It might be the best example of rebranding in state history, even though nobody used that term in 19th-century Anoka.

A small group of women launched a club in 1889 in the town along the Rum River 20 miles north of Minneapolis. Calling themselves the “Social Club of Anoka,” they held their first meeting in the home of Bell Pease, wife of the Anoka Union newspaper owner. They met every other Friday afternoon at 3 o’clock, rotating homes. Only married women were welcome. Hostesses chaired the meeting and served dessert. They’d knit, chat and discuss various assigned topics.

Within a year, they drafted a constitution and bylaws, swelled from 15 members to 35 and all agreed on one thing: they needed a better, more prestigious name.

Enter Dr. Flora Aldrich, Anoka’s first female doctor and the club’s first president. She suggested renaming their group the Philolectian Society. Using a long “i”, she explained the word “FILE-o-lec-tian” meant lovers of learning and discourse in Greek.

“Perhaps she was influenced by the Philolexian Society of New York’s Columbia University, founded in 1802 and generally considered the oldest college literary society in the U.S.,” said Kathleen Rickert, a research librarian at St. Catherine University who has written extensively about the Anoka club.

Aldrich’s name won approval, and the Anoka Philolectian Society was formally hatched. More than 125 years later, after helping establish Anoka’s first free public library in the 1890s, the Philolectians are still alive. Boasting about 200 members, all women, the group backs a different charity every month and provides annual scholarships. They meet monthly over lunch at Green Haven Golf Course’s banquet room in Anoka, inviting authors and experts to speak.

“We give scholarships to young women, although one year we were impressed by an applicant named Pat, who surprised us when he came to thank us,” said Ellen Ward, 64, a two-time past president from Anoka who joined in 2001. “And while only married women were allowed in our early years, we no longer care if you’re single, divorced or married.”

The group keeps alive the legacy of Aldrich — a medical pioneer, author, suffragist and colorful character from early Anoka. A 1924 “Who’s Who Among Minnesota Women” called her “a woman of scholarly attainments, commanding presence and magnetic personality.”

Born Flora Southard on Oct. 8, 1859, she grew up along the Hudson River in New York. Her family was part of the successful Knickerbocker Ice Co.

She married a doctor named Alanson Aldrich in Adams, Mass., and they moved from New York to Anoka in the 1880s. She worked side by side with her husband, who encouraged her to buck gender roles of the era. Before coming to Minnesota, the pair practiced medicine together in Baltimore, Chicago, New York, London, Paris and Vienna.

Flora Aldrich graduated with a medical degree from the University of Minnesota in 1887, finishing first in her class for her examination of throat and lung diseases. Treating eye, ear, nose, and throat ailments, her Anoka practice was based in a 17-room mansion they called Colonial Hall — built in 1904 at 1900 3rd Av. S., just off Anoka’s Main Street. The house, which later served as a Masonic Lodge and hosted the Anoka Historical Society, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, it’s an antique shop.

Aldrich was also a noted author, publishing “The Boudoir Companion” in 1901 to educate women about their own health and hygiene. Two years later, she came out with “My Child and I,” a practical guide to rearing children. Despite having no kids of her own, Aldrich offered expert advice on pregnancy and other motherly topics.

“Every woman, when pregnant, should be given pleasure instead of pain (both mental and physical) by her husband and friends,” she wrote. “Kindness, consideration, politeness and love are everything to a pregnant woman.”

Advocating women’s right to vote, Aldrich said in 1911: “If it is true that — and it is true — a woman’s moral leverage in the home is an all-important one, then it is true that her moral leverage in the government would be an all-important one.”

A modern woman, she insisted, was one “who has finally taken her own place in the body social, her own place in nature, her own place in the progress of humanity.”

Aldrich lived long enough to see women vote for the first time in 1920. She died the next year, on March 19, 1921, from acute endocarditis — an infection of the heart lining. She was 61 and outlived her husband by five years.

She also outlived her father, Wesley Southard, who moved to Anoka in 1894 and killed himself in a neighbor’s barn in 1906.

Through it all, Flora Aldrich watched Anoka transform from a rough lumber town to a somewhat sophisticated city like the ones she’d known back East. Her work founding the Philolectian Society, delivering lectures and treating patients all helped propel that progress.

“The accomplishments of Dr. Flora were nearly unprecedented for a young woman at the turn of the century,” volunteer Ryan Dawson writes on the Anoka County Historical Society’s website. “She leaves behind a fine legacy of achievements and inspiration for men and women everywhere.”

 

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.