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Many of Southern Nevada's cultural institutions have roots in the historic Mesquite Club, the women's organization that does much more than afternoon tea

Nearly 100 years ago, a group of Las Vegas women gathered for tea. The city hasn't been the same since.

In 1911, Las Vegas was a dusty stopover with little culture or refinement. Just six years old, this ambitious railroad stop wouldn't be incorporated as an actual city until March 16 of that year. The 800 people who lived here then were hardy, young and ambitious. Nobody came to Las Vegas without hoping to cash in, one way or another. The men wanted to make fortunes in mining or agriculture; the women sought to carve a bit of civilization out of the desert.

On February 10, 1911, 20 of Las Vegas' most influential, forward-looking ladies met at the home of Mrs. O.J. Enking to form a group called the Mesquite Club. This February, the club - which brought Las Vegas everything from its first fashion show to its first library to its first neighborhood watch - marks 100 years of improving Southern Nevada, no matter the odds or the obstacles.

"You can't buck the ladies of the Mesquite Club," says Mary Shaw, a member and the club's unofficial historian. "Nothing frightens them."

More than just 'paint a little'

"There is a mistaken idea that culture means to paint a little, to sing a little, to dance a little and to quote passages from the late popular books. As a matter of fact, culture means mastery over self, politeness, charity, fairness, good temper, good conduct. Culture is not a thing to make a display of; it is something to use modestly that people will not discover all at once that you have it." - Ella E. Lane-Bowes, from the Mesquite Club Yearbook 1922-1923

From the beginning, the Mesquite Club was about much more than afternoon tea, despite the lofty social status of most members. The women of the Mesquite Club were instrumental in fostering art, literature, music, fashion and horticulture in Las Vegas. They combined high style with high purpose, and got a lot done while maintaining a full social calendar. When they weren't feeding orphans, they were organizing flower shows. After working to make the streets safer, they threw charity masquerade balls.

"The Mesquite Club is one of the critical, civilizing influences of Las Vegas," says Mark Hall-Patton, Director of Clark County Museums. "They're a crucial part of our history. Without the Mesquite Club, you wouldn't have the library. You wouldn't have the Clark County Library District. You wouldn't have a lot of things we take for granted now. They took on the cultural and educational infrastructure needs of a new community, and did it well."

The Mesquite Club is entwined with Las Vegas' history. Among its charter members was pioneer Helen J. Stewart, who had lived in the valley since 1882, and operated the Las Vegas Ranch after her husband was killed in 1884. She was the fledgling town's first postmaster in 1893. When she sold a portion of the old ranch to the Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad, the city of Las Vegas became possible.

Stewart presented the young club with a gift - and its name. She donated a gavel made of mesquite wood and suggested the group name itself after the hardy tree, saying that if the club could do as much for their community as the mesquite did for the local Paiute Indians, it would be well-named.

In the early days, they met at the opera house on Fremont Street, where they paid $2.50 for a room upstairs, which got them use of a piano and a stove; bags of coal were extra.

Dues were set at $2 a year, payable in installments. They adopted club colors; yellow, green and red, and also a slogan: "United effort toward peace, charity, equity, and a higher civilization."

Made in the shade

"We would get up at the crack of dawn, close all the windows and pull the shades - the house would remain fairly comfortable until three o'clock, but from then until sundown we sweltered. As soon as the sun set, doors and windows were thrown wide open. Frequently, a heavy dust storm would come up soon after sunset, so we would rush to close everything up until the storm passed, which was usually about 15 minutes. Hardly anyone went to bed before midnight, as it took too long for the house to cool off to be bearable." - Francine Squires, daughter of Delphine Squires, from Isabella Blackman's Biographies of Mesquite Club Presidents

Peace. Charity. Higher civilization. Noble goals for a town where most of the population lived in canvas tents. It wasn't long before the club took up more practical concerns: examining the condition of the roads, petitioning the state Legislature to establish libraries, or agitating for the suppression of the Sunday comics supplement. Their first project was practical and urgent. The city needed shade.

"The heat in those early years was probably no worse than it is today, but we had no air conditioners or even electric fans for a few years. There were no trees, lawns or foliage," Francine Squires said in Blackman's biography. "It was discovered that one of the clothesline posts at Lloyd Smith's Palace Hotel was sprouting out leaves, so folks began putting cottonwoods in their yards."

The women of the club threw themselves into fundraising, something they would prove to be very good at over the years. Embarking on a campaign of selling wearable tags with the motto "To Plant a Tree is to Bless the Earth," they raised enough money to purchase 2,000 cottonwood saplings. They were planted on Valentine's Day, February 14, 1912, rechristened "Arbor Day" to honor the Mesquite Club members who made it happen.

