Kate Breuning, the historian of The Kalmia Club (visit their website) and her husband Jim moved to Lambertville in 1985. Their house is featured on the “Discover NJ History” license plate, which was established by the New Jersey Historic Trust to support historic preservation activities. Following is a lightly edited version of her presentation to LHS on April 18, 2021—a recording is here.
In 1892 a group of 45 women with interests in reading and intellectual pursuits formed “The Reading Circle,” renamed a year later “The Kalmia Club” in honor of the mountain laurel, kalmia latifolia. They met in each other’s homes to discuss literature, art, gardening, music, and drama. To be asked to join was an honor and the women, many of them wealthy, dressed for meetings in hats and gloves. In 1897, the Kalmia Club joined the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, an international organization dedicated to community improvement through volunteer service.
The Kalmia Club’s president in 1898, Lillie Arndt Williams, was a remarkable Lambertville native. An instructor at the New Jersey State Normal School (now The College of New Jersey), she was the second woman in the U.S. to establish a psychology laboratory. According to this biography, “…her contributions to child study research, and her development and delivery of the early psychology curriculum both reflected and shaped the landscape of psychological science and practice at the turn-of-the last century.”
The clubhouse is a distinctive Lambertville landmark. It was built around 1870, first used as a boys’ school, and then as a meetinghouse for the Society of Friends (Quakers). In 1910 the Friends gifted the building to Kalmia.
During the 1920’s, most years were given a motto, such as “The World is full of a number of things; I’m sure we should all be happy as kings” (1920-1921), and “America First, not merely in matters material but in things of spirit.” (1925-1926).
Educational fortnightly meetings during the 1930’s addressed topics such as “The Present Situation in Germany,” “Life in Labrador,” and “Facts Concerning Marihuana [sic].” During World War II, the Kalmia Clubhouse was used as a Red Cross surgical dressing station, and Princeton University Professor Robert Albion delivered guest lectures on “World Affairs.” Afternoon teas were restarted after the war, then permanently discontinued.
In the 1950’s, typical meeting topics were “Patriotism – an American Tradition” and “What’s Doing in Washington.” Things lightened up by 1958-1959 and meetings returned to traditional fare. “A Night at the Theatre with Michael Ellis,” “Lights Across the Delaware,” and “My Fair Lady” were big hits.
During the 1960’s, meetings became monthly affairs. Potluck suppers, Christmas parties, bus trips to New York, and evenings with St. John Terrell were delightful. The 1969 motto: “May we put away all pretense and meet each other face to face without self-pity and without prejudice.”
Picnics, piano recitals, plays, singing and potlucks continued during the 1970’s. Titusville’s Paul Keefer was a popular guest speaker about his visits to the Panama Canal. In the 80’s, with all the new people in town (like yours truly), Kalmia rolled with the tide. In February 1986 Linda Cunningham, executive editor of the Times of Trenton, gave a talk on “The Changing Role of Women in Media.”
In 1995 the Lambertville Community Cookbook was born. The recipes, some of them in memory of family or friends, came from many different people and organizations. A very successful fundraiser for Kalmia, the Cookbook features extraordinary artwork and valuable historical snippets.
On June 1, 1996, the Kalmia Club introduced “The Hidden Gardens of Lambertville,” a self-guided tour that became a popular fundraiser. Waterfalls, lush greens, fountains, blooming plants, and fish ponds are some of the delights that tourgoers see every year.
In the new century, the Kalmia Club continued its membership in the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. January Book Club Night began. The 100th Anniversary of the institution of the Kalmia Clubhouse was celebrated July 1, 2010.
Kalmia has continued to roll along until the pandemic halted in-person activities and silenced the club— and most of the world. We look forward to getting together again when we can.