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Co-Op Club is 80 years strong

Lawrence County has an 80-year-old friend that has been helping the area since it was just an infant.

The old friend has healed the sick, helped fight wars, and brought knowledge to the groups that needed it most. That friend is the Ironton Co-Operative Club.

The club, which got its start in 1925, has a history of constant evolution, but consistent aid to those civic and health issues that the club supports. With the Ironton Co-Op Club, it's truly "women and children first."

"We want to provide education opportunities, specifically for women and children," Virginia Bryant, 20-year club member said. "And we like to promote civic endeavors and anything going on in the city."

That's a brief encapsulation of a massive 8-decade long body of public service, one that has always been aimed at improving the lives of the people of Ironton and the surrounding areas.

The early years

In the 1930s, the club strived to support polio sufferers, hosting a birthday call to help purchase braces, crutches and corrective shoes for polio patients. Tuberculosis was another blight of the time that the organization set its sights on.

It was also during that time that the Co-Op Club began assisting Lawrence County General Hospital, which they continued to do until its closing in 2001. Members furnished a room, purchased medical equipment and gave volunteer hours at the hospital, even occasionally serving as watchwomen of sorts, helping to keep the hallways quiet.

In the next decade the club was preoccupied, in the way that the entire nation was, with war. The club bought war bonds, and sold them at downtown booths, and refreshments were served at meetings, the proceeds from this were directed to purchasing war stamps.

They also bolstered the war effort by donating to Red Cross and the USO and hosting enlistment rallies for the WACS and WAVES.

The 60s slowdown

The woman's liberation movement that took place in the following decades actually slowed down most women's organizations, and according to Bryant, the Co-Op club was no exception.

"After that occurred, all women's clubs declined in the 50s, 60s and 70s, more and more women went to work and they didn't have time for civic clubs," Bryant said, "Because most of the meetings for those clubs took place in the afternoon."

One might think that when faced with dropping attendance, the club might turn to male members, but the thought never crossed their collective minds.

"We don't allow men, 'no boys allowed,'" laughs Bryant. "One woman said, 'I'd blackball any man's name that was put in. This is a woman's club!'"

Not ones to be deterred, the Co-Op Club continued to seek out new and innovative forms of public service. It was 1968 when the first Co-Op Club Homes Tour began and has been an autumnal tradition ever since.

The next generation

It was a far more recent homes tour that led to the club's invitation to one of the club's newest members, 29-year-old Elizabeth Slagel. When she joined in December, she was surprised at the amount of work that was put in by the members.

"I was very impressed," Slagel said. "I had no idea that they do as much as they do."

Slagel's tale isn't uncommon, recent years have seen an infusion of young blood in the Co-Op Club, which has given them the energy and womanpower to launch some exciting side-projects.

"We've gotten a lot of young members in the last couple of years," Bryant said. "They've been a big help, they're very energetic and they work really hard. They're good members."

That doesn't mean that just anybody may join the concerned ladies of the Co-Op Club, which fills its ranks by invitation only. Peggy Smith, a 53-year member, said that they know a true member right away.

They're looking, if you will, for a few good women.

"They're an interested person, a community-minded person, a civic-minded person," Smith said with a smile. "Right now, I have a committee, and I have three new members on it that are so enthusiastic, and it just does my heart good, I kept saying 'I can't do what you do girls, but I'm behind you 100 percent.'"

On their own steam

In 2002, the club presented a program for the unveiling of a historical marker at Tanks Memorial Stadium. The event, attended by John Bankert, Director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was impressive enough to net the attention of ESPN who presented a story on the stadium later that year.

Just last week, the group had an 80th anniversary celebration, with a fashion show using members as models that presented eight decades of different fashions from 1925 to 2005.

Special events such as these are always performed in addition to the club's annual activities, such as the homes tour, a craft show, and, more recently, a flower sale.

Each January, after a year of fund-raising events, the club disperses its money where they believe it will do the most good, with two-thirds going to women's and children's education, and one-third to civic causes.

Groups distributing funds to the needy are not uncommon, but Bryant believes it's the way the group raises those monies that sets them apart and, to an extent, defines them.

"It's the type of fund-raisers we have, they're things that people enjoy," Bryant said. "I think those are the kind you should have, not asking people or businesses to support your projects. We just do it."