For 65 years, Mary Powers and Iona Vigness have belonged to the same club.
They get together with up to nine other women once a month to study a topic or support a need in the community through the Athena Club, a group that started 120 years ago as a literary club.
It’s not a book club, they are quick to point out. Although, they do hear about specific books that members have read now and then. But it is more of a group that focuses on life-long learning and self-improvement, something that keeps their minds active. Each month, one member presents a program on a topic they have researched, a book, a travelogue or other presentation.
This year’s theme is Flandreau’s 150th birthday, a topic that has included the history of churches, buildings and other historical lessons in the community. As part of the pre-celebration, four group members have been appointed to name the nicest yard of the week each week in June, leading up to the July 4 weekend.
Maybe it’s best if people don’t know who they are, said Vigness, so that residents can’t second guess their choices. She drove the other ladies up and down streets for two hours the first week.
“We tried to go on every street,” she said. “Some people have some very pretty yards.”
In July, the club will help support the Moody County Museum with its fundraiser.
Otherwise, the members still meet in homes with their monthly programs, now during the day instead of evenings when members don’t care to drive. After someone takes their turn with a presentation, they share some lunch.
The club started in 1899 when a group of women organized the Chautaugua Literary Club for the purpose of self-culture and self-improvement. The name was later changed to the Athena Club, named after the goddess of wisdom. In 1901, the club joined the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, a national affiliation that they no longer maintain.
Over the years, the club has sponsored and supported many projects, including initiating an effort to have a library in Flandreau, art and flower exhibits, park improvements, contributions to the historical museum, entering floats in local parades, providing scholarships and contributing to the Moody County Central Health Program, according to a history of the club.
The club’s pledges also helped start and support the Memorial Art Center in Brookings. More recently, the club purchased the frog slide at the Flandreau Aquatic Center, Powers said. The group also supports the Breadbasket and the Wholeness Center, along with the local museum. In 1954, after Vigness moved to town, she was invited to join the club but had to wait because the group could only include 50 members. She considered the invite a great honor. Both she and Powers are former teachers.
At that time, the club held a dinner or luncheon for women teachers and spouses of men teachers. The event included elaborate decorations, and Vigness remembers making bird house nut cups with crepe paper shingles.
The club’s officers are Marie Ziebarth, president; Carole Hurley, vice president; Anna Duncan, secretary; Caryl Odenbrett, treasurer, and Maryll Roshiem, coorespondences.
Part of the benefit of the club is social. “That’s one of the things I like about it. We do see people there that we don’t see otherwise,” said Powers, who recently turned 90. Most members are in their 70s to 90s.
The Athena Club isn’t certain about the number of years it will keep going. “I’m afraid not too long,” she said.
But it isn’t the first time people questioned how long the group would keep growing. “I remember Ardyce Samp (former long-time member) saying, ‘Well, I’ll give it 10 years.’ That was probably 25 years ago,” Powers said.
Vigness said the group would welcome anyone who is interested in joining, especially younger members, but she understands times are different for women.
“I guess we just enjoy it. I think we’ve had tremendous programs,” she said. “A lot of people like to read, and a lot of people like to discuss things. I think it would be for anybody really.”