A group of prominent Modesto women formed the Sylvan Improvement Club a century ago with three things in mind:
- They wanted to spruce up the valley and did so by, among other things, planting more than a hundred eucalyptus trees along what's now McHenry Avenue well north of town.
- They wanted to create a social club.
"Very Victorian at the time," said Jan Lopes, a longtime Sylvan Club member and a descendant of one of the original member families, the Hardies.
- And they wanted to encourage Modesto's development from a dreary, flat collection of farms into a town that would someday become a city.
Now, as the club prepares for its 100th birthday celebration Oct. 6, it appears that the founding women ultimately succeeded on all fronts.
They continue to beautify. As part of the centennial celebration, the club will hand Modesto Mayor Jim Ridenour a $12,500 check for the city's Virginia Corridor -- another in a long list of projects the club has supported over the past century. A few years ago, club members straightened out the headstones and replaced the lettering in the mausoleum at Pioneer Cemetery, along Scenic Drive.
The club arguably is stronger and on better financial footing than ever, thanks to some tough decisions in the early 1980s. Its membership is growing at a time when some other service clubs' rosters are declining. Between the recruitment of new, younger members, and the expiration of some of the much older ones -- Orville Sims beat the club to age 100 before he died in January -- the average membership age has fallen from about 65 in 1998 to about 55 now, club President George Kabella said. There are 131 members on the books, with room for 19 more.
It's a social club that meets and eats, and loans its building to other clubs and organizations as part of its contribution to the community.
And the very development they welcomed a century ago -- and that prompted them to sell their original clubhouse on McHenry Avenue 25 years back -- is encroaching again.
The club membership was a who's who list of Modesto's most well-known families when the women organized it in October 1907. Well-known? Streets and roads throughout the city and county were named for members of the club's founding families: Standiford, Coffee, Snedigar, Whitmore, Parker, Taylor and Bangs.
It began primarily as a women's club, and raised the money to build a clubhouse at what became McHenry and Standiford avenues, which were nothing more than dirt roads back then. Members staged events such as an annual Martha Washington Tea, card parties and benefit dinners to fund improvement events and maintain the clubhouse.
"They had pie auctions, and the husbands would end up paying some really high prices for their wives' pies," said Judie Hardie, Jan Lopes' sister.
Bel Passi School held its graduations there. With its stage and large wooden floor, the clubhouse drew large crowds and became one of the area's best dance venues.
But over time, the women found it more difficult to raise money for their beautification projects. And the heavily used clubhouse began showing its age. Membership dwindled, as did the club's cash reserves. So in the 1940s, they opened the club to men with hopes the husbands would do the needed building maintenance.
By the early 1980s, it became clear that remodeling the old clubhouse would cost far more money than the club ever could generate. Development along McHenry Avenue made their site a most sought-after place.
"Realtors were hot and heavy out on that corner," said Joe Lopes, who served as the club's president from 1978 to 1982.
Over the vehement objections of some longtime members, they ultimately decided to sell the building and property to a developer. County Bank now rests on the corner, and the palm tree planted by the Sylvan Club members still stands.
But before they could sell, they had to find another building. They did, at a former country-western bar about 2½ miles away on Sylvan Avenue. The only problem was that its owner, retired Merced County Municipal Court Judge Herbert Boland of Snelling, didn't want to part with it.
"I called him up and asked if he'd sell," Joe Lopes said. "He said 'no' and hung up on me. He was really abrupt."
Lopes waited a few days, then tried again.
"I told him, 'I'm not trying to buy it for me. We're trying to buy it for the Sylvan Club,' " Lopes said.
Boland agreed to meet Lopes at the bar, and the men talked there for a couple of hours.
"He wanted to know what was going on," Lopes said. "I told him things (at the old clubhouse) were really run down. We wanted to sell it, make a profit and get back on our feet (financially) again, and that we could do that by buying his building."
Then, Lopes said, something happened that caught him by surprise. Tears streaked down Boland's cheeks.
"He told me, 'As a kid growing up in Merced, we used to come to the Sylvan Club,' " Lopes said. " 'Saturday nights, we'd go to hear the big bands, Glenn Miller. I met my wife there and, finally, I married her. You know, you guys need a home and it's going to keep the club going.' That's how we ended up getting it and how he ended up selling."
Boland, who still lives in Snelling, said he had nothing to add about how the sale came down.
By doing the deal, the club made enough profit to establish an endowment that will keep the Sylvan Avenue building going for a long, long time. Except now, the growth the founding mothers encouraged is at their doorstep again.
Village I is across the street from their digs at 2545 Sylvan Ave. From the clubhouse door, you see a large masonry sound wall and nothing but rooftops along the south side of Sylvan.
Soon, the club will be surrounded by homes on all sides. The club hasn't received overtures from developers yet, club President Kabella said, but it's inevitable.
"I would suspect as the Tivoli plan (development) gets rolling, we will," he said. "We've been keeping our eyes open for another place, but for what we'd get for this place, we'd get something else about the same size for three times the money."
And three times the property taxes as well.
So they plan on staying put. They've refurbished the clubhouse and looked at buying land adjacent to theirs to give themselves a buffer against development. That probably won't happen, Kabella said.
"Land prices have jumped dramatically," he said.
As the Sylvan Improvement Club chugs along into its second century, several descendants of the original families remain as members, including the Hardie sisters, Brad Smith, Norman Kline and sister Lynda Silva, and Allen and Sally Sughrue, among others.
The planting the original women did in 1907 keeps sprouting branches.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2383.