When a friend asked Joan Powell to join the Mesquite Club in 2002, she didn't hesitate to accept the invitation.
Newly retired, she wanted to find a worthwhile organization that needed her time.
"But I didn't know what I was getting myself into," jokes Powell, who currently serves as president of the club.
What she was getting into was the valley's oldest women's service organization, a group that can claim as members several women who played a significant role in shaping Las Vegas since its earliest days.
The club marks its 100th anniversary Thursday . A Centennial Gala is planned for Feb. 26.
When it was founded, Las Vegas was little more than a hot, dusty water stop on the railroad, notes Jeanne Greenawalt, a Mesquite Club member since 1963.
Over the years, the club grew in size and reputation, its eventual 300-plus membership gaining the respect of state and city representatives who admired the women's efforts to better their community.
Indeed, the club can take credit for many firsts in the valley, Greenawalt says. Members planted some of the first trees in 1912, more than 2,000 cottonwoods to provide shade. They started Las Vegas' first library and hosted the valley's first fashion show and opera. The women of the Mesquite Club organized the first Neighborhood Watch and even spearheaded an awareness program warning tourists of potential dangers they might face.
"It's been an important part of the community since its inception," Mark Hall-Patton, director of the Clark County Museum, says of the Mesquite Club. "It's one of those groups that made a huge difference in civilizing part of the community."
In February 1911, 17 women gathered to have tea at Mrs. O.J. Enking's home, according to a club history researched and written by members Mary Shaw and Jean McClain. Most of the women wanted to form a literary group, but one member suggested forming an organization with a wider reach.
The women decided on the following purpose, which still serves as the club's mission statement: The Mesquite Club was to be the "association of women of Las Vegas and (its) vicinity for the promotion of culture and the general welfare and diffusion of historic, scientific and useful knowledge and general education."
Helen J. Stewart, a pioneer of Las Vegas and one of the most influential women of that time, also was a founder of the club. She suggested naming the group after the mesquite tree because of its hardiness and usefulness. Mesquite provided early Las Vegas settlers with shade, firewood, building materials, fruit and other items, Greenawalt says.
In the beginning, the club's members focused on projects that helped build the community, such as the Mesquite Club library. One member's donated reading materials turned into the valley's first and only library, operated by the club until 1926, when the city took over.
Over the decades, members held fundraisers and donated money to causes that improved the city. In 1967, they raised $10,000 for building the Judy Bayley Theatre at UNLV. The lobby is named after Mesquite Club member Bernice Fischer.
It has been a common practice for club members to launch campaigns to address the city's needs as they arose, often taking the lead on important issues such as crime, Mesquite Club members say.
In the late 1970s, two tourists were slain downtown, notes Phyllis Hendrickson, a member and past president of the club. The women were so outraged, they started an awareness campaign that eventually led to them talking hotels into placing safety tips in guest rooms, she says.
Soon after, local law enforcement and county commissioners invited them to join a new group called Secret Witness. It's now called Crime Stoppers. Hendrickson served on the board for 20 years.
"It really is an amazing organization," says the club's unofficial historian McClain. "Even the things we're still doing are amazing. What we do and the way we do it has changed a little but the dedication is still there."
Much of their time is dedicated to raising money or supplies for local nonprofits, Powell says. The Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth, Kids to Kids literacy program, The Salvation Army's food bank and Safe Nest are among organizations that the Mesquite Club has helped.
For decades, it was "the club in town," McClain says. But in recent years, the Mesquite Club has faced growing competition from other community organizations. As a result, membership has suffered. While it was at its largest during the 1970s -- more than 300 strong -- the club now has about 150 members.
A major issue is the aging of that membership, Powell and Hendrickson say. The average age of members is between 65 and 70.
But they would like to appeal to younger women and grow the membership again.
"They bring younger ideas and more energy," Hendrickson says.
In addition to competition from other nonprofits, the Mesquite Club faces several recruiting obstacles. Historically, members either didn't work outside of the home or they joined after retirement. Now, most young women work and don't have time for an organization that not only supports the community but also provides social opportunities to its members, Powell says.
The name also causes confusion for some. Often, people who haven't heard of the Mesquite Club think it is based in the town of Mesquite.
"People are more aware of other organizations," Hendrickson says. "Unfortunately, in many ways, the Mesquite Club has been a well-kept secret over the years."
They are trying to change that. Powell hopes that the upcoming Centennial Gala Feb. 26 will bring some awareness to the group. The event at Spanish Trail Country Club, 5050 Spanish Trail Lane, is open to the public. Tickets cost $75 and formal attire is required. Call 393-0466 for more information. Or visit the club's website, www.mesquiteclublasvegas.com.
There are no requirements to join the club; membership is open to women of all ages and annual dues cost $100. New members are asked to attend all business meetings for a year, after which they will be invited to join a committee, Powell says.
"When the organization started, they held teas, they had luncheons and very active programs," Hendrickson says. "But it was a small town then. It was an honor to be a Mesquite Club member. But now? We were spoiled when the town was much smaller."
Contact reporter Sonya Padgett at spadgett@ reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4564.