History of the Green Bay YMCA

History of the First YMCA in Green Bay

George Williams really started something back in 1844! Without fully realizing how it was going to develop, the young London man founded the Young Men’s Christian Association, more commonly known as the YMCA. George Williams moved to London in 1841 where he became a junior assistant in the firm of George Hitchcock & Co. This was his first exposure to life in the big city and what he saw and experienced in the next few years was instrumental in his resolve to form an association with other young men which would help them maintain their self respect and deepen their commitment to the Christian faith. From this modest beginning, the Young Men’s Christian Association, a name adopted two weeks after the initial June 6 meeting of the twelve founders. The concept of the YMCA movement was brought to North America by some young men, of Montreal, Boston and New York, who had visited the London association in 1848 and were pleased with what they saw. It was in Montreal and Boston that they first two organizations in North America were formed and beared the name of Young Men’s Christian Association. By 1854, there were 36 associations with 14,000 members in the United States and Canada.

In 1866, northern Wisconsin was moving into an era which would develop the area as the center of a vast lumbering industry. Green Bay, with its rail and water transportation facilities, would become the market place for service and movement; both for the lumber pouring out of the region and for the supplies need to keep it in operation. With the tremendous growth in lumbering, came an influx of men to work in the forests, harvesting this great treasure. Green Bay would soon feel the impact of these men on community life and that would cause some concern for those citizens interested in the young people exposed to these rough men as they came into the city for a ‘night on the town’. By 1874, Green Bay was a rowdy, wide open, fun city for sawyers, lake sailors and itinerant lumberjacks.  It is interesting to note that it was a similar kind of environment that faced young George Williams, when he first came to London in 1841 and which resulted in the development of the YMCA movement in 1844. The records of beginnings and early development of YMCA work in Wisconsin are few and far between. YMCA groups were formed and disbanded over the next several years during the Civil War and operations were resumed in Wisconsin soon after the water ended.

The Reverend Daniel C. Curtiss holds an important place in the development of the first YMCA established on the West Side of Green Bay in what was then called Fort Howard. Reverend Curtiss, with other community leaders, contacted Mrs. C.L.A. Tank, one of the early settlers and a Fort Howard resident, to solicit her support for the erection of a small building as a recreation center and reading room. The structure was built on the southwest corner of Third and Chestnut Streets in 1870, with the generous support of Mrs. Tank. Twenty five young men comprised the membership of that YMCA and debates, prayer meetings and social events made up the programs in those early years. While the building was called a YMCA, it was never officially incorporated as a YMCA. This early group eventually disbanded in 1879.

A new organization was formed in 1887 and after voluntarily carrying on a program for a few years, a movement was started by several interested young men to establish a regularly organized YMCA. With the assistance of William Lewis, a Wisconsin YMCA secretary, who had aided the early efforts of the first program, incorporation was completed and a charter was issued by Ernest Timm, Secretary of State on May 4, 1896 to read “YMCA of Green Bay”. Through the efforts of Otis Larsen and J.H. Taylor, enough support was obtained to move forward with plan for building a new YMCA center. A site on the corner of West Walnut and Chestnut Streets was purchased and construction of the Fort Howard YMCA began. The laying of the cornerstone for the new building took place on October 11, 1891. An additional generous gift from William J. Fisk, allowed for the enlarging of the plans to include a small gymnasium, a meeting hall and bath facilities. The new building of red brick veneer was two stories high with a tower on the southeast corner. It was officially opened in January 1892. Listed in the dedicatory program, were the facilities that the members could enjoy for the nominal fee of $5.00 per year or $3.00 for six months, payable in advance. For this handsome sum, members could enjoy: “the only gymnasium in the city with a floor surface of 1,122 square feet and equipped with lifting machines, vaulting horses, ropes for climbing, dumbbells, horizontal bars, wands, rope ladders, quarter circle and mats. Two bath tubs with clean hot and cold water. Correspondence table in the reading room. Stationary provided. Reading rooms furnished with comfortable chairs and with leading papers and magazines. This room is public – that is open and free to all men. A beautiful parlor, elegantly furnished and for use as well as ornamental. A large hall, seating 250 people for entertainments, etc. Also available is a well equipped kitchen. Marble wash bowls with all the comforts of a first-class hotel. Socials and entertainment and games of various kinds in the reception room.”

Fate dealt a shattering blow to the YMCA movement in Green Bay, when the building these earnest and dedicated young men had struggled so long and hard to provide for the community, burned in 1908. Bonds had been sold in 1896 to provide funds for the enlargement of the gym and other parts of the original building. The expense of these bonds was carried for many years and after the fire it added to the difficulties of these men who were striving to continue the work of the YMCA. Eventually the original property was sold and the money was used to liquidate the indebtedness of the association. After all debts were paid, a balance of $1000 remained. This sum of money was to be a significant link between the early pioneer work carried on in the 1870s, the later development and incorporation as a YMCA with a permanent building in 1892 and a wonderful dream that would be realized in the very near future.

If any person could be designated as the 'patron saint' of the Green Bay YMCA, it would have to be Mitchell Joannes. It was his determination and deep personal interest in the youth of the community that impelled him to seek some organization that could provide wholesome leisure-time activities for Green Bay's boys and young men. With Joannes' help, action was taken to buy the present building site at Pine and Jefferson streets in October 1922. A campaign began in April 1923 to raise funds for the new building and was very successful. The success of the Green Bay YMCA campaign received wide publicity and influenced other communities to attempt similar campaigns. It was the largest amount ever raised ($425,781) by a city the size of Green Bay in YMCA history up to that time. Plans for the construction of the building were finally approved after the committee had carefully studied seven different sketches. Some discussion was held over whether to erect the present six-story building and incur a debt or to put up a four-story structure and keep within the funds subscribed. The final decision was to proceed with the larger building even though debt must be incurred. Work on the actual construction of the Tudor-Gothic style building began April 5, 1924. Construction progressed rapidly over the course of the next seventeen months and in September 1925, the provisional board began to make plans for a dedication program to be held in the gym in September 1925. This ceremony concluded a project that carried its roots back to the early efforts to establish the Christian program of the YMCA in this community in 1870. The dreams of the citizens' committee, under the leadership of Mitchell Joannes were more than realized in the beautiful building which stood ready to serve the community in so many ways. This building still stands today and serves as the Downtown location for the Greater Green Bay YMCA association.

More to come…