"Citizens Generally Unite With Enthusiasm in Making the Day the Most Notable in Vegas History," said a headline in the Las Vegas Age newspaper. "Vegas still may look backward to February 14, 1912 as the greatest day in her history - the day which created for her bowers of greenery to give rest to the eye and pleasure to the tired mind and body during the hot summer days." (High praise, though it should be noted that the newspaper was owned and written by Charles P. Squires, husband of Mesquite co-founder Delphine Squires.)

Members of the community pitched in to water the trees near their homes and businesses, but club members dragged hoses or buckets to all of the farther-flung trees for two summers, until they talked the city into using the dust-control truck to water the saplings.

Turning a new leaf

"Mrs. James G. Givens has presented to the Club, a very valuable Encyclopedia of Art and Literature; complete sets of Scott, Dickins (sic) and Irving, and also about 150 other volumes of standard works. The Club gratefully acknowledges the gift and plans to make it the nucleus of the Club Library." - Mesquite Club Yearbook, 1913-1914.

The Mesquite Club had a scholarly bent from the beginning. Most of the charter members wanted the club to be a literary society; early meetings were opened with poetry readings and quotations from great literature. One of the club's first official acts was to ask the Legislature to fund a public library. When nothing came of that, members took it upon themselves to start their own.

The club acquired the core of the library when mining magnate and land developer James Givens and his wife left town in 1913, their financial hopes dashed by natural calamity and railroad strikes. He had been the first president of the local chamber of commerce; she, the first president of the Mesquite Club. Rather than pay to ship the heavy volumes across the country, they donated their personal library to the club. Combined with other donations from club members and the public, it wasn't long before the library needed a bigger home.

When the new courthouse was built in 1914, the City Commission gave the Mesquite Club a room in the old courthouse, where they could hold meetings and host a free lending library, the first one in Southern Nevada. After 12 years of nurturing by the club, the city took over the library in 1926, setting aside $60 a month to pay a librarian. The library was out of the club's hands, but members would sit on the board for years afterward. Their support continues through a memorial fund that donates money to the Clark County libraries, and an endowment to the UNLV Library to buy children's literature.

By the time the library was passed on to the city, the club had already done countless other good things for the city. Mesquite members knitted for the Red Cross during World War I. They started a USO club in World War II. They met troop trains and gave hot meals to soldiers during both wars. Every Christmas until 1953, Mesquite Club members canvassed the city to make sure that each family had a proper Christmas.

Mission: relevance

"Here's to the ladies, God bless them! If it had not been for the determined efforts of the Mesquite Club, Vegas would have remained the same sun-scorched child of the desert as her sister towns in Nevada; were it not for the ladies we would not give a whoop in Iceland whether we had any trees or not, for we wouldn't any of us have been here." - Las Vegas Age newspaper, February 19, 1912.

Joan Powell is current president of the Mesquite Club. She says the litany of good works continues today. Club members are behind the scenes at many local charities, collecting food for the Salvation Army, toiletries for Safe Nest and various items for the Veteran's Home in Boulder City. The club also fulfills requests for supplies from local elementary schools, and Powell notes that this year's requests reflect the economic times.

"We're seeing more requests for simple things like socks and underwear," she says. "It's those everyday things that we never think about other people being in need of." Members collect items at the club house, repackage them and give them to the schools to distribute.

The Mesquite Club's century-long commitment to improving Las Vegas has turned into a struggle to stay relevant. It's no longer necessary, or even possible, for a single group to wield such influence in local culture. The decline of most fraternal organizations since the 1960s has stolen a bit of the club's glamour, and the club's function of knitting friends together doesn't seem as crucial when Facebook is just a Blackberry away.

Powell hopes the anniversary attention will swell the membership rolls. As is the club's tradition, the women plan to celebrate in high style, with two events in February to commemorate the anniversary. The highlight is an evening gala celebration at Spanish Trails Country Club Feb. 26.

"That's the night we get to put on the dog and dress up and look real spiffy," Powell says of the event where club members dress in 1911-period clothing. "We are hoping to see an upsurge as information gets out. & For so long, people knew the Mesquite Club was around - kind of. Then we had an influx of new people coming in who had never heard of the club, had no idea what it was about."

Changing priorities in local media over the years made it hard to get the word out, says Powell, and as the membership aged, their work became more behind-the-scenes.

"We don't go out and dig holes and plant trees anymore, but we do continue to aid other charities and raise funds for them."

The women of the Mesquite club aren't afraid of time or hard work, though. Powell says the club will always be part of Las Vegas, and they are making their way into the next frontier.

"We are coming into the 21st century," says Joan Powell. "We have a website, which isn't totally up and running as it should be, but we are working on it. We're using e-mail as often as we can to communicate with our members, and to let the community know what we're doing."

It's only a matter of time before they're on Twitter.

For more information, visit www.mesquiteclublasvegas.com.

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