How could the Friendly Society have staged the 1890 Strawberry Festival when they’ve only been around 79 years?

Reposted from Once Upon a Time in Needham.

While working as archivist for the Congregational Church of Needham, I came across a tattered poster advertising a Strawberry Festival the church held in 1890. The more I looked at that poster, the more questions I had about it. Today I ask the admittedly congregation-specific question: How could the church’s Friendly Society stage the 1890 Strawberry Festival when they weren’t founded until the 1930s?

The poster for the 1890 Strawberry Festival, part of the ongoing exhibit at the Congregational Church in Needham. (Image: Danielle Jurdan)

For that matter, how could the Friendly Society have collected money to support Dr. Margaret O’Hara’s work in India in 1915? Hosted the reception following the Burning of the Mortgage in 1907? Sewn hundreds of denim overalls to raise funds to build the original chapel in 1859?

I have been puzzling over this question for months, ever since several of our current church members told me that the Friendly Society is a mere 79 years old.

How to reconcile that with the testimony of the archives, which include an unbroken chain of annual reports from the Friendly Society since 1903 (the first year for which an annual report is available), and anecdotal reports of the Friendly Society popping up to stage events dating back to the very beginning of our church’s history?

Who’s right? The archives or my bevy of expert witnesses?

Turns out, both.

The original Friendly Society–the one that sponsored Margaret O’Hara, the Strawberry Festival, and helped fund the construction of the original Chapel–split into two groups in the 1930s.

The precise timing of the split isn’t clear, but in his History of the Evangelical Congregational Church of Needham, Edmund Trowbridge relates that the original Friendly Society, which preferred to meet in the daytime, changed its name to the Women’s Association, while a second group, which preferred to meet in the evenings, adopted the Friendly Society name. According to Trowbridge:

…the only material distinction between the two groups today is the meeting time. Both organizations have contributed heavily of their time and funds to the support of the church and its work.

Well. That settles that.

Tune in next week to discover why the high price of ice in 1890 could put an entire festival at risk.

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