Wellspring Archives: How It All Started

  • By Deborah Townsend
  • Posted 8/25/2012
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10150

This People's History is based on the early records of Wellspring Family Services, a private, non-profit organization helping families and children in Seattle and King County overcome life’s challenges.  Founded in 1892 as the Bureau of Associated Charities, Wellspring Family Services has operated under a succession of names. The organization's services have changed over the years, but have always centered on a commitment to a stronger, healthier community.  These archival records offer glimpses into aspects of Seattle history that are not well documented elsewhere, examining societal attitudes toward poverty, need, want, illness, and addiction -- all problems that have altered considerably since Wellspring's early days. Wellspring’s archives illuminate the development of social work as a profession, the growth of the non-profit sector, and the relationship between private non-profits and governmental agencies.This is one of a series, entitled "Out of the Archives," that appeared in January 2011 in Wellspring's monthly internal newsletter, The Fiddlehead.  It was written by Wellspring Family Services executive assistant Deborah Townsend.

How it all started

In 1892, Seattle was only 40 years old, with a booming population of about 43,000 (up phenomenally from about 3,500 in 1880). The city limits had expanded northward to annex suburbs from Magnolia to Green Lake to Ravenna. Seattle had largely recovered from the great fire of 1889, and was adding infrastructure such as the city water system, streetcar tracks, and bridges. There was a great sense of civic involvement and Seattle boosterism.

Still, times were very hard for many. People streamed into Seattle from other parts of the country and all over the world, hoping for jobs in construction or in the lumber mills, docks, or rail yards. The influx meant that steady work became increasingly hard to find. On top of that, a world-wide financial crisis was brewing, with risky investments leading to bank failures and a stalled economy -- and even higher unemployment.

A strong philanthropic community attempted to meet the needs of the poor. Many individuals and religious and civic organizations gave tangible aid -- food, fuel, blankets, used clothing -- to poor people who asked. There was a wide array of ethnic and religious groups taking care of specific segments of the population, such as the German Aid Society, the Hebrew Benevolent Society (which became Jewish Family Services), and the Society of St. Vincent DePaul. The Fruit and Flower Mission took food to the sick and shut-ins. The Ladies' Relief Society focused on needy women and children (its orphanage became the Seattle Children’s Home). The Chamber of Commerce had some limited resources to help the unemployed, as did city and county government. There were many people and organizations trying to help -- but their efforts were scattered, not coordinated.

The organization that eventually became Wellspring Family Services started with a sermon on Sunday, December 20, 1891, by Reverend David C. Garrett (b. 1857), rector of St. Mark's Episcopal Church. We don't have the text of his sermon, unfortunately; we know about it from Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports in January and February 1892. In announcing a public meeting on January 5, 1892, the Post-Intelligencer reported:

"It is well known that the present arrangements for charitable endeavor are most unsatisfactory. The county commissioners, the board of public works, the Ladies" Relief Society and various church societies are each doing something, but the lack of concerted action often renders effort comparatively unavailing.

"A scheme for organizing these charities has been more than once talked of, but the present movement was set on foot by a sermon preached December 20 by Rev. D.C. Garrett. He then said the best method he knew of is that which prevails in nearly every city in the land under the general name of "Associated Charities." This means a sort of clearing-house for all aid given the destitute -- a central office with a paid officer who keeps a complete record of all who are assisted and by whom relieved. It means stopping of all street begging or house-to-house mendicancy ... . Every case of want will be remanded to the main office, there investigated, and if worthy, relieved through the proper source. No religious differences hinder this work. Roman Catholic, Jew, Protestant, infidel, all unite on the basis of a common humanity. The sole object is to act as a community in giving relief as efficiently and economically as possible. He believed this system is needed in Seattle, and he wished this sermon might strike the keynote towards some general movement in this direction"

The Post-Intelligencer article quoted Mayor George W. Hall and other civic leaders strongly in favor of "systematizing" charity for better efficiency and effectiveness -- which usually meant separating the worthy from the unworthy poor, a major theme at that time. The next day the Post-Intelligencer reported on an agreement to organize the kind of clearinghouse and referral agency that Reverend Garrett had described. Its purpose "was not to directly dispense alms, but was to make an equitable division, and decide to what sources each of the needy poor should look for aid." The mayor named a planning committee with members from the Ministerial Association, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Ladies' Aid Society.

Creation of the new agency moved swiftly. On January 14 the Post-Intelligencer reported details of the new organization, to be named the Bureau of Associated Charities of Seattle. The newspaper listed the new Bureau's goals and structure in detail:

  • To be a center of intercommunications between the various churches and charitable agencies in the city to foster harmonious co-operation between them, and to check the evils of the overlapping of relief.
  • To investigate thoroughly and without charge the cases of all applicants for relief which are referred to the society for inquiry, and to provide friendly visitors who shall personally attend cases needing counsel, advice, or personal aid or encouragement.
  • To obtain from the proper charities and charitable individuals suitable and adequate relief for deserving cases.
  • To procure work for poor persons who are in need, and who are capable of being wholly or partially self-supporting.
  • To repress mendicancy by the above means and by the public exposure and prosecution of imposters.
  • To promote the general welfare of the poor and improvident by social and sanitary reforms, and by the inculcation of habits of providence and self-dependence.
  • To co-operate with all similar societies and the constituted authorities of city, county and state in all proper effects to discover, suppress and punish vagrancy and vagabondage.

"Anyone can become a member by the payment of $5 annually, or the payment of $100 will create a life member. So soon as 100 members are obtained the organization will be completed by the election of a board of eleven directors, one of whom shall be the mayor of the city. They will employ a paid agent or superintendent of charities to carry on the work"

On January 31, 1892, the bureau's membership elected the first board of directors, including David Garrett. On February 14, 1892, there was an "enthusiastic mass meeting," according to the Post-Intelligencer, with guest speakers and music by the St. Mark's choir. At that event, Garrett spoke again of his hopes for the "practical and scientific application of charity" as the most promising "cure for pauperism." 

Everyone who contributed funds or material goods became a voting member of the new organization. The minimum pledge was set at $5. By mid-February the Bureau had raised 180 pledges, so we can calculate that the new organization began operations with at least $900 on hand, a substantial sum at that time. The office was two rooms in the Seattle National Bank Building, at the corner of 2nd Avenue and Yesler Street.

The new Bureau's structure was simple: There was one staff member, called an agent, in charge of fundraising, record-keeping, and coordination with the other charitable organizations and individual philanthropists who donated items or had temporary work they could offer to Bureau clients. Volunteer "Friendly Visitors" interviewed the applicant individuals and families, documented their situations, authorized specific kinds of help, and made the referrals.

From a galvanizing sermon to a functioning organization, in just two months! The Bureau of Associated Charities of Seattle took its first client on February 19, 1892: a German couple, ages 28 and 30. The husband, formerly a day-laborer, was struggling to take care of his wife, who was seriously ill.

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