Marietta Reading Club nears 150th anniversary

Formed in the midst of the American Civil War, the Marietta Reading Club has been a source of intellectual stimulation for area residents for nearly 150 years.

Twice a month, from October to March, the members of the literary club gather at the Betsey Mills Club to dine, hear a pair of readings and educational program on a topic, and then discuss said topic.

In addition to being the oldest literary society west of the Allegheny Mountains, the club is unique in a variety of ways.

For example, membership is by invitation from one of the club’s current members.

Robert Hill, who has been a member of the club for 44 years, recalled that he and his wife were invited to join the club shortly after he moved to Marietta in 1969 to teach political science at Marietta College.

“Fellow professor Robert L. Jones was a long-standing member of the club and at the time the secretary. I would hear him call the newspaper the morning after the meetings and dictate the minutes. So I really enjoyed it when the dean of the college asked if (my wife and I) would care to join,” he said.

Also unique for a club of that age is the fact that all 150 years of minutes, with very few exceptions, have been maintained in Marietta College’s special collections, said current secretary Mark Miller.

“I think that speaks to the idea that the early people in the club felt this was something that would continue and these minutes were something that should be kept for posterity,” he said.

This year, as the club held its first meeting Oct. 1, some of those minutes became a part of the readings, as the club began celebrating its pending 2014 sesquicentennial.

In fact, reading club member Kim Huggins, used some of those early minutes to tie stories from the club’s origins into the dinner that begins each meeting.

“They used to always have the meals at a host or hostesses’ house. During one of the earliest meetings a server dropped all of the peas on the floor, and the hostess did not have any other vegetables. So they picked up the peas, washed them, cooked them again and served them,” said Huggins, who incorporated peas into the meal.

When people think of a reading club, many people think of several individuals meeting to discuss a book they have all read. However, the Marietta Reading Club is different in this aspect as well.

Instead, two readers are chosen for every session. The readers in turn choose someone to act as the “critic,” a sort of discussion leader for their session.

Together the critic and readers come up with a topic and a pair of readings that they present to the club at their given date.

The presentations are not necessarily something the critic is professionally practiced in, but is typically something he or she holds an interest in, said club member Caroline Putnam, who once gave a talk on chimney pots, which can be found around many of Marietta’s older homes.

“I had someone read about chimneys. Another reader read from a 1930s detective author that wrote a book involving chimney pots, and then I gave a talk about them,” said Putnam.

The club has also experienced some cultural shifts throughout the years. Though many women were founding members of the club, women had lost their voting membership status by the time Hill was invited to join in 1969.

“That began to again change gradually during my time in the club,” he said.

Now the cultural shift has come full circle and woman again hold full status and many official positions in the club. But again, its minutes provide a unique look at its history, said club member Paula Riggs, of Marietta.

Riggs has also delved into the club’s past and once was the critic for a program that looked into the club’s early readings.

“They at one point very early in the club’s history were reading some of the more controversial authors on issues of women’s rights,” recalled Riggs, who along with her husband Roland Riggs III, has been a club member for more than two decades.

Though they are looking to their past, the club is also celebrating its 150th anniversary with some nods to the future. Recently the club created a website for the first time, which can be found at