Women's Club of Farmingdale celebrates 100 years

(L-R) Members of the Farmingdale Women's Club: Co-chair

(L-R) Members of the Farmingdale Women's Club: Co-chair Fran Rotondo, President Maria Ortolani, Chairman Barbara Hoerner. (April 15, 2013) (Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa)

When Abigail Leonard founded the Women's Club of Farmingdale 100 years ago, it was not so local ladies could mingle over lunch.

Leonard, a retired math teacher who moved to the community when she was 60, had a more practical, civic-improvement model in mind. So she and her group, in conjunction with a local newspaper editor, founded the Farmingdale public library, and the club pushed successfully for improvements in local schools.

The hundreds of members who followed would erect a fountain on the village green and a gazebo in a pocket park on the north end of Main Street, and conduct numerous other beautification projects.

"It was definitely a working club to improve the community and the school district," said its current president, Maria Ortolani. And while there are plenty of social activities, prospective members are still informed that "this is a working club."

On Thursday, the club marked its centennial with a ceremony at the current library on Merritt Road. A portrait of Leonard and a plaque honoring the club's contributions to the village were unveiled.

Fourteen women attended the first meeting on March 7, 1913. (Now there are about 50 members.) Not surprisingly, Leonard was named chairwoman and led the group for a decade.

In 1915 the club submitted a petition to the village board to create a library. It took eight years of work with Jesse Merritt, editor of the Farmingdale Post, to get a library up and running. Initially it was a single room in the Kolkebeck House, which was owned by the school district, on Main Street. The club asked the community to donate books and received 700.

Meanwhile, in 1916 the club organized an effort for an annual community Christmas tree, a tradition that continues.

Because Leonard walked to many meetings at night in the dark, she had the idea that the village should install streetlights and pave the streets. So in 1917 the club contributed $147 to the village for 123 street signs, and the village paved the streets, said centennial co-chairwoman Fran Rotondo.

In 1931 the group worked to get the first woman -- Leonard, no surprise -- elected to the school board.

The club created several gardens, including one on Merritt Road on what had originally been a swamp, and another on Hempstead Turnpike. The projects continue. Ortolani said a current one is providing blankets, books and stuffed animals for homeless children in shelters across Long Island. Members are also making quilts for residents of nursing homes and they support a food pantry at St. Kilian Roman Catholic Church.

Leonard, who died at age 93 in 1943, also was a suffragist leader. She organized a group of 100 women and men in 1917 to lobby and march in support of the 19th Amendment to give women the right to vote.

Rotondo says Leonard would be pleased by the longevity of the club and its dedication to its original goals.

"We've continued everything she started," she said.

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