Looking Back - Leading Ladies

Troy Times | Published April 21, 2020


For the first half of the 20th century, the population of Troy Township hovered at around 2,000 residents. 

People worked long, hard days on family-owned farms or built small businesses. Men who were civic-minded sought local political office, ran for the school board or served as volunteer firemen. Names like Morris Wattles, Norman Barnard, Ernest Gray and Sam Halsey are frequently found in township records and newspaper clippings.

But who were the women in Troy? What roles did they fill? Did the wives and mothers who cleaned, cooked, mended clothes and cared for children exert any influence beyond their front yards and immediate families? While history does note the contributions of some outstanding female leaders, most women of this era exerted influence through participation in organizations, rather than as individuals.

Women worked through their churches. In 1898 the Ladies Aid was established at Troy Methodist Church. Members raised money to maintain the church and parsonage. In the early 1900s the ladies reorganized as the Women’s Society of Christian Service, the precursor of today’s United Methodist Women. Monthly meetings were held in the members’ homes as it made little sense to stoke up the wood stove in the church on a cold evening. Following a Bible lesson, the women planned events like the annual fall craft bazaar and turkey dinner to benefit missionaries in foreign countries. During World War II they sent boxes of cookies to servicemen each month. Gifts were also sent to Japanese children interned in Arizona. The rosters of old officers include the names Lura Sutherland, Helen Schoonover, Winifred and, later, Edith Lockhart, Gladys Hughes, Barbara Schultz, and Leota Meserve. 

On Friday, Aug. 7, 1942, a group of women met in Big Beaver High School and organized a local chapter of the Blue Star Mothers. Madeline Haney was elected the group’s first president. Like the national organization, the local chapter of servicemen’s mothers offered support to other military families, fostered patriotism and honored those who gave their lives in service of their country. On Sept. 7, 1943, the Blue Star Mothers erected a wooden honor board on Rochester Road, north of Big Beaver Road, inscribed with the names of 623 Troy residents in service. By 1945 that number had grown to over 800. In 1949 the Blue Star Mothers erected a permanent granite monument in front of Township Hall (now the Troy Historic Village) to honor all the township residents who served in World Wars I and II. They also continued their public service by making cancer pads. While the local chapter later dissolved, the national organization remains active today.

Troy women also became Red Cross volunteers during the war. They rolled bandages and received first aid instruction in the event of an attack on American soil.

However, one of the greatest battles supported by local women was the war against polio. Every summer, polio outbreaks crippled or paralyzed thousands of Americans. In 1938 Franklin Delano Roosevelt founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to provide equipment and treatment for victims and to conduct research to develop a cure or vaccine.  Comedian Eddie Cantor coined the phrase “March of Dimes” and encouraged Americans to send their dimes to fight polio. Mothers in Troy passed out paper cards with slots for dimes to the children in school. 

Vi Smith recalled, “Everyone was scared of polio. During the summer we couldn’t go swimming or play too hard. Mothers made their kids rest frequently. Then during the school year we collected money to fight the disease.” 

The combined efforts of many local drives provided research dollars that conquered the disease. On April 12, 1955, headlines announced that the Salk vaccine was safe and effective. By the 1980s polio was eradicated in the United States. 

Troy women were not unlike the women in other small towns and big cities across the country. First and foremost they were wives, mothers and homemakers. Many became wage earners during WWII or supplemented their family incomes with part time jobs, “egg money,” and home industries. But they also made significant contributions to their communities through their churches and civic organizations. They raised funds through bake sales, craft bazaars, spaghetti suppers and pancake breakfasts. As club members, they learned new skills, and found financial and emotional support during difficult times. Then, when the business meetings were adjourned, they forged enduring friendships over cake and coffee.

While the Troy Historic Village remains closed,  visit the Troy Historic Village Facebook page for daily posts on history and activities for children and families during this challenging time. Thanks for your continued support of the Troy Historical Society and the Village.  

— Loraine Campbell, executive director of the Troy Historic Village