Junior Matrons got the job done

Not often does McMinnville teem with activist groups, but in the l940s and ’50s era, it had one memorable such group. Its members were all young mothers. For a time, it seemed that almost every young mother in McMinnville was a member. They called themselves the Junior Matrons.

When these women talked, sheriffs, mayors, teachers, listened.

This go-getter group was founded by McMinnvillan Louise Knopf in 1935. Its goal: improved care for children. Membership requirement: interest in children.

Chapters were added as membership grew. And, oh, how it grew. McMinnville over the years had 10 chapters; Dayton also had members.

Chapters were named for famous women. The founding chapter took the name of Julia, in memory of the wife of Linfield professor Albert Stout. Mary Chapter took the name of the mother of Jesus; Nancy, for Nancy Hanks Lincoln; Anna Jarvis Chapter for the Mother’s Day founder; Eleanor Chapter for Eleanor Roosevelt; Aletta, for the mother who lost five sons in a naval battle. Elizabeth Chapter, founded in 1948, honored England’s Queen. The Mahala Chapter remembered Mahala Cozine, and in 1950, a chapter, Louise, honored the Junior Matrons’ founder. Frankie Chapter, the last McMinnville chapter to form, was named for a Bend mother who lost five sons in the service. The Narcissa Chapter, formed in Dayton in 1957, remembered Narcissa Whitman.

To coordinate clout, they formed a central council of two members from each chapter. It correlated activities and occasional joint meetings. Its stated purpose: “To make the machinery of our homes run with the least possible friction and noise, so as to attain happiness in the home and good fellowship with the outside world.”

And then those Junior Matrons went into action. They expressed disapproval to McMinnville theater owner Mr. Mattecheck about the serial thrillers at Saturday matinees. Mr. Mattecheck then substituted cartoons and shows suitable for children. The McMinnville activists sent Mr. Mattecheck a thank-you.

They campaigned to put a woman, Anna Bergstrom, on the school board. She became one of the first women to so serve. They helped bring about fluoridation of McMinnville’s water supply. They worked to see that everyone over age 15 had a TB chest X-ray. They reminded City Fathers of the importance of a recreation program for people of all ages. When the McMinnville Armory was no longer available as a skating rink, they sought new space.

They circulated petitions for kindergartens and sex education. They wrote to the Oregon Department of Transportation requesting traffic lights at Columbus and the high school. They went to PTA meetings.

They became the eyes and ears of McMinnville. They sent members to tour the city jail, whereupon Mayor R. H. Windishar came to a Junior Matrons’ meeting to discuss jail conditions and a new jail’s cost.

They let the school district know they disapproved of junior high students playing out-of-town games. They were invited to McMinnville High School so members could be apprised of a proposed driving course. They attended school board meetings, as noted in their recorded minutes: “Frances reported back that the school budget would cost each taxpayer about $2 less than the previous year because of increased state funds.” Minutes in 1947 noted: “Lois talked to school board members about the bond issue for the new grade school.”

Never did they forget the Junior Matrons’ founding purpose: improved care of children. They took turns giving lessons at meetings: “Is Your Child Still Wetting the Bed?” “How Far Shall We Trust Our Teenagers?” “County Health Nurse, Miss Johnson, gave a very interesting lecture on development and birth of a baby.”

When a member suggested they do something to help the community in event of another war, they opted to take a first-aid course. When the community needed a job done, the activists often were called on. They sponsored Brownie troops and Bloodmobiles. They collected for the March of Dimes. They stuffed Easter Seal envelopes. They subscribed to Parents’ Magazine. They helped at well-baby clinics. When sugar was rationed during the war, they voted not to serve candy and nuts at meetings. They learned about artificial respiration, held a quiz on who was boss in their families, had a heated discussion at a meeting about “smooching.” They bolstered finances by earning 20 cents per member who attended a cooking school at the Lark Theater, sponsored by Farnham Electric.

Activism did not keep them out of the kitchen. Apparently, all were excellent cooks, as minutes of meetings recorded: “Helen served delicious chocolate cake,” “Eleanor served a tasty old-fashioned dessert of gingerbread and ice cream,” “Joy House (still a McMinnville resident) served a delicious peanut butter pie.”

Faithfully, the Telephone-Register recorded accounts of these meetings in almost every edition.

Those activists also realized the value of socializing. On Mother’s Day, they took themselves en masse to a movie: “Ma and Pa Kettle Back on the Farm.” They played Cootie at meetings. They had a hanky shower for a member who moved to Salem and mailed her hankies in envelopes. They entertained spouses at Randall’s Chuck Wagon, Salem, “heartily enjoyed the smorgasbord and after a feeble attempt to get the men to dance gave up and visited.” They chartered a bus to go to Dorchester House at the coast for dinner, but cancelled because some members feared getting carsick.

Their families grew. Member Jean won kudos for timing her son’s birth without ever missing a meeting. Minutes frequently noted such as, “It’s a girl for Gene and Grace,” “It’s a boy for Anne and Jerry.”

They grew older. They reported grandchildren. Membership declined. Chapters disbanded.

But not the Mary Chapter. Its members continued meeting — not wanting to end the friendships they made over the years. In 1990, at Michelbook, they held a 50th anniversary event, and five of the original 16 members attended. McMinnvillan Bernice Brown was one of Mary Chapter’s charter members.

And so McMinnville’s “activist” group — activists because they were active — is no more, but our community will long experience benefits of what Junior Matrons accomplished.

Elaine Rohse can be reached at rohse5257@comcast.net.

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