What is that white building with the sign that says Little River Improvement Club, the one with the red geranium in the window? Is it a private club? Who belongs to it?
“I’ve been asked those questions again and again,” says Elma Bryant, the 95-year-old president of the board of directors that owns and stewards Little River’s community center. “Improvement Club is the name they gave community centers and service organizations in the 1880s when that building was built, it’s the name of a non-profit organization and the building,” she states firmly, and a story begins to unfold.
It starts in Maine in 1864. Lincoln was president, and the Civil War was ending. Isaiah Stevens, a widower, married Rebecca Coombs, and they left for California with three of Isaiah’s six children: Etta Emily, Rebecca and Rachel. Etta’s diary recounts the trip.
“June 4, 1864: Father and Rachel went to Windham, Maine to see his aged mother. June 20: Oh, how hard it is to leave our dear home, friends and loved ones for Cal and strangers. We boarded the Eastern Queen steamer, went out the Kennebec River into Atlantic Ocean and up to Boston last night. July 2: We had a pleasant time going across the Isthmus of Panama. Came on board the steamer Constitution. July 18: Entered the Golden Gate and got into San Francisco. July 20: Took the stage … stopped for (lunch) at Healdsburg and arrived at Cloverdale at 6 o’clock. July 22: Traveled in express wagon and part in a covered stage, us young folks had to walk up most hills. July 23: Got to Little River at 9 a.m.”
The diaries go on to tell how the family thrived in Little River; the daughters married, the community grew, and in 1885 Isaiah donated a part of his farm to build a town hall. He gave the land to the Independent Order of Good Templars to oversee and maintain. The Little River mill donated the lumber: old growth redwood exterior planks two inches thick and massive beams to frame the building. The men of the community gathered and built the hall, the women brought them lunch.
Etta and Rachel’s diaries tell of parties, funerals, fiddle music and dancing, women’s club and fraternal organization meetings, an annual Christmas bazaar to raise money for improvements and needy families, and the bell in its tower that rang in the new year.
“An earthquake shook the building completely off its foundation, but it was so solid, it suffered no other damage. The men just jacked it up and put new supports under it,” says president Elma, “but that was way before my time.”
The Independent Order of Good Templars was the town’s fraternal organization, and the women formed Little River’s only other service organization: the Little River Improvement Club. In 1914 Etta’s diary notes: “November, 1914: Voting at Hall for a dry county. The local Good Templars, having accomplished their goals, disbanded, and maintenance and management of the hall fell to the women of the town’s Improvement Club.”
The community continued to use the building. It housed the first telephone switchboard. The women opened a library in the hall, had community Christmas events, voting, meetings and parties. The Improvement Club got the community together to maintain the cemetery. When the Little River School burned, the students were moved into the Improvement Club Hall until a new school was built. The postmistress ran a hose from her house to the building so it would have water. Electricity came, cars happened, Highway 1 was widened, and the men of Little River met at the hall to set up sentries to guard the coast during World War I and II. The women met to knit bandages and socks for soldiers and had fund-raising events to support the Red Cross.
“May 23, 1918: I made more cookies for Red Cross party tonight although too lame and miserable (from shingles) to go to the Hall. Sunday, May 23, 1920: Telephone meeting at Hall. Mr. Mallory, Sr. elected president.”
Progress happened, the town aged. The Little River mills and businesses burned, were rebuilt, and finally closed as the timber resource was used up and the local industry evolved into a larger, centralized mill in Fort Bragg. The women of the Improvement Club continued to meet at the hall and organize community improvement projects, a new roof for the building, signage for Little River, and support for community families.
In the 50s the board of directors of the Improvement Club officially bought the building by paying back taxes and became a non-profit whose goal it is to maintain and preserve the building and to improve the community of Little River. In the 70s Warren Zimmer used it as an art gallery and offered classes in the hall. But as the building got older it became more and more expensive to maintain and donated labor and materials became scarce. It lacked water and sanitary facilities, and the kitchen’s wood cook stove was uniquely unattractive for parties and events. The county stopped using it as a polling place in the 1990s, and as the world moved into a new century, the proud old building stood cold, damp and closed.
New businesses and new people came to the coast. Isaiah Steven’s original home became a bed and breakfast, and owners Higgins and Sharon Williams generously painted the Improvement Club building, kept the windows washed, and donated an easement to provide water.
“It’s a beautiful old building,” notes Sharon, “it’s a part of our history and it deserves a little attention.”
Today the Little River Improvement Club building is the last structure in Little River with its full historic integrity intact, but it needs a new foundation in order to return to public use.
New members have joined the Improvement Club board and provided the support needed to launch the community on a program to put in a new foundation, spruce up the interior, and reopen the building. They envision a small museum area to house Etta and Rachel’s diaries, along with furniture, papers and materials that comprise Little River’s history, with a kitchen and space for gatherings.
Two rummage sales and a small grant have launched the restoration fund. We have 15 percent toward the goal of a new foundation. The Little River Improvement Club invites the community and interested persons to receive our newsletter and join us in our efforts to save Little River’s historic community center. Please contact us at 937-2545 or email us at LRIC@mcn.org.
By Ronnie James, vice president, Little River Improvement Club