The Women's Association of Hilton Head Island started with a simple goal.
Seven friends gathered to sip iced tea on the porch of Nancy McBride's Sea Pines home one afternoon in 1960, according to a history of the association compiled by former president Jackie Cordray. The topic came up of Coligny Circle, which consisted of a slightly larger area than what it is known as today. Coligny Circle, they felt, could be spruced up.
And that was the germination of the women's association. But at first, it wasn't even considered a women's association. It was just a garden club.
The Hilton Head Island Garden Club was formed with 23 charter members in 1961. Annual dues were $1. McBride became the first president.
They worked Mondays at the circle. They cleared vines, weeds and picked up trash. They got the Sea Pines Company to clear dead trees and trim limbs. They put up small signs that prevented parking and traipsing through their new beautiful part of Hilton Head.
And just like that, the garden club had its first major impact on the island. The group has evolved to take on a much larger purpose than the beautification projects they did during the early days. It came to be at a time when the area was still sparsely populated, and it grew to accommodate a population looking to create something special on a largely undeveloped island. Over the past 50 years, it's become one of the most influential service groups in the island's history.
In honor of its 50th anniversary, the association will hold its high tea May 4 at the Coastal Discovery Museum. The group has donated $15,000 to the museum, and it will get a plaque placed on the front porch of the farm house on the property.
It marks a bit of a full circle for the association, whose first president, Billie Hack, lived with her husband, Fred, on the Honey Horn property where the museum now resides.
But even before Hack led the group, it already had changed the island.
The garden club continued with similar beautification work in the early years, planting swaths of azaleas at the circle or cleaning up old cemeteries. As more people came to the island, the popularity of the garden club grew. It grew to the point where members were unsure they could continue meeting in homes like they usually did.
At that point, president Ruth White made a suggestion. She had been with an Army wives club that had interest groups. The interest groups allowed for the large club to be broken down into more intimate gatherings.
The idea took, and in May 1965, the garden club became the women's association, electing Hack president. Interest groups started meeting regularly to discuss topics such as literature, bridge, gardening and civic service.
The association began to do things that might be taken for granted in other communities. The Newcomers Committee held gatherings for new islanders with coffees in members' homes. The association produced a newsletter in 1965. Before, the main distributor of news on the island was a bulletin board outside a Coligny Plaza bank building, where meeting announcements and notices of things for sale were posted. The Island Packet used the association's subscriber list when it was established in 1970.
"(The association) was one of the only games in town at that point," Cordray said.
Interest groups grew to number in the dozens. The entire association gathered for four meetings held each year. Throughout the years, speakers ranged from "Gullah Gullah Island" stars Ron and Natalie Daise to novelist Dorothea Benton Frank. Gatherings are held for holidays and an annual fashion show has been held since the late '60s.
Dues are used to make donations, including things such as the Walter Palmer pelican statue in Shelter Cove Community Park. Thousands of dollars are given each year to local organizations, such as Heroes on Horseback or the Boys & Girls Club. One of the largest continuing programs is the Youth Awards Program, which has been the source for scholarships to local students based on community service since 1980.
The club hit its peak in the mid-'90s when its membership tallied about 1,300. But similar women's clubs started in plantations, drawing from the membership. Membership now is between 500 and 600.
Dorothy Anderson joined the association in the early '80s, making her one of the longest-standing members. She had moved to the area in 1978 after a career as an educator.
"I was new to the community," she said. "I didn't know that many people. And I like being around people. I'm a people person."
Since then, she's gone on to lead the youth awards committee and the Bookmarkers group that once brought in well-known authors to speak.
Like many others in the group, she goes not only for the service, but for the camaraderie. With the constant influx of people coming into the community looking to meet people, members feel the future of the association will be as strong as the past.
"There's always going to be people who come here, and they'll always be looking to connect to other people," Cordray said.