Pauline Schneider considers herself a life-time member of the The Fort Zarah Club. The former Home Demonstration Unit was organized on Feb. 11, 1929, at the home of Hazel McDonald, Schneider’s mother.
“So I have been in it for 86 years, more or less,” Schneider said. Officially, she has a 60-year club membership pin.
“We were a Unit for a number of years. Now we’re just a social club,” she said.
The club was named after Fort Zarah, the fort built 2 miles east of present-day Great Bend in the 1860s to protect the Santa Fe Trail. Initially there were 24 members, but the numbers grew during World War II.
In 1939 they had 30 members — too many to meet in a home, club historians note. So the members started raising money for a clubhouse. It took 12 years of serving food at farm sales, raffling homemade quilts and so on. One year they entered a float in the Hoisington Labor Day Parade and earned $15 in prize money toward the cause.
During the war, the Fort Zarah Club filled a role similar to the Military Moms group of present day. They made cookies which were sent to soldiers, and held a picnic for soldiers at the air base.
“Quite a few sons and neighbors were in the service,” Schneider said.
After the war, an empty barracks eventually became their prized clubhouse. It was purchased on April 14, 1947, and located at the end of 24th St. east of Great Bend. The building was sold in 1970.
The club archives include scrapbooks filled with old photos and Great Bend Tribune articles. There are photos of a high tea held at the clubhouse, with members wearing fancy hats.
Through the years there were many money making projects to serve the community. One memorable meeting was held in the Barton County Jail. Lew Becker was sheriff and his wife Ellen was a member of the club. She fed the club members ham and bean for their time in the hoosegow, and everyone dressed up as dance hall girls or characters from the television show, “Gunsmoke.”
“I was Chester and Marilyn Button was Miss Kitty,” Schneider said.
Starting in the mid-1940s, members began helping the Red Cross whenever the “bloodmobile” came to town. Their role has lessened over the years, but they still bring cookies to the donation sites.
Home Demonstration Units in Kansas began in 1914 and were originally known at Community Clubs, then Farm Bureau Units and then Extension Homemaker Units. They still exit, although they are now known as Family and Community Education Units. They are primarily used for family and community education. But long after the Fort Zarah members needed lessons on how to stretch a grocery budget or wash clothes economically, this group of remarkable women continued to meet, for service and for fellowship.
Longtime member Mae Weaver, who came to Great Bend as a Barton County Home Economist in 1950, rarely missed a meeting until her death in 2013.
Many of the members and former members of the club have 50-year pins. Today, the Fort Zarah Club has 10 members, including four who are descendents of the original members.
To celebrate the club’s anniversary, members held a luncheon on Feb. 5 at the River Bend Assisted Living.