127 Years of Filling Needs

by Susan Shank Shincovich

Of the wide variety of entities that call the Highlands neighborhood home—including hundreds of single family homes, six houses of worship, two borough parks, apartment buildings of all shapes and sizes, an international market, several child care facilities, a gas station, numerous fraternity houses, and a wide variety of businesses small and large—the unobtrusive former ranch house at 902 South Allen Street quietly goes about its business as the home of the State College Woman’s Club and its long-established Thrift Shop.

From the time of the club’s founding in 1894 and throughout the decades since, the women have followed their stated purpose:“…to stay informed…to be aware of special needs, whether in town, on campus, or elsewhere, and…if we can do something to fill that need, to do so.”  Education was high on their list of priorities.

After the Borough was incorporated in 1896, the 35 members’ first project was to buy the very best encyclopedia they could get for the new town library which they founded in the Fraser Street School. By 1955, the Woman’s Club, along with other community groups, had campaigned and succeeded in getting the school board to establish a formal library board; and by the next year Charles Schlow, a Highlands resident himself, donated the first space for what is now Schlow Centre Region Library.

In the early years the club provided public waste baskets to keep litter off the streets, and, in 1907, they paid for a public drinking fountain at the intersection of College Avenue and South Pugh Street.  It had three levels:  the top for people, the middle for horses, and the lowest level for pigs at a time when clean public drinking water was not readily available.

Originally called the Woman’s Literary Club of State College, the group joined the General Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1895 and the Pennsylvania Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1896, and by 1910 had changed its name to the GFWC State College Woman’s Club.  The women met in homes, then churches, schools, or wherever they could find space.

In the 1920s, the club opened a small rummage room which by the 1930s had morphed into the Thrift Shop to provide clothing and  other necessities during the Depression.  In the 1940s and especially during World War II, the shop continued providing for those in need.

By 1946 there were 273 members.  In 1959, they were able to purchase the house at 902 South Allen Street.  By the 1950s and 1960s paid members totaled over 400, generating thousands of dollars to support local arts, education, health and family services, conservation, and other worthy causes in the community.

Additionally, proceeds from various fund raisers, the Thrift Shop, and members’ annual dues allowed the women to improve and expand their clubhouse and quickly pay off two mortgages, as well as pay the bills for the building.  According to the History of the GFWC State College Woman’s Club 1894-2004, written by Winona Morgan Moore, also a Highlands resident, and Vivian Doty Hench, over its history the club has donated $700,000 to worthy causes.

In addition to endowing a scholarship to Penn State for a Centre County female, their philanthropy has included donations to the Park Forest Day Nursery, local libraries, Housing Transitions, Centre Volunteers in Medicine, Children and Youth Services, the Women’s Resource Center (now Centre Safe), Centre Wildlife Care, Meals on Wheels, Youth Leadership Vocational Training Scholarship, Interfaith Human Services, Head Start, and the Food Bank.

The State College Woman’s Club celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2019; but changing times have impacted the club tremendously with a dwindling membership and an even bigger blow struck by the Covid-19 pandemic.  Although in February 2020 the club stopped meetings and closed the Thrift Shop, the women were able to reopen the following July, but their membership and income were hit hard.

Outgoing club president and Thrift Shop manager Shirley Stump said, “We have never faced this kind of challenge before. Our goal is to give half of our income to charity, but we can’t give half away if we don’t make enough to pay the bills.”  With frustration in her voice, she said, “We just want to help people.”

In the 1930s the women met the challenge of the Great Depression by giving aid to 143 families and 24 transients.  They faced crises during the world wars by buying war bonds and donating to the Red Cross and to local hospitals, as well as providing books, magazines, and leather gloves for the armed forces.

Seeing other challenges in the community, their donations went to the Crippled Children’s Fund and the fight to combat infantile paralysis.  They helped organize a Well Baby Clinic and sponsored and funded Woodycrest Playground.  They donated money to the high school for new band uniforms and to the borough swimming pool project.

In 1976 they gave $4000 to the community hospital, paid for a speech therapist at a school for mentally challenged preschool children, and received the “Community Improvement Award”.  In 1979 they gave the State College Borough $500 to help landscape the new low rent apartments being built on Bellaire Avenue for senior citizens.

In 1985 they raised $2600 for the Save Mount Nittany Fund, and in May of that year they were named “Best Overall Program in the State” by the Pennsylvania Federation of Women’s Clubs.

Today the membership is composed more of women who have retired or whose families are grown, but who all want to stay active.  Shirley Stump says the Woman’s Club has contributed to her wellbeing as well as given her an opportunity to meet people, and contribute to the community.

Although the Woman’s Club has carried on through wars, a depression, inflation, a recession, and changing social mores, it is now facing the greatest challenge of its 127-year history and hoping to continue being of service to the community.

The Woman’s Club members meet the third Tuesday of each month at 1 p.m. at the clubhouse or other chosen location and, at their first meeting of this club year, have just elected Carol Palmer as their new president.

Following the club’s longstanding tradition, the Thrift Shop continues to open every Thursday from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and is staffed by club volunteers who can share membership information and details about the club.

About the Author:

After graduating from Penn State with a degree in journalism and marrying Jim, who also graduated from Penn State, Susan wrote for two newspapers before leaving employed work to raise their three daughters who eventually also received various degrees from Penn State.

Jim’s and Susan’s love of State College and dream to someday return was realized when they bought their house on E. Fairmount Avenue 16 years ago, two blocks from where their girls had lived ten years before and half a block away from where they danced at jammies (parties with live bands in the day), which they say gives them some perspective on today’s student lifestyle.

Susan and Jim love their house, their adult and student neighbors, the liveliness and activity of the Highlands neighborhood, going to football games, and State College itself, which is like a big city in a small town.  They can’t imagine living anywhere else.