On the south side of the St. Mary's river off Sherman Street, near the site of an eighteenth century French fort, is Guldlin Park, which will celebrate its centennial this spring. It was named for Addie (Bleekman) Guldlin (1863-1935), a champion of women's rights who is almost forgotten in the annals of Fort Wayne. Mrs. Guldlin had spearheaded the creation of the park, the city's first playground, dedicated for use by children. So who was Addie Guldin and why is her legacy so important and at the same time so neglected?
Mrs. Guldlin was born on 25 November 1863 in Stratford, Fulton county, N.Y., the second child and only daughter of Jerome Bleekman, an entrepreneur and lumber mill owner, and his wife Henrietta (Sixby). As a child she moved with her family to Rarden, Ohio. She graduated from Buchtel College in Akron, Ohio, in 1888, and the following year on 28 August 1889, she married Olaf N. Guldlin, a Norwegian immigrant and speculator in natural gas wells. The couple moved to Allen County in the 1890s with her parents. Olaf invested inthe Western Gas Construction Company at a time when there was a booming interest in natural gas wells in Indiana. He invested wisely and made a fortune, purchasing a large home at 2306 Fairfield Avenue and a cottage at Clear Lake. The Guldlins traveled in the upper social circles of the city, and they were childless.
Mrs. Guldlin had an assertive personality, was deeply interested in a variety of reform movements, and was not content to simply be an ornament for her husband. She became deeply interested in the women's suffrage movement in Indiana, which had made little progress in Indiana because of organized liquor interests whose advocates believed that giving women the vote would usher in Prohibition and harm the saloon industry. Frustrated by this lobby, many women became strong proponents of social clubs that promoted activist agendas outside of suffrage.
Among the clubs that attracted Mrs. Guldlin's interest was the General Federation of Women's Clubs. She became a strong advocate of its Domestic Science Department, believing that women should receive formal training to be homemakers and that keeping house was an art form. She went on the lecture circuit in the early 1900s, not only addressing the need for domestic science, but promoting the cause of women's clubs in general, arguing that women could play an activist role in many spheres in their own communities.
When giving a lecture for the Federation in Indianapolis in 1911, the Indianapolis News called her "one of the most prominent women in America" and added, "She is an enthusiast who speaks with much faith as to create a new appreciation for the subject to those who listen to her."
On another occasion a local Fort wayne newspaper described another lecture appearance: "Mrs. Guldlin never looked more charming in her life than on this evening, as she stood on the platform becomingly gowned in a creation of soft blue, her eyes lighted with animation and her whole being filled with enthusiasm in her subject." Despite the reporting style that seems sexist in a modern context, her remarks were hard hitting. She described having visited San Francisco in the wake of the 1906 earthquake and the utter corruption of its local officials. Many of the officials were headed justly to prison. The local women made a difference, she argued, in making San Francisco a new city with higher ideals. Women, she added, should receive liberal educations. "You can't estimate what you will receive by the cost."
Here in Fort Wayne, Mrs. Guldlin became deeply involved with the City Beautiful Movement and was a strong supporter of the new Park Commission. She began advocating for playgrounds for inner city children who, she argued, had no safe place to play. As a result the park commissioners dedicated Guldlin Park in her honor on May 20, 1911, complete with new playground equipment. Unfortunately, much of her work was destroyed two years later during the 1913 flood.
She continued to advocate for other civic improvements with the support of the Women's Club League. In 1912, she attended a city council meeting as the sole female member of the Civic Improvement Association. In advocating for a bond issue for the Park and Boulevard Plan devised by George Kessler and supported by the Park Commissioners, she told the councilmen: "You see, the women can vote as well as the men at the ward meetings which are being held with the city council." Unfortunately, that particular bond measure was defeated.
Mrs. Guldlin crusaded for women's suffrage, and with Carolyn (Randall) Fairbank attended the first state convention of the Woman's Franchise League of Indiana, held in Indianapolis in 1912. In her article, "Winning the Vote in Fort Wayne, Indiana," published in the Indiana Magazine of History in 2006, historian Peggy Seigel has shown that suffrage efforts in Fort Wayne lagged behind other areas of the state, again because of the liquor lobby and its support by many of the city's German-Americans. Still, she rejoiced at the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment that gave women the vote. She played a prominent role in reorganizing the former Franchise League into the Fort Wayne League of Women Voters. In the 1920s she was the only woman to serve on the City Planning Commission. She was also instrumental in securing the Theodore Thieme mansion and remodeling it for the Fort Wayne Museum of Art.
Addie (Bleekman) Guldlin was a pioneer of women's rights in Fort Wayne and an important activist at the turn of the century, and Guldlin Park remains a fitting tribute for her efforts.