In the worldwide pro-democracy movement, a difficulty frequently cited is the lack of indigenous civic organizations. Fort Lauderdale had no such problem after the turn of the last century; civic groups sprang up like daisies in the emerging city.
Among the three earliest and most active were the Woman’s Club, the Rotary Club, and the local chapter of the Red Cross.
First on the scene in a big way was the Woman’s Club, begun on Jan. 11, 1911. According to an early newspaper report, it was only two months later “that our little town became a city and elected a mayor, W.H. Marshall.” The club’s first big affair was “entertaining the mayor and newly elected state officials at the beautiful home of its president, Mrs. F.R. Oliver.”
The club’s dozen or so charter members grew to 29 by October of that year and they “raised about $80.” In its first 15 years, the group began the invaluable service of gathering books in members’ homes until a site for a public library was found. The women also donated money toward a new firehouse, planted grass on school grounds, placed trash cans at street corners and assisted in planting royal palms along Las Olas Boulevard. In 1920, the members pushed for and secured a city ordinance keeping poultry and livestock off the streets.
Among the club’s most active presidents was Ivy Stranahan who, along with her husband Frank, donated a site for the clubhouse and initiated many other efforts, including schools for the underprivileged. It was during her tenure that the club’s early name – “The Ladie’s Civic Improvement Society” – was changed to The Fort Lauderdale Woman’s Club.
“The first Rotarian was the first man to call John the Baptist ‘Jack,’” H.L. Mencken is supposed to have said. Easy for him to say, living as he did in the thriving city of Baltimore. But in the little ’burb of Fort Lauderdale, Rotary – whose motto is “Service Above Self” – was highly valued and needed.
In 1922, the year newspaperman John Sherwin became Rotary’s first president, the city’s population hovered near 2,200 and the county’s near 6,000. Committed to developing the city’s business and political leadership, Sherwin founded the Fort Lauderdale Herald to compete with the Lauderdale Sentinel. He is credited with spearheading the movement to split Broward County off from Dade.
Rotary was involved in areas of business ranging from the chambers of commerce to Port Everglades. Rotary leaders were also instrumental in establishing the first hospital, the first Episcopal church and even the first tourist hotel. The organization, its members would say, reflected the words not of Mencken but of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who called it “a force of incalculable value in creating civic and international consciousness.” The names of Rotarians are found today on bridges, schools and parks throughout the city.
While other civic organizations later emerged – the Professional Women’s Club, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Boys and Girls Clubs – war and weather were behind the creation of one of the city’s most essential organizations: the Red Cross. A familiar surname comes up here: The Stranahans were among a group of civic leaders who met to establish the local chapter.
From a typewritten copy on file at the Fort Lauderdale History Center, we read summations of early Red Cross efforts from the Fort Lauderdale Herald. On June 29, 1917, “the first box of supplies containing bandages has been shipped by the local Red Cross organization.” A new shipment being put together “will contain shirts, pajamas, pillow cases, wash rags, hospital aprons, etc. They are still in need of money, muslin and helpers.” Presumably, this was for soldiers on the front in World War I.
Locally, the Red Cross provided assistance after the devastating storm of 1939. Working with other city groups, it also placed 75 people in permanent jobs, further proving itself to be yet another force of incalculable value.