History of the Nakoma League

The Nakoma League is a neighborhood social and charitable group. All residents of Nakoma are automatically members of the league. The Nakoma District Welfare League, as it was called when it was founded in May 1920, was formed by a group of 30 Nakoma women when there were 26 homes in the neighborhood. Today, there are nearly 700.

The purpose of the league, according to its original articles of organization, was “the uplifting of humanity, the relieving of distress, the lending of a helping hand to those in need, be they rich or poor, the giving of ourselves to do for others.” Eventually, the league emphasized more social gatherings, yet retained its aim to do charitable work as a secondary goal. Although the league’s activities have changed over the years as women’s lifestyles have changed, its purpose today remains true to that of its 1941 revised constitution: “to promote neighborliness and friendliness among its members and to contribute to the welfare of the community.” The Nakoma League is not a political association and does not take a position on any political or city issues. A neighborhood association was formed in 1974 for this purpose, but it was active only a year or two.

The league began as a women’s group, which met in a neighborhood home one afternoon each month. Its first work was the piecing of a quilt. Some of the league’s other early welfare projects included providing food and clothing for those in need, paying tuition for two worthy girls to become teachers, and sewing curtains, doll clothes and nightgowns for local hospitals. The league donated furniture, kitchen equipment and books to Nakoma School and filled Christmas baskets for the Salvation Army. For five years, the league sent a rose and bud to each new mother in the neighborhood and flowers to each Nakoma home where a death had occurred.

The ladies’ afternoon meetings always featured refreshments and socializing, as well as entertainment or an educational program. Typical agendas included vocal selections, piano recitals, dramatic performances or poetry readings by neighborhood women. They also discussed books and shared stories of their travels abroad. University professors were frequent guest lecturers. In September of 1934, Professor Aldo Leopold addressed the ladies of the Nakoma League, who met at the Nakoma Country Club, to talk about construction plans for the University of Wisconsin Arboretum.

Many prominent Madisonians have lived in Nakoma. Buildings all over town bear their names. While some of these men were busy as leaders of the University of Wisconsin and in business, their wives were busy leading the Nakoma League. Mrs. T.R. Truax, for example, was secretary/treasurer of the league during its 1930-1931 program year. Her husband, Thomas R. Truax, was the chief of the Timber Processing Division at the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory and a member of the Wood Technology Committee of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. Their son, Thomas R. Truax, Jr., was an Army Air Corps pilot during World War II, for whom Madison’s Truax Field is named.

Mrs. C.A. Elvehjem was Nakoma League president from 1940-1941. Her husband, Conrad A. Elvehjem, an internationally acclaimed biochemist, became president of the University of Wisconsin in 1958. The university’s Elvehjem Art Museum bears his name.
Mrs. G.W. Longenecker was president from 1942-1943. Mr. Longenecker was chairman of the University of Wisconsin Landscape Architecture Department and director of the UW-Arboretum from 1933-1967. A garden near the arboretum’s visitor center is named after him.

By the late 1930s, 50 to 70 women attended each meeting – too many for one home to accommodate. Consequently, the league leadership divided Nakoma into four “tribes:” Cherokee, Oneida, Iroquois and Seminole. During the 1940s a fifth tribe, Ottawa, was added, and, in the 1950s, the sixth and final tribe, Chippewa, was added. The league still recognizes these areas today. The current leadership – still mostly women – consists of two or three co-presidents, a treasurer, two representatives from each of the six areas, and a newsletter editor.

Here is a snapshot of the Nakoma women’s social calendar from the 1940s to about 1970.
• September: Fall Reunion Tea at Nakoma School and later at Westminster Presbyterian Church. The ladies gathered for tea and a musical program or fashion show.
• October: Home meetings in each tribe.
• November: Dessert & Bridge Benefit at Nakoma Country Club. In some years this event was organized as a progressive card party in a dozen or so homes. Tickets were sold to raise money for the league to donate to charities.
• December: Dancing Party for Nakoma Young People at Nakoma School.
• Christmas caroling, a holiday tradition organized by the Nakoma League up until about 1950. The young people roamed the neighborhood, stopping to sing wherever there was a light in the window. Afterwards, all Nakoma residents were invited to gather around a pine tree decorated with lights at the corner of Miami Pass and Cherokee Drive for a community sing.
• January: Twelfth Night Party at Nakoma School. This was the only event to which husbands were invited. It has been on the neighborhood calendar since 1916, when the first Nakoma families gathered for a potluck Christmas dinner. Later, the party became much more elaborate, attracting a crowd of about 350 neighbors. The evening began with cocktail parties for new residents at the home of each tribe’s leader. A catered dinner at the school was followed by a ceremony to welcome new residents to the neighborhood. Next, each tribe presented a humorous skit and finally, everyone danced to the music of a live orchestra.
• January, February, March: Home meetings in each tribe.
• April: Spring Tea at Nakoma School and later at Westminster Presbyterian Church. The program was similar to the fall tea.
• May: Garden Breakfast & Installation of New Officers. Two hundred women gathered for breakfast in the yard of a neighborhood home to welcome the slate of new Nakoma League officers. They were reminded to wear low-heeled shoes and to bring a pillow to sit on.

