In 1898, a bevy of women from some of Harrisburg’s oldest families met at the Harrisburg home of newcomer Gabriella Cameron Gilbert.
The women formed The Civic Club of Harrisburg to lobby for the beautification of the city. They elected Gilbert, a city resident for only 10 years, the club’s president, a post she held until 1910.
For more than 60 years, the Virginia native worked tirelessly to make Harrisburg a better place to live.
Mrs. Gilbert, born Oct. 20, 1864, came to Harrisburg with her husband, attorney Lyman D. Gilbert, after their Oct. 24, 1888, marriage at the home of her parents, Mr. and Mrs. George Cameron in Petersburg, Va. The bride was 24, and the bridegroom was 43. Their home was at 203 N. Front St.
Lyman Gilbert, born 1845, was a state deputy attorney general under Govs. John Frederick Hartranft (1873-79) and Henry M. Hoyt (1879-83). In 1871, he was a founding member of a Harrisburg law firm that has evolved into today’s Nauman, Smith, Shissler and Hall firm with offices at 200 N. Third St. It is the oldest law firm in continuous existence in the city.
In a case that propelled the firm into national spotlight, Lyman Gilbert successfully defended in 1879 Army Maj. Marcus A. Reno, 7th Cavalry, at an inquiry about his actions at the Battle of Little Big Horn in June 1876.
In an account of the Cameron/Gilbert wedding, The Petersburg Progress newspaper said the bride “is conceded by all to be possessed of many rare traits, uniting in her person beauty, talent and an unusual grace and gentleness of manner.”
The Patriot described the wedding as “a brilliant society event.” Lyman Gilbert’s best man was the illustrious U.S. Rep. Marlin E. Olmsted of Harrisburg.
During Mrs. Gilbert’s presidency of the Civic Club, the women’s group fulfilled its commitment to clean up the city. The club purchased 26 trash receptacles for downtown Harrisburg, urged city council to pass a resolution making littering an offense and successfully lobbied for an end to dumping trash and garbage on the bank of the Susquehanna River.
She remained in Harrisburg after her husband’s death in 1914.
In 1916, the Civic Club moved into “Overlook,” the former home of William Reynolds Fleming and his wife, Virginia Hammond Fleming, at 612 N. Front St., Harrisburg. It remains their headquarters today.
During World War I, the club opened its doors to the Red Cross Harrisburg Chapter. The cooperative effort was natural since Mrs. Gilbert had been elected Red Cross chapter chairwoman May 22, 1917.
The chapter furnished reading materials to soldiers and rolled bandages for military hospitals. The chapter’s canteen department had 45 women members available 24 hours a day to feed visiting servicemen. On one occasion — at 2 a.m. — Mrs. Gilbert received a telegram alerting her that a troop train would reach Harrisburg at 3:15 a.m. and that the hundreds of men aboard would require coffee and sandwiches.
“There was only an hour or so in which to prepare for the train, but when it rolled in, the canteen was in readiness — and the soldiers got their coffee and sandwiches,” The Patriot reported Nov. 30, 1918.
In 1950, Mrs. Gilbert’s impressive contributions to her adopted city and state earned her the accolade of Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania.
“She brought the warmth and charm of old Virginia to Harrisburg,” Robert C. Glenn wrote in a history of the Harrisburg chapter of the American Red Cross. “She was interested in civic affairs, welfare programs and cultural activities. While people and programs appealed to her more than administration, she had an unusual knack for getting people to do things.”
When Mrs. Gilbert died Feb. 25, 1951, at 86, The Patriot noted that she “was the recipient of honors from her city and state as are seldom conferred on one person.”
Cornerstone recalls the area’s rich history and offers ways to savor it in the present. Write to Mary O. Bradley, Features Department, The Patriot-News, P.O. Box 2265, Harrisburg, PA 17105, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.