The smell of rotting garbage and animal carcasses permeated the city. Mud gooped up unpaved roads. Gamblers tossed drunken obscenities through the air – among children on their way to work, not school.
That was Monterey, and not that long ago, either. That was also when Katherine Sargent called to order the first meeting of the Monterey Civic Club, on March 15, 1906. It was the beginning of a movement to clean up Monterey with a spirit of preservation and environmentalism that still thrives today.
The meeting was held in the Library Association on Alvarado Street, a haphazard building housing the remainder of the library’s collection after a fire destroyed much of it in 1893. 34 ladies were present. Dues were $1.
According to the Weathervane, the club’s in-house periodical, all members were required “to participate in gymnastics” and address one current event per meeting.
It was, as one officer says now, a “multicolorful” group blending Spanish, Mexicans and immigrants of the Eastern U.S. Some settled in Monterey because of the California Gold Rush, others because of the canneries.
Until recently, the club was exclusively for women. Eveylyn Hinckley, a 93-year-old member and past president, says the women were lucky to have “cooperative husbands.”
Current president Jerilynn Crivello says the group was about involvement. “The group got involved and participated in nearly every event Monterey had to offer.” Hinckley is more succinct, saying “the group told the city what to do.”
They did appear at City Council meetings. They worked with business owners in the Merchants Association to create new footpaths and bridges. And they even negotiated with Southern Pacific Railroad to bring more trains.
Later, the women lobbied to change Main Street’s name to Calle Principal. In 1907, the Monterey Civic Club held its first charity ball and used proceeds to improve school restrooms.
They were busy making a new Monterey, while keeping its history alive. In March 1914, the Monterey Civic Club dedicated $500 to purchase The House of the Four Winds. They filled the building with treasures including an 18th century piano and a desk used in California’s first Constitutional Convention.
Built in the 1830s, the historic adobe (named for its prominent weathervane) became their official clubhouse. They covered the dirt floor, added a kitchen and hatched ideas for parties and fundraisers.
After more than three decades of cleaning up the city, the club’s biggest tradition became making a mess: In 1939 they brought back an early Monterey celebration, El Baile de los Cascarones, or the dance of the eggshells.
Like Mardi Gras, the ball is a final hurrah before Ash Wednesday, the Catholic prelude to 40 days of penance.
The ball is older than Monterey itself, coming first with the Spanish in the 18th century, and using eggshells to signify rebirth and renewal. In 1847, Navy Chaplain Walter Colton, who built Colton Hall, wrote in his journal, “I have just come from the house of Thomas Oliver Larkin where I left the youth and beauty of Monterey. This being the last night of the Cascaron Carnival, everyone has broken his last shell.”
Club members hollowed out hundreds of hens’ eggs, decorated them and filled them with confetti or cologne. One large egg was made to commemorate the festivities and put on display.
On the night of the ball, partygoers arrived wearing a radiant mix of Spanish and Mexican clothing. Women layered on lace veils, or mantillas, while men dressed in embroidered caballero costumes. Between dances, partygoers smashed eggs over the heads of those they wanted to dance with.
In its heyday the club event drew 1,000-plus and was attended by mayors and prominent members of society.
“The ball used to be the biggest night of the year,” Crivello says. “We would like to invite new generations.”
For the 100th anniversary celebration of the club’s purchase of The House of the Four Winds, the ball is returning.
Two parties fill La Sala de la Amistad Saturday. The room glitters with paintings of historic Monterey and plays home to club meetings as well as Argentine tango dance classes.
Scores of golden eggs have been painted and prepared for the occasion; a large commemorative one awaits its place among previous eggs. A tradition, one of Monterey’s oldest and most storied, continues, filled with good eggs.