The 1970s brought changes to the traditions of the Nakoma League. Ethnic awareness and women’s liberation collided with longstanding traditions, resulting in a time of gradual reorganization for the league. The women’s afternoon meetings gave way to evening couples’ parties and holiday events for the children. Eventually, the Fall Reunion Tea and the Bridge Benefit were abandoned in favor of a fall cocktail party. The Spring Tea and the May Breakfast were replaced by the Spring Progressive Dinner.

Nakoma League events of the 1930s to 1960s were regularly covered on the society pages of the Madison newspapers. By the early 1970s, however, these activities were no longer deemed newsworthy. One of the last Nakoma League events to be covered in the newspaper drew an unexpected reaction. Remembering that the first residents of Nakoma were the Native Americans, the ladies of the Nakoma League enjoyed a 30-year tradition (1940s to 1970s) of incorporating Native American headbands and dresses, drums, songs, hand signals and dances into their programs welcoming new neighbors at Twelfth Night and installing new officers at the Garden Breakfast.
A program at the Fall Reunion Tea of 1970 recalled the 50-year history of the Nakoma League and featured league members in Native American costumes. When a large picture of the event appeared in The Capital Times, it drew 75 Native Americans and sympathizers to picket the newspaper’s office, protesting the Nakoma League’s use of fake Native American costumes and rituals. As a response to this protest, in November 1970, Madison’s Equal Opportunity Commission endorsed a city council resolution “requesting groups to refrain from using sacred Indian names in jest, dressing in faked Indian costumes and performing faked Indian rituals,” according to The Capital Times. The resolution extended its protection to include other ethnic groups as well.

Not meaning to be offensive, the league gradually abandoned its use of Native American rituals. Finally, all but one of the league’s nine Indian blankets were sold at a silent auction at the last Dessert & Bridge Benefit in 1979. For two years following the protest, the league sponsored a holiday party in the Wisconsin Dells for Native American children and their families and gave scholarship money for Native American children to attend Camp Bird in Menomonee County.

Over the years, Nakoma League has made contributions to many charitable organizations, including Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Washington Orthopedic School (now the Doyle Administration Building), Dane County Mental Health Center, Red Cross, Empty Stocking Fund, March of Dimes, Thoreau School and Cherokee School. For many years, a committee of the Nakoma League collected money from Nakoma neighbors for United Way in the fall and for a health charities fund in the spring.

Charitable activities since the 1990s have included Adopt-a-Family and the Gift of Reading. During the holiday season, the league requests a list of needy families from the Community Action Coalition. Nakoma families then purchase holiday gifts and food for them. Through the Gift of Reading program, Nakoma families provide new books for children who need them. In addition, the league collects non-perishable food items at the Fall Gathering to donate to an area food pantry.

The Nakoma League has been responsible for numerous neighborhood improvement projects. The women purchased benches for bus stops and for Nakoma Park. They raised funds for new playground equipment in the park numerous times – in the 1950s, 1970s and again in the 1990s. Twice, in 1955 and 1994, the league was involved in providing a neighborhood sign for the corner of the park at the intersection of Cherokee Drive and Nakoma Road. The league has also contributed money to the city for landscaping around the sign, while a neighborhood volunteer cares for the plants. Finally, the league has taken responsibility for having repair work done on the stone walls and turrets at the intersections of Mandan Crescent and Manitou Way, and Odana Road and Oneida Place.

The Nakoma League’s current social calendar is family-oriented and includes the following events:
• The Fall Gathering, a cocktail and appetizer party at a neighborhood home.
• Children’s Halloween Party in Nakoma Park or at a neighbor’s haunted house.
• The Twelfth Night Dinner & Theatre, held in January or February. The evening includes pre-dinner parties at a home in each area. A catered dinner at Westminster Presbyterian Church is followed by the introduction of new neighbors and a full-length musical comedy written and performed by Nakomans. This event is much the same as it has been since Nakoma’s early days, minus dancing to a live orchestra.
• Spring Egg Hunt in Nakoma Park.
• Tulip Time Progressive Dinner in neighborhood homes.
• Fourth of July Picnic and Parade in Nakoma Park.


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