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There aren't enough of them any more. Not enough to keep a two-mile stretch of road picked up or fill a cake pan with donations during a monthly meeting.

Certainly not enough to distribute 17,000 tulip bulbs or sell 40 quarts and 28 pints of mincemeat.

And there's really no need any longer to petition for a Normal train station, promote a fly eradication program or pay someone to keep the library open during the summer.

Silent auctions with hot items like African violets and gooseberry pie, brought a pretty penny to the Women's Improvement League in Normal, allowing them to fill boulevards with asters and buy benches for street car stops.

But after 100 years of trying to improve things around here, the league is history.

That hit 15-year member Helen Gustafson of Normal hard when she walked out of her last meeting.

"As I went home, it really hit me, we are no more," she said, her cane hanging on the edge of a picnic table where a half dozen of the women gathered. "I don't miss the meetings, but I miss all of you," she said.

The league was never a big group, never more than 50 women, but it dwindled to about a dozen active members, nearly all of them holding an office or chairing a committee, sometimes a committee of one.

The oldest member, Oressa McQueen of Normal, is 101; the newest member - the "young girl," as they call her - maybe 50.

"We've probably fulfilled our original mission," said Laura Alferink, of the group's decision to donate the $1,600 left in their account and disband.

The league organized in 1907 at a time when civic pride was blooming. Their mission was noble: to awaken a sense of civic responsibility, engage children in citizenship and inspire a greater love of art and nature.

But their first task was to clean up the place. Normal wasn't big enough for trash collection so they hired a man with a wagon to haul it away - for $3.50. And they continued paying for trash removal for 12 years with proceeds from bake sales and $1 annual dues, until the town picked up the responsibility.

Men have never joined the league; they had their own improvement organization but it didn't last.

One of the goals was to beautify the town and prizes were awarded for "clean and attractive home gardens and public grounds." Children were given seeds to sell for a penny a packet or give away. The biggest project was planting 17,000 tulip bulbs in boulevards and back yards.

In 1922, the women decided a summer playground program was needed and Miss Alice Ross was hired at an annual salary of $20 to supervise children at Normal's Fell Park. The town agreed to mow the grass and the women kept it going for more than 30 years, until the Normal Parks and Recreation Department took it over in 1955.

Helen Fritzen of Normal remembers playing there as an 11-year-old and learning to make a braided belt from discarded chewing gum wrappers. She still has the weathered journal with a yellowed entry from a supervisor who wrote, "May you always remember the pleasant girl you now are."

She's still pleasant and at 83, has been giving back to the league for more than two decades.

Before Normal had a library, the league opened the Normal Reading Room and kept it open during the summer by paying for a student librarian. In later years, they donated $8,000 to the new library, bought a theft-proof book return box and donated books as memorials for league members.

Bake sales were the bread and butter of their fund-raisers. Dee Volle of Normal laughed at the memory of their sidewalk sales.

"Oh, those were fun. I'd always say, 'If they look twice, you got 'em.'"

In the early years, they sold mincemeat and clothes hangers to raise funds, and in a 1944 recycling effort they collected 30 tons of paper with the help of children toting it to school in wagons. A junk dealer gave them $164.80 for it.

Some of the members never did quit.

"They just passed away," Fritzen said.

But they left behind park benches along Constitution Trail and the image of a group of women collecting litter from April to November along a two-mile stretch of adopted highway. Since the league started with trash collection, it seemed like the right thing to do to keep it going, Alferink said.

Among them, there's a retired psychologist, a teacher, a secretary. As they got up to leave the picnic table, they reached out for each other's hands and arms to steady a gait.

One planned to get a perm at noon. Another planned to take a 96-year-old to a park concert. But before they left, they had to make plans with each other.

Lunch in September.


100 years of improvements

The Women's Improvement League started in January 1907 and never had more than 50 members at a time. Here are some of their accomplishments, which they funded with $1 annual dues and rummage and bake sales:

• Started Normal trash collection by paying a man with a wagon $3.50 to haul it away; continued funding it until 1919, when the town started collecting trash.

• Created and staffed a summer playground program in Fell Park from 1922 until the Parks and Recreation Department was established in 1955.

• Purchased 17,000 tulips, along with other flowers, trees and shrubs for beautification efforts.

• Started a children's gardening club and gave them packets of seeds to sell for a penny or give away; held annual garden shows.

• Paid to keep the Normal Reading Room, later the library, open during the summer months.

• Worked for passage of a tax to maintain a full-time library; donated more than $8,000 to the children's room.

• Petitioned for a Normal train station and succeeded in 1923; the first ticket was sold a year later.

• Participated in "Swat the Fly" campaign in 1916, a statewide fly eradication program that promoted cleanliness.

• Raised $4,800 to purchase Fell Gates on the east side of Illinois State University.

• Hired the first Boy Scout troop leader in Normal.

• Participated in the Adopt-a-Highway program, cleaning litter along two miles of roadway.

• Provided stone benches at street car stops, and later, benches and picnic tables along Constitution Trail.

• Donated $1,000 for a Fell Park park bench for the league's 100th anniversary.

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