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Column: The Book Club keeps turning pages a century after its creation
Johnny_Vardeman
Johnny Vardeman

The Book Club started a century ago with four prominent women of Gainesville wanting to discuss literature among themselves while also promoting reading in the community. 

Elizabeth Kimbrough Hosch, Willie Belle Jackson, Gertrude Williams and Kate Simmons were the first members who founded the organization in 1922. They would be pleased to know members today are still reading and reporting on books and enjoying programs on a variety of topics.

Those four each chose another member to join them and, generation after generation, The Book Club has turned its pages with no signs of fading as so many other such organizations have over the years.

It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say Hall County Library owes its existence at least in part to The Book Club. Members, who started a lending library among themselves, pushed for a public library, which few of them ever saw come to pass. But early on, they donated their books to a library open to the public that was started by member Lillie Farrar Downey in Grace Episcopal Church.

When a new courthouse was built after the 1936 tornado, a public library opened in its basement with books from the church library among its first collections.

The Book Club’s first president was Mrs. W.L. Logan, and she was followed by such prominent women of the time, Mrs. E.E. Kimbrough, Mrs. H.H. Perry, Mrs. Lester Hosch, Mrs. Edgar B. Dunlap and Mrs. Downey, whose husband founded Downey Hospital, the only such facility in Hall County for many years.

Descendants of the founders and other pioneer members, such as the Kimbroughs, Hosches, Garners and Dunlaps have kept The Book Club vibrant. 

Neal Dunlap Hughs, whose mother, grandmother and aunt were members of The Book Club, has researched its history through yearbooks and newspaper accounts over the years. She says one might think those early club meetings were mere “tea parties,” as members met in each other’s homes. However, programs included discussions of Nobel Prize winners, “progressive democracy” and the empress of China.

Mrs. Logan even gave a program on Benito Mussolini long before the Italian dictator became America’s enemy in World War II.

Notes Dunlap found cautioned members, “Hold your report to one hour.”

Lynda Askew is the current president, the Rev. Betsy Jennings Powell vice president, Diane Turnbull secretary and Mary Carden treasurer. The Rev. Powell’s mother, Elizabeth Jennings, was a longtime dedicated member.

Unlike early days when member hostesses would break out their silver service, linen napkins and best china for meetings in their homes, gatherings now are more casual at different places, such as the Northeast Georgia History Center or Chattahoochee Country Club. For years, The Book Club met faithfully on Fridays. That was changed some years ago to 3:30 on a Thursday afternoon September through May. It held its 100th anniversary celebration last week.

Programs still include discussion of books, but timely topics, too. For instance, the club had a Zoom discussion with Suzanne Woods Fisher, author of “The Moonlight School,” about a night school that taught reading to residents of Appalachia.

Twenty-seven active members are in the club today, just as it was originally set up. When a member reaches age 75, she becomes a sustaining member. There are 17 of those today. Active members provide programs one year, serve as hostess another year and have no duties a third year. Members are nominated by other members, and legacy links, those whose kin were members, usually are approved.

Sally Darden, who recently became a sustaining member, believes that the intergenerational aspect of The Book Club is one reason for its longevity. Older members enjoy interaction with the younger members, she said, and all appreciate the programs, especially group discussions of books.

Members look forward to the meetings, and obviously are looking forward to many more chapters of a history that is still being written.


Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; 770-532-2326; or johnnyvardeman@gmail.com. His column publishes weekly.