In 1854, young businessmen in the Jackson community formed a mutual improvement society. Jackson’s Young Men’s Association (YMA) aimed to address issues of moral and political philosophy.
In its early years, the YMA sponsored debates, provided free public lectures, and attempted to establish a reading room. Strong political feelings of the day prevented the organization from developing further. The political turmoil of the 1850s increased, and fiery debates followed. The desire for libraries, reading rooms, and books was supplanted by talk of slavery, succession, and war.
War did come, and the local militia group, the Jackson Greys, led by William H. Withington answered the call. Talk of libraries would have to wait. The public focused on blow by blow battle descriptions and the fire-eater language of local newspaper editors. Having survived both prison camp and the First Battle of Bull Run, Captain Withington came home a hero. In 1863, he helped revive and formally organize the Young Men’s Association.
The Object of Mutual Improvement — Essentially, a Gentleman’s Club
By early 1864, the YMA had 50 members. Yearly dues were set at $2.00.
The object of this Society shall be the promotion of literary and scientific purposes by means of a library, Reading Room, literary exercise and lectures and such other means as are usually adopted for such purposes. — W. H. Withington: YMA Minutes 1863
In preparation for the opening of their Reading Room, the second floor of the Durand Building on Michigan Avenue was rented at a cost of $65 a year. An additional $45 was spent for tables, a dozen chairs, and a stage. On March 15, 1864 the YMA Reading Room was officially opened. It was essentially a gentlemen’s club. Week nights the janitor lit the gaslights and members came to relax, play a friendly game of chess, read periodicals from as far away as England, and smoke their cigars.
In consequence of the increase in number of those who frequent
the reading room, and the growing taste for reading, the Board
of Directors determined to commence the founding of a library connected with the Association, Young men and boys are asking
for books they cannot afford to buy and few of them have access
to good private libraries. We hope to secure by donations from
citizens from 500 to 1000 Volumes.
— American Citizen: November 7, 1865
Jackson citizens did answer the call with 239 donated books. Books continued to be added to the collection. The library, which officially opened in 1865, was not a true public library because only YMA members had access to the books. Members were expected to read and distribute knowledge to the “young men and boys” in the community. And while women were urged to collect books for the library, they could not join the YMA.
Along with the opening of the Reading Room, the YMA presented an annual winter lecture series, which included such well-known speakers as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, P.T. Barnum, and the notorious abolitionist Grace Greenwood. Topics of the day included temperance, travel to foreign lands, religious and moral debate, and descriptions of Civil War battles and personalities.
Noted musical groups came to Jackson as guests of the YMA, including the Boston Philharmonic and the Mendelssohn Quintet. “The Women’s Sphere” was treated in both serious and comic talks. The price of the series was $2.00 a person, $3.00 for a “Gentleman and his lady,” and “$4.00 for a Gentleman and two ladies.”
Both men and women speakers commanded a hefty fee for an evening appearance—ranging from $75 to over $200 a night. The high cost of one particularly famous lecturer was not overlooked by the editor of the local paper:
An unusually fine audience assembled Wednesday night to hear Mark Twain’s new lecture. Mark shambled out on the stage, bowed to the audience, and then stood perfectly still for about five minutes, as though waiting for a sufficient supply of words to commence his speech with. Finally he spoke in a nasal voice, which from its twang was of itself amusing. For this lecture, which took an hour and fifteen minutes, Mr. Clemens received $125 — or nearly two dollars per minute. — Jackson Weekly Citizen: 1871
One of the YMA’s more unusual endeavors was the opening of a Gymnasium. The men of the YMA supported the Enlightened Ideals of the day: A strong mind must be supported by a strong body.
The Association purchased a Gymnasium apparatus at a cost of $1,000. They rented additional space in the Durand Block, on the same floor as the YMA Reading Room. Dumbbells, clubs, jump ropes, and exercise classes were also part of the Gymnasium. The fee to use the equipment and room was included in the $2.00 yearly membership fee.
The Young Men’s Association recently added a gymnasium and
a new reading room and it is attracting and inducing many
young persons to spend their evenings in profitable physical
and intellectual culture. Its influence every day is becoming
more positive and more marked. Its permanent success will give
a higher tone to society and more general intellectual cultivation.
Jackson Daily Citizen: November 7, 1865
Almost from the beginning, problems occurred.
Mr. Lattimer made a report concerning the gymnasium, sharing
that there had been much misconduct. The room is frequented
by unruly and noisy boys.
W. H. Withington: YMA Minutes: September, 15, 1865
The Directors decided to close the room after only a year of operation and sell the apparatus for $600.00. This loss, coupled with the high cost of the lecture series, created financial difficulties for the organization.
The Ladies’ Benevolent Society
The women of the community organized several entertainments to add money to the YMA coffers. The Ladies Benevolent Society held a Tableaux, a popular form of entertainment where a group of people would strike a series of historic poses, without speaking or moving. The Tableaux added a welcome $107 to the YMA coffers. Several years later, women organized a Japanese Tea Party at the new home of Mr. Withington and his wife Julia. All three floors were decorated with Japanese lanterns, fans, and oriental furniture. Guests were encouraged to don kimonos. Young Japanese women conducted authentic tea ceremonies. Members of the library were invited along with the general public in order to increase
interest in the library, donations, and public
awareness. It was the event of the year! The
benefit raised $693.77.
One year later, women were finally allowed to become members of the YMA.