UF/IFAS Spotlights: The Agricultural Women’s Club, from socials to scholarships
Over its 100-year history, the Agricultural Women’s Club at the University of Florida transformed from a social club for faculty spouses into an organization whose legacy provides scholarships for students in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.
It began in 1908 as the Experiment Station Club, the brainchild of Effie Stone Rolfs, wife of P.H. Rolfs, director of Florida Agricultural Experiment Station.
To put things in perspective, in 1908 UF’s main campus in Gainesville had only been established two years prior; there were 102 students and 15 faculty on campus—all of them male. Theodore Roosevelt was the U.S. president. It would be 12 years before the passage of the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote, and 39 years before UF officially accepted women students.
All members of the club were the wives of faculty at the Experiment Station. They met at various members’ homes to socialize, support each other and plan holiday parties or summer picnics at Lake Wauburg, Hampton Beach, Poe Springs and other local spots. Later, the club grew in membership as Extension Service, Plant Board and College of Agriculture staff and their families joined the campus.
After 1920, the club began a tradition of sending Christmas gifts to the Marcus Fagg Home in Jacksonville, later known the Children’s Home Society of Florida. This created a tradition of charitable work that would last throughout the club’s history.
In the late 1940s the group officially changed its name to the Agricultural Women’s Club. By then it had evolved from an informal social society to a charitable organization volunteering with the American Red Cross, selling war bonds and defense stamps, and collecting books for soldiers. Guest speakers were invited to visit and conduct talks about international relations, careers in nursing and improving rural nutrition. The club grew over the years, reaching a peak of 244 members in 1968.
Past members of the Agricultural Women’s Club read like a who’s who of UF history: Effie Rolfs, Anne Mowry, Nel Miller, Edith Tigert, Ann Turlington and Vam York, to name but a few.
In 1989 the club’s executive board voted to launch a program to award a $500 scholarship to female graduate students in agriculture. The first scholarship was awarded in 1990 to Jill S. Weisenberger, then a master’s student in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. Today, Jill Weisenberger is a registered dietitian nutritionist, consultant and author of several best-selling books about diabetes and nutrition.
“The scholarship came at a crucial time in my academic career,” she remembers. “I was able to finish my degree without having to pick up a part-time job. It also gave me the boost of self-confidence I needed to start a career as a business owner.”
The following year, two scholarships were awarded, and four more in 1992. A $10,000 gift from E.T. York in 1998 allowed the club to establish the annual Vam York Scholarship, named after Vermelle “Vam” York, a longtime member and past president of the Agricultural Women’s Club.
From 1990 to 2015, the club awarded 109 scholarships totaling $60,100.
In 2008, the Agricultural Women’s Club celebrated its 100th Anniversary. Members of the club, including 13 of its past presidents, met at the UF President’s House to reminisce, award four scholarships, present the AWC Woman of Distinction award to 4-H Hall of Fame inductee Hariot Greene, and announce a total of over $13,000 in donations made to a Centennial Endowed Scholarship Fund.
Due to declining membership, the organization became semi-active in 2013, and was no longer collecting dues or soliciting new members; before the club disbanded in 2015, it transferred $39,000 to the UF Foundation to fund two more $1,000 graduate student scholarships in perpetuity.
“It has been a true pleasure to work with the Agricultural Women’s Club over the years to facilitate support of our students through their scholarships,” said Elaine Turner, dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. “Their legacy as the first women’s organization and oldest social club affiliated with UF is an important piece of our collective history.”
The historical materials of the Agricultural Women’s Club, including memorabilia, scrapbooks, oral histories and records, are being curated in the Special Collections of the UF Smathers Libraries, enhancing the library’s holdings in UF and women’s history.
The parties, the picnics and the charity drives may be in the past, but the legacy of the Agricultural Women’s Club lives on in three scholarship programs for students in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, funded through the UF Foundation: The Agricultural Women’s Club Scholarship, the Dee Ann Connor Scholarship, and the Vam C. York Agricultural Scholarship.
For giving opportunities, please visit UF Advancement: https://www.uff.ufl.edu/
Special thanks to Dee Ann Connor and Kathy Kidder for their help.