Garden Club Celebrates Century and Mrs. Woodhouse

Like most storied institutions, the Garden Club of East Hampton has an official history and a less formal one that pierces a few myths.

Anne Gerli, whose grandmother was friends with the club’s founder, Mary Woodhouse, and who has been a member herself for 60 years, pointed out recently that the first members may have had gardens or a passion for them, as was the club’s stated purpose, but “their hired men did most of the work. I remember my grandmother saying, ‘Blue over there, Arvid, pink over here.’ While she may have had a wonderful eye for color and design and enjoyed the garden, did she ever do anything herself? I don’t think so. Neither did Mrs. Woodhouse, or any of them.”

Even the community gardens the early club established were actually worked by their gardeners, she said.

The club was founded by these ladies in 1914, and the current group, whose members do take a very hands-on approach to their own and club-sponsored gardens, will mark its centennial next Thursday, with a free Garden Club of America flower show from 3 to 4:30 p.m. at Mulford Farm. The show will feature floral design, photography, horticulture, and botanical arts by Garden Club of America members both local and from away. An educational exhibit, “Trees Through Time,” will look at the last century of trees in East Hampton, with an emphasis on conservation.

This will be the first event in a series to celebrate the centennial. The theme is “Mrs. Woodhouse Presents‚” to honor its founder and first president.

From the beginning, the club’s mission was to “restore, improve, and protect the quality of the environment through educational programs and civic improvements.” Mrs. Woodhouse had already begun improving, having donated the land for the East Hampton Library and hiring its architect, Aymar Embury II.

In the same spirit, the club has more recently created and maintained the Mimi Meehan Native Plant Garden at Clinton Academy; Rachel’s Garden at Mulford Farm; the renovation of the brick courtyard garden at the library, and the Millstone Park Garden on Main Street. With other community groups, members also help tend the railroad station, post office, and nature trail.

Ms. Gerli, who was president of the club in the 1960s and 1970s, Gigi Mahon, its current president, and Ellen Cromack, a member, sat down recently to discuss the club’s past and present activities.

As a part of the Garden Club of America since 1915, the club is one of its oldest members. The early days were full of flower shows — bouquets only. “Horticulture was not high on their list, or conservation,” said Ms. Gerli.

In the aftermath of World War I, members sent seeds to Europe to replant the devastated fields. During World War II, they planted victory gardens and brought their produce to a military hospital UpIsland.

Between the wars, the ladies sponsored their first community garden on the land that became the village Nature Trail, donated by Mrs. Woodhouse and Matilda Donoho. The Atlantic Double Dune Preserve also started with land donated to the Nature Conservancy by two members. Later on, the group raised money for the purchase of land on Accabonac Harbor for the 1976 bicentennial and renovated the Mulford Farm garden to historic specifications. Through the years, club members have designed and developed several gardens at locations throughout the village.

As the years passed, the group became an important voice in community matters, helping to ban billboards in the village and keep gas stations off Main Street. After the 1938 Hurricane, members led the efforts to replant the trees lost in the storm. They later raised awareness of Dutch elm disease and the Japanese beetle as potential threats. They contributed to the village zoning code in 1957 and have had educational programs on various environmental concerns.

Ecological awareness campaigns on wetlands destruction, ozone depletion, offshore drilling, subdivision, and general pollution have been part of their environmental efforts. More localized concerns include phragmites removal and the protection of piping plovers. The group established a conservation internship for an East Hampton High School student and, in 1992, a scholarship program for graduates planning to study conservation, the environment, or horticulture in college.

The Garden Club plant sales, one of the club’s most popular and visible events these days, began in 1973 on the library grounds and have since moved to Mulford Farm. The first sale, according to Calista Washburn, who was its co-chairwoman, made $1,200. A few years later it was more than double that.

The club president attends national meetings in Washington, D.C., of the Garden Club of America, which has an active lobbying arm. The local group has sponsored drug disposal days at White’s Pharmacy to protect South Fork waterways from pharmaceuticals.

The garden club raises the money that maintains its community gardens, but members have the responsibility of tending to them. Even at Christmastime the group is active, hosting a holiday workshop at the senior center to teach people how to make wreaths and sprays.

The group has had its ups and downs. Membership ebbed during the 1960s and 1970s as more women entered the workforce and the household staffs of those summering here decreased in size. Ms. Gerli, who was president during some of those years, said the endless energy the early members devoted to their civic efforts came from intelligent women, usually college-educated, having nothing but time and resources on their hands and looking for something to keep themselves occupied.

Then there was the butterfly incident. One year the club sent away for butterflies to populate some of its gardens, but the cases arrived cracked. “All the butterflies escaped,” Ms. Gerli said, “and filled the post office.” Efforts to get them to leave were not successful. “It was quite the to-do.”

The Mrs. Woodhouse she remembers from her childhood was “someone you didn’t want to tangle with‚” Ms. Gerli said, although her husband, Lorenzo, was more affable.

Her grandmother, she said, would bring her to the Fens, the Woodhouse residence on Hunting Lane, for tea, which Mrs. Woodhouse served in the conservatory. “We were rather grubby children in shorts, not terribly presentable. She didn’t snatch the sandwiches away from us, but she was not warmly welcoming. There would be introductions, she would say, ‘How do you do?’ Then we would sit down, have tea, and hope to get out of there as soon as possible.”

To celebrate among themselves, the members said they will likely have a tea party in this tradition, just the way Mrs. Woodhouse would have wanted it.

Scenes from the very first flower show of the Garden Club of East Hampton on July 14, 1916. The club’s archives include minutes from its first meeting in August 1914 through its activities today.
Lorenzo and Mary Woodhouse’s property the Fens, in a glass lantern slide taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston in 1914 and hand colored. The property is now included in the East Hampton Nature Trail. Library of Congress
The Millstone Park garden on Main Street is a popular meeting and resting place for those strolling about East Hampton Village. The club designed the garden and maintains it through its own funding and the efforts of members who water, weed, and prune it. Durell Godfrey
Recent club members at work (and play) at the train station in East Hampton. Durell Godfrey