The words “garden club” may conjure thoughts of dainty flower arrangements and cucumber sandwiches. But that’s not the Garden Club of Amherst at all.
“We are a dirt garden club, not a white-glove garden club,” said GCA member Denise Gagnon. Fellow club member Susie Lowenstein, agreed: “People always ask me how I get my hands clean, and I tell them, ‘By washing my hair.’ ”
Club member Wendy Larson noted that some of the Boston area garden clubs are primarily interested in flower arrangements. “Our club did some of that back in the 1940s and ’50s,” she said. “At our monthly meeting, when an announcement is made about an invitation to participate in a flower show, our response is to laugh.”
Organizers say the GCA’s primary mission is to make the town an attractive place to work, live and play.
“We have a lot of doers,” Lowenstein said. In January, the club celebrated the 100th anniversary of its founding with a commemorative exhibition at the Jones Library that highlighted the GCA’s early history as well as its ongoing work.
The GCA has changed a lot since Aug. 27, 1915, when Mrs. William J. Newlin invited five friends to meet at her Amherst home and the club was fledged. In the early years, members donned their finest dresses, hats and gloves to attend monthly meetings in each other’s gardens. They discussed gardening while drinking tea from a silver tea service with linen tablecloths and china teacups.
A “working interest in one’s garden” was, and still is, a prerequisite for membership.
The first year’s programs included “growing common flowers to perfection” and “new ideas for the Christmas tree.”
The members soon invited 10 others to join them and extended their purview to assume broader civic responsibilities.
During World War I, GCA members threw their energies into the war effort, helping local children grow victory gardens and hosting a party on the Town Common to raise money for The Red Cross.
In 1921, the GCA embarked on a plan to beautify the town. With assistance from the Amherst Woman’s Club, the gardeners sent cards to all homeowners in the town asking them to clean up their properties. They divided the town into sections and assigned members to inspect each section.
In 1926, with contributions from the town and private donors, the club established Sweetser Park at the corner of Main and Lessey streets.
In 1942, after the United States’ entry into World War II, the GCA launched the Garden Club Hospital Service. The group planted flower and vegetable gardens at what was then known as Westover Field in Chicopee, and provided flower arrangements for wounded soldiers. They also contributed vegetable seeds that were sent overseas to the Allies. After the war, the club received a “Certificate of Distinguished Excellence in War Service.”
A formal affair
During the club’s first few decades, its members continued to dress in formal attire. A member elected during the 1940s recalled attending her first meeting, dressed in what she considered to be sensible gardening clothes: a shirtwaist, skirt, sweater and flat-heeled shoes. To her dismay, she was greeted by club members wearing their best dresses, fancy hats and dress gloves.
Even when Barbara Hoadley, the club’s longest standing member, joined in 1973, she noted that members never wore slacks or jeans.
The club has always kept its membership limited.
“The idea was that we always met at a member’s home and that everyone was involved,” said Denise Gagnon. But the club has increased membership several times and now has 42 members. To accommodate its growing numbers, the group now holds its meetings in public places, such as libraries.
Perhaps the biggest change in membership occurred in 2008, when the club first admitted men. There have been four male members since.
Charlie Parham, who joined last year, says he has no problem working with a predominantly female club.
“I have spent my professional life working in elementary schools and I rather enjoy being the outlier,” he said, “and am never shy about giving my opinion.” As a new member, he says, he came in knowing that he would probably get more from the group than he had to offer himself. “And in my first year that has certainly been the case.”
Many of the activities the GCA initiated decades ago continue to thrive, including the annual plant sale, first held in 1951 on the Town Common. In its early years, the sale was a modest weekday affair; plants were sold in cottage cheese containers labeled with popsicle sticks.
It has grown enormously since then. It is now held on a Saturday and people come early to get their pick of the sale’s abundant offerings that are now sold in professional pots with printed labels bearing their botanical Latin names and cultural information.
Profits go to an annual scholarship for a University of Massachusetts Amherst horticultural student as well as to local organizations, including the Kestrel Land Trust, which conserves and cares for forests, farms and riverways in the Pioneer Valley.
The club also maintains the Eighteenth Century Garden it established in the 1920s behind the Simeon Strong House on Amity Street, now home of the Amherst Historical Society.
In the 1950s, Lyle Blundell, a prominent UMass horticulture professor, redesigned the garden as a pleasure garden that would have been typical for such a prosperous mid-18th-century residence. He used only plants that would have been available in Amherst around that time, including herbs such as feverfew, hyssop and calendula.
Another ongoing GCA project is the recording of Amherst’s many rare and historically significant trees.
“We’d be grubbing around with binoculars when we couldn’t get into somebody’s yard,” Barbara Hoadley noted. This effort resulted in the 1959 publication of “Trees of Amherst,” which won state and national awards, and was updated in 1972.
More recently, in 2009, the club created two illustrated reference brochures, available at A. J. Hastings in Amherst, that list information about town trees and provide maps for three guided walks near the center of town. The club has just completed a revised brochure that will be available in June. A series of tree walks is planned for September, based on the new brochure.
Looking to the future
Meredith Michaels, who became GCA president this year, said the club is ready to meet new challenges.
“There is so much new building going on downtown,” she said. “We hope that the proposed expansion of the Jones Library and the vacating of the fire station will proceed with attention to the preservation of existing outdoor spaces, including the Eighteenth Century Garden and the Kinsey-Pope Garden behind the library, and to the development of new outdoor spaces.”
The club members also say they look forward to working with the Hitchcock Center for the Environment as it implements its plans for gardens at its new facility at Hampshire College.
In addition to emphasizing pollinator-friendly and water-conservation practices, Hitchcock plans to create raised bed teaching gardens, two of which will be handicapped accessible. The GCA intends to support these plans by seeking grants from several gardening associations and by “offering its expertise and muscle,” Michaels said.
Looking back to the club’s work helping children plant victory gardens during World War I, Michaels said the club members hope to resurrect its work with young people.
“We’d like to help Amherst public schools initiate gardening programs,” she said, “perhaps having farm-to-table school meals.”
The club has long received generous support from area businesses. When the town was preparing for the 2009 celebration of the 250th anniversary of its founding, the GCA solicited the help of landscapers and plant nurseries in planting 10,000 daffodil bulbs at the south end of the Town Common. And when club member Nancy D’Amato decided to create a garden at the North Amherst Library, she sought contributions of plants and materials from local garden centers.
“It’s nice when they want to be a part of something we do,” Gagnon said of the business community.
While the Garden Club has traded its white gloves and high heels for garden gloves and sneakers, its core mission remains the same: to promote town beautification and horticultural education.
“The history of the GCA is closely attuned to the history of the town,” said Karen Chrisman, a member of the 100th Anniversary committee. “As the club enters its second century, it will continue to meet the changing needs of the community.”
Mickey Rathbun can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org