The Blaine County Journal News-Opinion - We've Got The County Covered

"Royal Neighbors of America chapter in Chester, Montana"

 

June 5, 2019

This undated photo shows the Chester Drill Team of the Royal Neighbors of America (RNA). This photo was taken at the IOOF Hall in Havre (that building still stands at 230 Fourth Avenue) where the all-all girl team was competing with other RNA drill teams along the Hi-Line. Adult drill team leaders pictured are: Alice Shepherd, seventh from the left and Ruth Ish, seventh from the right.

South of the Border,

Column No. 16

Columnist's note: The topic for this week's column is from nearby Chester, a town my wife and I visit regularly for shopping. In Chester I noticed a large, brown building with a tiny sign over the door that reads "RNA Hall." I flashed back to childhood when my mom, grandma and aunt were all involved in a group called Royal Neighbors of America (RNA). I recalled being dragged to RNA meetings as a preschooler to watch the goings on at the "hall" above Hobson's Tire Shop in Pinckneyville, Illinois. I found locals who knew about the RNA in Chester. Here's some of what I learned about Royal Neighbors of America Chapter #9975, the RNA Hall and the group's 80+ year role in the Chester area.

RNA: a fraternal benefit society started in 1895 by women for women

In 1895 women could not vote nor could they own property or life insurance policies in most states. That year nine women chartered Royal Neighbors of America in Illinois to provide financial security to women through life insurance and to use the group's financial resources to offer "neighbor-to-neighbor" help.

The ladies who first posed the idea of a society to sell insurance to women were wives of Modern Woodmen of America members. Woodmen is a men's fraternal order that originally sold insurance only to men. The first Woodmen camp (name came from a sermon illustration the founder liked, not logging skills) was formed in Menomonie, Wisconsin, a town about fifty miles east of Minneapolis. There was a belief in that area that Royal Neighbors was at one time an "auxiliary for women" and part of the Woodmen. I never found any real evidence to support that idea. The RNA appears to always have been an independent organization though RNA's founders did have a connection through their husbands to the Woodmen.

Royal Neighbor chapters and the group's insurance agents prospered in the upper Midwest. RNA worked for social change and service to benefit women, communities and the nation. The group was active in the early 1900's suffrage movement, provided relief effort for victims of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco and sold $13 million worth of war bonds during World War II.

Like many fraternal, volunteer and social organizations in the 1980's, Royal Neighbors experienced membership decline. In the early 2000's Cynthia Tidwell was hired as CEO and President of RNA. With experience both in developing financial services and philanthropy, Tidwell oversaw the revitalization of Royal Neighbors. The group now enjoys 200+ grassroots chapters in 43 states with 200,000 members. Through various programs RNA has assisted more than 1,000 women and their families with about $2 million in "empowerment grants" and provided $5 million in scholarships and educational grants to women. RNA now boasts assets of nearly one billion dollars, a resource the group uses to fund women's educational needs and support community improvement projects.

Royal Neighbors of America Chapter #9975 and the RNA Hall

Royal Neighbors of America Chapter #9975 in Chester was chartered in January, 1925. The "drill team" was the most mentioned youth activity the daughters of now deceased RNA members. Made up of girls from about 9-12 years old, the teams would do marching routines around an open room, dressed in their finest dresses. Betty Ann Wolery recalled traveling to Havre to compete against other RNA drill teams. Wolery said, "I remember Etta Armstrong playing the piano while we marched." Maggie Holmes said she remembered going to a similar competition at Great Falls. Although no complete list was available of regional clubs, there was a Hi-Line District for RNA with chapters in Chester, Shelby, Cut Bank, Havre, Hingham and Malta. There were likely others.

Asked about how widespread the drill teams were in other regions, Darcy Smith, a Member Engagement Specialist with the national organization of Royal Neighbors in Rock Island, Illinois said, "Oh, you're asking about what were called the "ritualistic drills." They were very popular back years ago." Locals who had been in the drill teams recoiled at the term "ritualistic." One said, "Ritualistic teams sounds like some secret society thing. No, we always referred to them as drill teams."

I'm not sure when the local RNA chapter acquired the RNA Hall. Located at the corner of Adams Avenue and 2nd St E, just south of the Liberty Quick Stop on Highway 2, the current building is the former Prairie View School moved in from south of Chester. Of the original building, one senior said, "It was badly deteriorated." It was torn down and replaced with the school building, which was moved to the current site in the early 1970's.

The Liberty County Development Corporation, per board member Lin Duffon, loaned the RNA the money to acquire and relocate the building. Back in the day the hall was used for many events from regular meetings of clubs (Rotary, a regular week night) to wedding receptions and family reunions. Betty Ann Wolery recalls she and a friend with birthdays about the same time, had their 16th birthday combined party at the hall. Others described class reunions and other large gatherings held there over the years. For a time the local food bank was there, the hall was also used as a dance studio. The club used the rent collected to pay off the mortgage to buy and move the building.

Nanogenarian Wanda Keith is one of the few surviving members of the Chester chapter of the Royal Neighbors of America (RNA) that was chartered in 1925 and ceased as a chapter in 2007. RNA was chartered in 1895 by nine women who started the fraternal, benefit society in order for women to purchase life insurance. RNA still sells insurance of several types and uses its financial resources to help women, their families and communities.

As more local event space became available in town the RNA Hall fell into disuse. Duffon said, "The Development Corporation sold the building for the RNA. The selling price basically paid off the mortgage." Per the national RNA office, the Chester chapter officially ceased to exist in December, 2007.

Patty and Philip Aaberg bought the hall around 2004. Philip said, "I remember as a young student going each week to play the piano for the Rotary Club meeting. My payment was a free dinner eaten with the club." Betty Ann Wolery told, "I used to work for Estrid Freeland who prepared meals for the Rotary Club. I would serve the meals, then wash the dishes." Many locals shared stories about significant events in their lives that occurred at the old RNA Hall.

The Aabergs have been using the building for storage and it is currently for sale. The national Royal Neighbors office reports there is one remaining RNA Chapter in Montana, in Harlowton. Royal Neighbors continue to fill an important financial service for women and help women and their families. And perhaps the old RNA Hall will yet again be repurposed and continue to serve the Chester community, creating memories for a new generation.

Learn about Royal Neighbors of America at their website: http://www.royalneighbors.org/about-us

 
 

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