Service League Has Long History of Helping Community
Since the Service League of Cherokee County’s inception 87 years ago, its volunteer group of women has dedicated thousands of hours to hands-on assistance and fundraising to help children in need.
The organization traces its history to March 28, 1935, when a small group of women in the city of Canton came together with plans to help children and conduct charity work in the community by forming the Service League of Canton.
The organization eventually became the Service League of Cherokee County and continues to take that mission forward, funding medical care, basic needs, scholarships and Christmas gifts for children.
As the country struggled to emerge from the throes of the Great Depression, the women who started the Service League in 1935 made it their mission to assist those under the age of 12.
Charter members included President Mrs. R. Tyre Jones, Vice President Mrs. H.G. Vandiviere, Recording Secretary Mrs. J.E. Darnell, Corresponding Secretary Mrs. Ed Garlington, Treasurer Mary Lee Johnston, and Chairman Ways and Means Committee Mrs. Rube Jones. Other charter members were Mrs. A.V. Jones Jr., Mrs. John S. Wood and Blanche Jones.
That first year, the newly formed organization held a bridge and rook tournament at the Hotel Canton and a Christmas tree party for distributing gifts to children in need.
By 1937, fundraising efforts were expanded with a carnival at Brown Park in Canton, which included a pet parade, pony rides, cake walks, a marionette show and clowns.
An ongoing project in the 1930s and ’40s was the Milk Fund, which provided monies to public schools to provide milk for underprivileged children. The league also began supplying groceries and clothing directly to families with children in need of assistance.
During World War II, the club grew to 25 women, who in 1943-44 donated more than 2,000 hours of service. In 1945, Service League members sold war bonds, assisted in sorting and packing clothes for the United Nations clothing drive, and continued to help children 12 and under in the community.
With the war years over, in 1950 the league held a Milk Fund Ball at the Canton Golf Club, with admission of $1.50 per couple. The money raised helped members supply 78 half pints of milk each day to underprivileged school children.
The ’50s were busy for Service League members as they tested hearing and eyesight at Canton Elementary School, cataloged and repaired books at the public library and published a cookbook.
In 1956, the Service League members assisted 351 children with food, clothing, transportation and medical needs. They assisted the county health nurses to administer polio vaccines to grade school children and assisted 35 families at Christmas.
By the end of the decade, in 1959-60, league members opened a thrift shop in downtown Canton, where members volunteered to sort and sell gently used clothing. Within a year, the thrift shop was generating enough income for the organization to become self-supporting.
In 1960, membership increased from 25 to 30 members, and the club marked its 25th anniversary. The organization commemorated the anniversary by donating $500 to the nursery and formula room at R.T. Jones Memorial Library.
During the ’60s, the league decided to increase its assistance with hearing tests in the local public school and host an annual Service League Ball, to raise money to assist the school system in hiring a speech pathologist and purchase an audiometer for testing.
Almost 1,500 children were tested annually for hearing issues with help from the league. By 1969, two speech therapists were hired for the school system.
“I was invited to join the Service League by Reinhardt friend Sue Ellen Turner as soon as I moved to Canton. What a great way to meet new acquaintances who, in retrospect, have become lifelong friends,” said former Service League member JoEllen Wilson (1969-79). “I remember folding used clothing and getting ready for Saturday sales in the thrift shop, located upstairs where Downtown Kitchen is now. Working on our assigned Saturdays allowed us to make other friends, since our clientele were almost always repeat customers.”
The thrift shop continued to be a means of fundraising, as well as a resource to help families in need with clothing. The league also began partnering with the state welfare department to determine families in need.
“One of the most enjoyable and rewarding tasks was visiting families needing support at Christmas. I always took my twin sons,” Wilson recalled. “They were able to appreciate their own Christmas gifts more because they saw families that would not have Christmas except for the assistance the Service League provided. Those 10 years meeting new friends and helping children in Cherokee County remain some of my very favorite memories.”
In the years leading up to the league’s 50th anniversary in 1980, funds were raised to redo the playground at Brown Park. The league also began funding college scholarships for graduating seniors, putting together educational treasure chests for use in the school system to teach local history, and starting the Follies as a new fundraiser.
“I remember what great fun it was to meet so many new friends and be on stage dancing and singing just like on Broadway,” Wilson said. “I’m still friends with many folks I met during the Follies and would not have had that opportunity, except for our unforgettable memories.”
In 1985, the Service League, in addition to starting Riverfest Arts and Crafts Festival, published its second cookbook, “League Legacy.” In 1994, the cookbook was updated to be named “Cherokee Entertains.” The league published two more cookbooks, “A Taste of Tradition” in 2004 and “Gatherings and Traditions” in 2013. The cookbooks have provided a steady and significant source of funds, which the Service League uses to continue to meet the needs of children throughout the county.
Going stronger than ever, this month, Riverfest celebrates its 38th anniversary as one of the Service League’s most successful fundraising events. Earlier this year, the organization awarded its first Heritage of Hope award recognizing a community member making a difference in the lives of children, and the league’s 100 women donated more than 10,000 volunteer hours and $100,000 to helping children in need in the community.
For more information, visit serviceleague.net.
– Rebecca Johnston is a Cherokee County native, with more than 35 years of experience as a community journalist. She served 10 years in the Service League of Cherokee County, 1982-92, and now is an honorary member.