Members of the BMH Auxiliary celebrated their 100th anniversary at their annual meeting in April. Left to right: Diane Cooke (newly elected auxiliary co-president), Carol Stack (Auxilian of the Year recipient), Wendy Dougherty (co-president), and JoAnne Rogers (BMH).
Members of the BMH Auxiliary celebrated their 100th anniversary at their annual meeting in April. Left to right: Diane Cooke (newly elected auxiliary co-president), Carol Stack (Auxilian of the Year recipient), Wendy Dougherty (co-president), and JoAnne Rogers (BMH).

BMH Auxiliary celebrates a century of service

For 101 years, the nonprofit organization has raised money for Brattleboro Memorial Hospital with clambakes and a beloved coffee shop — all fueled by the energy of a who’s who of Brattleboro women

BRATTLEBORO-JoAnne Rogers has been a member of the Brattleboro Memorial Hospital Auxiliary since 1993.

"I joined the organization and was the manager of the gift shop and the coffee shop at BMH," says Rogers, the organization's current president, who remembers "so many wonderful ladies" with whom she has worked over the years.

The names of members past and present are a who's who of Brattleboro women.

"If you've lived in this town for very long, you'll likely remember the BMH coffee shop where Gladys Earle, Claire Lavender, Betty Tyler, and so many others have volunteered," she says.

The organization, established in 1923, "is 101 years old, but we missed the opportunity to catch [the centennial] anniversary last year," says Rogers with a chuckle.

That list of important local women reaches back all the way to Florence Estey, wife of Julius Estey, the second-generation president of the eponymous organ manufacturing company Birge Street, one of the group's founders.

An advertisement in the Brattleboro Reformer from July 3, 1928, invites readers to see The Jitney Players [...] present 'The Sorcerer' by Gilbert and Sullivan on Mrs. J.J. Estey's Lawn, a benefit for the BMH Auxiliary." She was so well known her address isn't even listed.

The history of the organization is also a history of women through the ages.

"When I first started, everybody was Mrs. Somebody," remembers Rogers. "These days we go by our first names."

The Auxiliary is known most of all for "promoting the mission of Brattleboro Memorial Hospital though fundraising and volunteer opportunities."

"Through several activities and events, we raise funds for hospital and educational needs," says Rogers.

The group has worked hard to purchase wigs, prosthetics, and travel for financially vulnerable patients in the oncology unit, donates additional wheelchairs for patients, gives baby gift bags to new families, and provides children's books for the Reach Out and Read Program, among many other programs.

Once an organization for women, people of any gender can now support the hospital's mission to provide community-based, quality health services, and are all welcomed to join.

Through the years, the organization has provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarship monies to local students who wish to study in the medical fields.

Carlene McCarty of Brattleboro, a member of the group since the early 1980s, remembers the numbers of people who supported the Auxiliary by dining in the BMH coffee shop. Enough Brattleboro women were on the baking list that freshly made homemade pie was always on the menu.

"There were doctors who came in first thing in the morning for their coffee and then came back for lunch. And there were local people who came regularly simply to support the Auxiliary," she says.

The coffee shop ran on an honor system, where BMH employees could purchase an index card for $5 or $10. A box of these cards sat by the cash register for customers to record each purchase, deducting funds until they needed to purchase another card.

Gladys Earle, a regular volunteer, was also known for a sandwich made of cream cheese and olives.

"That was a Gladys original," Rogers says, laughing, "but she was smart. It was very popular."

Earle always made homemade fish chowder on Fridays.

"I didn't like the smell of her cooking that fish," says Rogers, "but Gladys told me that when I tasted it, I'd change my mind. She was right," Rogers says with a hearty laugh.

Eventually, the coffee shop went the way of the Woolworth lunch counter, but food has always been an important part of the Auxiliary's efforts to raise funds.

A check into the archives of the Reformer shows a note from 1939 from Mrs. John Mann and Mrs. Arthur Davis requesting that people pick up empty jars at the First National Store, which operated on Main Street in the Brooks House, or the new A&P Grocery Store, which was near the current Gibson-Aiken Center, "for those who wish to make jelly for hospital use."

During those years, committees included a Linen Committee, whose members kept count of the number of sheets needed for the hospital, making or purchasing new ones when necessary.

During the 1980s and '90s, the group was famous for its annual clambake and auction under the tents on the hospital lawn.

"All those donations went directly to the hospital," says McCarty, who notes that in 1997 the group hit a record $43,000 in donations from that single event, including from businesses, which have always heavily supported the auxiliary.

"We were able to purchase new birthing beds for the maternity ward, and we also provided a new mammography suite, including a new machine and waiting rooms, with funding from our events over the years," she says.

Known for almost 20 years for "Valentines Lunches," the group made homemade bag lunches that they delivered anywhere the purchaser wished.

"These were gourmet lunches and all handmade," says McCarty, who noted that all ingredients necessary were donated.

"C&S Wholesalers donated all the chicken for the chicken salad, Putney Pasta provided the vegetarian option, After the Fall juices provided the drinks, and a whole group of us made homemade cookies and chocolates," she said.

Lunches were delivered to lots of local businesses who supported the group, raising "thousands of dollars" for the hospital.

Other fundraisers ranged from flower shows and lawn parties in the 1950s to candy and geranium sales and hosted dinners at the Stone Fence Inn on Putney Road (where Family Dollar is now located) in the 1960s.

Changing times, fewer members

McCarty remembers the early 1980s when, with a roster of approximately 120 members of the group, "and we were so very active."

But times have changed.

"Families are busy, and people don't volunteer like they used to," Rogers says.

Still, the group had 55 people attend the 100th birthday party at the BMH Auxiliary's annual meeting, some traveling from South Carolina just for the event.

"I work at the hospital and have interested a few staff members to join the group," Rogers says.

Biz Dana is one of those members.

"I work at the hospital. My mother, Suzanne Dana, was a member of the BMH Auxiliary for 20 years. She was famous for her anadama bread, which was sold in the coffee shop."

Dana is excited to bring new members to the Auxiliary.

"This group does a lot of good for the hospital. A lot of what is needed isn't in the hospital budget, and we try to fill the gap," she says.

She notes that the Auxiliary has recently purchased some special chairs for the waiting room to the MRI.

"We had people standing and leaning on the walls in agony because they couldn't sit down in the lower chairs, so these are chairs that are much taller than usual," says Rogers. "They cost $2,300 for two of them."

An upcoming fundraiser will assure that the group can continue purchasing equipment and donating scholarship money.

"We'll be at the [Guilford] Welcome Center [on Interstate 91] doing a bake sale on Memorial Day weekend," says Dana. "And we welcome new members."

Those who wish to explore joining the group or bake for the upcoming sale are encouraged to reach Rogers at [email protected].

This News item by Fran Lynggaard Hansen was written for The Commons.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates