In 1924, the famed South Florida architect agreed to design a new clubhouse and oversee its construction — for free. His only stipulation was that the building be worth $50,000.
Construction began a year later and was completed in 1926, just in time for the clubhouse to serve as a shelter during that season's hurricane. It wasn't the first, or last, contribution the club would make to the community. "Before we had buses, the women used to load the kids up in a car and take them to free dental care, or have a dentist check their teeth at school," remembers Marie Shepard, 87. "Of course, that was before everyone got so concerned with liability insurance." Shepard's family has been involved with the club as long as there's been a club. Her Aunt Alice was its president in 1912-1913; her mother, Annie, served as treasurer in the 1920s; and Marie herself was president in 1986-88.
For a civic organization with such a long and fabled pedigree, the club is remarkably egalitarian. Annual dues are only $55, and you have don't have to be a resident of Boynton Beach to join. Patricia Kropp of Ocean Ridge serves on the club's property management committee, and former Ocean Ridge Commissioner Nancy Hogan is also a member.
You don't even have to be a woman.
Boynton Beach native Harvey Oyer II became an affiliate member several years ago, but his family's involvement reaches back decades.
"When my mother and father were married in 1924," he recalls, "the bridal party was held upstairs in the old building. And the first public speech I ever made was at a Rotary Club meeting at the new club in the spring of— oh, about 1944."
The Boynton Woman's Club was born when 30 women gathered in the town's two-room schoolhouse to raise money for a community meeting hall. The Coquimbo provided the meeting hall, and those 30 women became the club. Today, the club boasts about 100 members — most over 40, they concede, and mostly retirees like Dot Neenan, who came to town 14 years ago after a teaching career in Connecticut.
"My neighbor was a member, so I came along," she says. "The club's a good way to learn about the community and the people in it. Otherwise, you're just in your own little housing development and you don't broaden out and meet other people."
Now Neenan directs the club's scholarship committee, which passes out five $1,000 scholarships each April to deserving Boynton Beach high school students.
Is she the chairman of the committee? Or the chairwoman? Like those pioneer women who started the club a century ago, Neenan is stubbornly practical. "It doesn't make any difference to me," she says with a laugh, "as long as I get my money for scholarships."
WHAT: Boynton Woman's Club centennial open house
WHEN: Sunday, Jan. 25, 2009, 2-6 p.m.
WHERE: 1010 S. Federal Highway
FOR MORE INFORMATION: (561) 369-2300