PIQUA — The Piqua Public Library held its monthly Portal to Piqua’s Past event this week, highlighting Piqua’s past of helping others.
“Helping others is something that we have done, and people have done, for as long as we’ve had any kind of civilization,” said Jim Oda, director of the Piqua Public Library. Oda noted that, in the pioneer period, “helping others was not just a nice thing to do, it was a necessity.”
People needed other people in the community to survive, whether by helping cut down trees, building cabins or barns, or tending to crops.
“You physically needed people. You needed people to help you clear the fields,” Oda said. The mindset was like a trade-off. If someone helped another person, then that person would return the favor and help the first individual.
Oda said that the first organization aimed at helping others, the Piqua Female Bible Society, began in 1818, and the founder was Rachel Johnston, the wife of Col. John Johnston.
Oda said that Johnston and the group of women would “provide Bibles to the ‘worthy poor,’ as defined by these ladies.” The most worthy were recent widows, Oda said, and the group would send a committee to visit people to see if they were really worthy.
“They were the first in the community to give free aid,” Oda said.
By the 1820s, aid began coming from the church. As the city’s population grew, the city’s church grew into multiple churches of multiple Christian denominations. There would be Ladies Aid Societies in each of the churches that would provide help to those in need. They continued the tradition of judging those in need to see if they were worthy of the aid, and they also did not help anybody outside of their church.
“They didn’t cross boundaries,” Oda said.
Then the onset of the Civil War, which lasted from April 1861 to May 1865, changed the dynamics of giving aid once again. Oda explained that, with previous battles like the Revolutionary War or the War of 1812, an enlistment in the service would last around 90 days or a few months. With the Civil War, an enlistment was for three years.
To make up for the time that men would be away from their farms or businesses, the government provided bonuses.
“They gave bonus enlistments. You enlisted and got money,” Oda said.
Still, the women left behind organized the Soldiers Aid Society. They made bandages as well as knitted scarves, socks, gloves, and so on. When the soldiers did not need them as it was more economical to buy them in bulk, the group looked at others who were left behind as well.
“They looked at the other need, the families of soldiers,” Oda said. “The Soldiers Aid Society started collecting food and clothing and, very importantly, fuel … Everything is based on wood.”
In this instance, there was no “worthy poor” requirement. Aid went to anyone who had a relative in the military service — and everyone basically had a family member who was involved in the war.
“They apparently worked very, very hard, and this became the first community-wide helping hand,” Oda said.
After the war, aid went back to coming from the churches.
By 1885, Oda said, “It had become very apparent at that time … that many, many of our citizens were falling through the cracks.”
Women from the community then formed the Ladies Aid Society. The group was made up of 12 women, one from each participating church. They met once a month and would sew, collect, and repair clothing. They also collected money.
“Have you noticed one thing about all this? They’re all women,” Oda said, explaining that historians called this period “the cult of womanhood.”
“It was putting women on a pedestal,” Oda said.
In the culture at the time, women were viewed as physically and intellectually inferior to men, but their strength supposedly came from their “moral core.” It was because of the moral thread in these organizations that women “were permitted to do these kinds of causes.”
In 1891, the Ladies Aid Society reorganized and allowed men to join. In 1920, they hired the first staff, Harriet Fleming.
In 1933, the Great Depression hit Piqua, and they stopped fundraising. The money that was left over was given to the school system and used to set up a shoe fund for kids who did not have shoes. According to Oda, the shoe fund lasted into the 1970s.
“Local fundraising, for all intents and purposes, ended,” Oda said about the time World War II began. Oda said that there were still a variety of funds to donate to, such as various national soldiers funds. People were also expected to purchase war bonds.
In 1947, the war was over, and the Piqua Chamber of Commerce was organized. War or defense contracts ended sometimes overnight with some manufacturers, meaning that some people lost their jobs when the demand for certain products decreased.
“We had to reorganize, and the chamber was organized,” Oda said. The community also restarted the helping hand through various local chapters of the American Red Cross, YMCA, YWCA, Salvation Army, and so on.
Oda explained that the chamber then started receiving complaints that businesses were getting approached by numerous groups asking for donations. The Piqua Community Welfare Federation was founded. They had one drive, which would fund the Salvation Army, Boy Scouts, the local mental health association, and more.
In 1949, the Community Chest formed. From 1952-1957, the Community Chest never reached its goals. Oda said the reason they were unable to meet those goals was unclear, as the 1950s was still an economically prosperous time.
In 1958, the Piqua Area United Fund formed, using both the name United Fund and United Way.
“The idea was to consolidate again and get staff together,” Oda said. “After that, they made their goals.”
Now, United Way funds approximately 20 other groups.
“Helping others has become … a lot more complex,” Oda said. “Raising the funds is a lot of work.”
Oda said that the key point in the discussion is that Piqua has a “very long tradition” of helping others, whether directly like during the pioneer period or indirectly through fundraising.
“Piqua can be proud of our community that throughout most of our history, we’ve had somebody doing that, helping others through direct help or money,” Oda said. “We’re a good community that way.”
Reach reporter Sam Wildow at (937) 451-3336