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July 29, 2013

Onesiphorai Reading Club celebrating a centennial in Franklin

By Mark Simonson
The Daily Star

---- — As kids, it’s a joy to be read to by an adult. As adults, we then read to our kids. As for adults reading to adults, there’s not an abundance of that going on locally. In recent years we’ve had creations such as books on tape or CD, but it’s not the same as someone being in the same room, reading to one another.

There is an exception in Franklin, where a group meets every two weeks, just as it has done for the past 100 years, to read aloud, discuss current events and almost as importantly enjoy a delicious homemade dessert. 

The Onesiphorai Reading Club recently celebrated its centennial of the first meeting, which was held on Thursday, Feb. 20, 1913 at Mrs. Lulu Stilson’s home. For those unfamiliar trying to pronounce it, that’s “on-a-sa-fry,” which is a Greek word that can mean “working together,” or “profitable or helpful.”

Current Club President Louise Hebbard said the Onesiphorai Reading Club had its origins in the “Thimble Parties” held in the early 20th century at various homes in Franklin, where sewing was the main activity. Hebbard says that had you been a young woman in Franklin, you might get invited to a party. At that time, most women were mothers with children and spent most of their time at home with family responsibilities. The women still desired to keep up with news and current events, which at the time involved reading, as there wasn’t the Internet, television or radio. At these gatherings, the women sewed and listened to each other read.

At Lulu Stilson’s home, 14 women met for the purpose of organizing a literary and social club. While sewing may have been included, the first object was to read and encourage reading of good literature, and second to promote sociability among its members. Elizabeth S. Rowell was elected first club president, with Helen G. Maurer as secretary-treasurer. The name Onesiphorai was adopted at the third meeting on March 13, 1913.

The first books the women read from were intended to study South America and the loss of Capt. Robert Falcon Scott. This was the ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition where Capt. Scott led a party of five that reached the South Pole in January 1912, only to find that they had been preceded by Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian expedition.

Hebbard has long been associated with the club, as her mother was also a member. Louise often recalled coming home from school as a meeting was wrapping up, as the club met in the early afternoon before the school day ended. If it ran overtime, she and other friends at school were told they had to be quiet as their moms were still entertaining. There were many times when some of the desserts were left over from a meeting, a perk many Franklin youngsters enjoyed after their mother hosted a meeting at their home.

“My mother was known for her cream puffs,” Hebbard said. As for today’s treats, “I wouldn’t call it a competition, but it is a friendly challenge to see who comes up with the best desserts.”

The Onesiphorai Reading Club has lived up to its name of being profitable or helpful to the Franklin community in several ways over the years. During both World Wars, the women sewed and knitted for the Red Cross, and became responsible for a little orphan girl in France. The club also donated funds to help the Daughters of the American Revolution erect historic monuments in Franklin. Funds have been collected to help the Boy and Girl Scouts, as well as victims of the recent floods, and to fund an annual scholarship prize to a Franklin student in social studies. Donations for special books are given to the Franklin Free Library as well as donating books in memory of club members. Shopping is also done at holidays for local families and children in need.

As to why the club remains so popular and active, Hebbard said, “I think the uniqueness of being read to out loud, something that we’ve all done for our children, is now something pleasurable, to sit and be read to, and perhaps read books that we might not pick up ourselves.”

The Onesiphorai Reading Club isn’t one of a kind in Franklin. An older organization, the Washington Reading Circle, has been active since 1887 and was previously documented in another one of these columns. The local club’s centennial celebration will continue for the rest of 2013. Anyone with memorabilia about the club or would like more information, call Louise Hebbard at 829-8664.

This weekend: Oneonta reacted to a presidential death in 1923.

City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.