THE GFWC Woman’s Club of Panama City:
Established in 1913 & Still Living the Volunteer Spirit Today
“Woman’s Club” might sound like an old sewing and gossip circle but since 1913, the GFWC Woman’s Club of Panama City has made a remarkable difference in this community. In what truly was a backwater Gulf Coast fishing village, 32 women with a vision for a better community launched the Woman’s Club of Panama City – the same year that Bay County was created. These women immediately went to work, supporting city ordinances to make Panama City a better place to live. Remember that women did not yet have the right to vote so the fact that such a small group of women could successfully influence an ordinance that required livestock be fenced was remarkable. It was said that a stroll down Harrison Avenue was a much more enjoyable experience once the cows and razorback hogs were behind fences and horses were tethered to hitching posts! The next action that was needed at the time was to outlaw spitting on sidewalks.
Since those very early days, the Woman’s Club of Panama City has been an active agent of change to improve the health and welfare for all its citizens, most notably in the establishment of Bay County’s first public library. In late 1914, the Woman’s Club purchased a building on Beach Drive near the 4th Street intersection. Club members formed the Panama City Library Association, donated 1500 books from members’ personal libraries and volunteered to keep the little library open a few days a week. As the city grew and the demands on the library increased, our Club members donated $3500 to purchase what is now the Bay County Chamber of Commerce Building on 5th Street for Bay County’s first dedicated public library. As the years passed and the needs of the library changed, the Woman’s Club commitment did not; they gave money yet again to have a new library built on the downtown marina. Many years later, when the “Downtown Library” moved into its move to the 11th Street Government Center, our members were more than happy to celebrate the grand opening. Woman’s Club members have continued their support by being on the Library Board and as members of the Friends of the Library.
NOTABLE: Seventy-five percent of all the public libraries in the US were started by GFWC Woman’s Club members.
In addition to literacy, health issues have always been a priority. The first tuberculosis clinic was set up by the Woman’s Club of Panama City. Members were trained by the Red Cross to weigh and measure school-age children. This job was larger than could be managed by volunteer members. Bay County’s first school nurse, Mrs. Fred Bennett, was paid by the Woman’s Club of Panama City. Because of this action, Bay County started the Bay County Health Department. During the Great Depression, Woman’s Club members held bake sales to establish a milk fund for children so they wouldn’t go without an important nutrient in their diet.
Sponsoring younger organizations is another legacy of the Woman’s Club of Panama City. In 1942, the Junior Woman’s Club was organized under the leadership of Mrs. S. A. Daffin. This group worked side by side with the Woman’s Club in support of projects that were meaningful to the local citizens and the war effort. Together, the clubs sold over $500,000 in war bonds, enough to purchase an entire bomber and half of another. The club was recognized nationally with a bomber being named “Panama City Jr. Woman’s Club”. A “flying fortress” was named for the Woman’s Club as club members around the state sold enough war bonds to purchase 26 planes for the United States Army Air Corps.
In the 1950’ and 1960’s, “The Little Women of Panama City” of Bay High were engaged in community improvement projects. In 2008, under Jan Gainer’s leadership, the Mosley Dolphin Juniorettes was established. Interested in community service, 72 young women worked on projects that run alongside their “mother club”. Whether it was adapting boxer shorts for the wounded military, donating socks to foster care centers, or bringing an awareness to adoptable pets at Bay Animal Control, these girls brought a breath of fresh air to doing good deeds and gained valuable volunteer experience. Today, some of these young women play a significant role in our community.
In support of the international GFWC and GFWC Florida action plans, our members have actively participated in local charities and programs of interest to the club and our community. Working with other community organizations has allowed the club to reach beyond itself in the community. Partnering with the Chamber of Commerce, the Panama City Kiwanis Club, the three organizations were able to raise enough funds for paying teachers and keeping the schools open during the Great Depression. Our club was instrumental in helping to organize the efforts to finance the construction of the Junior Museum in 1967. In 2000, we became a founding member of the Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC) to help abused children. In addition to contributing over $18,000, a member of the Woman’s Club partnered with Pam Smoak in a capital campaign that raised near $2,000,000 for this much needed facility on 11th Street.
Over the years the club supported the establishment of the McKelvie Home, Anchorage Children’s Home and the Salvation Army. We have expanded outreach to help local disadvantaged schools and Girls, Inc with tutoring and school supplies, and funded a scholarship program at Haney Technical School to help women pursue career training. We work with and collect supplies for local domestic violence programs, food banks and teen outreach programs. We volunteer with our libraries and cultural arts programs, and we are proud of our veterans’ appreciation efforts. Our Valentine’s Day Luncheon for local WW II, Korean War and Viet Nam-era veterans brings us as much joy as it does them. Then as now, we make a difference every day.
What started in 1913 still exists over a hundred years later. The oldest civic organization in town, the Woman’s Club of Panama City has grown up with Bay County. The ladies used to meet once per week with their knitting needles. Now we meet with I-pads and cell phones on Zoom! Still, there are hungry kids in need of health care. Somewhere there still wanders an occasional pig in the Cove. And, no doubt, there is still someone spitting on the streets. While we may not have solved the world’s problems, we have surely tried to make a difference by being united in our diversity. The spark that lit the flame still burns brightly in the hearts of our members today. We will never forget those who came before us and left their legacy of service.
About our Clubhouse
In the early days, the Woman’s Club ladies met at a clubhouse on West Beach Drive. Then in 1936, real estate developer H.L. Sudduth donated the land on which our current clubhouse was built. Additions were made in 1960 and 1975 to bring it to its current configuration. A new front entrance stairway and handicap-accessible ramp were later added to the 4th Street side of the building. In January 2013, the Woman’s Club of Panama City celebrated its 100th Anniversary with a splendid event. In 2017, several of our members began working with the Bay County Historical Society to have our Clubhouse officially designated as a “Historic Building”. In April 2018, our Clubhouse was formally re-dedicated with a handsome plaque in recognition of its historic status. This building stands as a testament to the hard work and dedication of its members. It not only serves as the setting for monthly membership luncheons and CSP meetings, it has become a popular rental venue for weddings, receptions and community meetings.
On October 10, 2018, our community, our building and our lives were devastated by Hurricane Michael. Our homes, our cities and our beloved Clubhouse suffered considerable damage. But women like us are resilient. We sorted through the rubble to attack our challenges head-on. We met at the Clubhouse when the bare beams of ceiling were exposed. Like our sisters before us, we were determined to move forward. We rebuilt our Clubhouse with our community’s help, the support of our members and an SBA disaster loan. We celebrated with an Open House which signaled to our members and our community that our Grand Old Lady is back and in better shape than ever.
In spite of all that has happened to our members, our community and our Clubhouse, we have and will continue to “Live the Volunteer Spirit”.