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A Growing Legacy

Oct 31, 2014 09:00AM ● Published by Arden Haley

Four Rivers Garden Club Flower Mart,1949  by Marion E. Warren.
Courtesy of M. E. Warren Photography, LLC

By Anne Powell

It was the summer of 1924, and the ladies of the Four Rivers Garden Club arrived for lunch in bright dresses, hats, and white gloves. The fine china and silver tea service were set out, and the guests found their place cards tied to miniature garden tool sets with pink and green ribbon. The invitations were hand written and mailed, as were the ladies’ responses.

World War I had recently ended, and the Roaring Twenties were in full swing—the Great Depression was an unknown five years in the future. American women had recently gained the national right to vote and automobiles, telephones, electricity, and Hollywood were rapidly changing lifestyles nationwide. The women’s club movement and garden club fever were spreading across the United States, and the women of Anne Arundel County joined in.

The first meetings of the Four Rivers Garden Club occurred ninety years ago in the homes and gardens of local estates in and around Annapolis. The founding ladies named their club for four local rivers—the Severn, Magothy, South, and West Rivers—and so began a tradition of service and learning that continues today. 

In the early 1900s, garden club organizers knew from reading books and seed catalogues that planting was essential to improving their homes, town squares, communities, and roadways.

Their community-based organizations across the country were part of the first stirrings of the cultural shift that became today’s environmental movement.

These were educated, accomplished women, committed to civic responsibility. Often excluded from the workplace by society, they were expected to entertain and circulate in the community. Like many of America’s other female activists, suffragettes, and women’s club organizers of the time, these local women had time in their days for meetings, luncheons, and teas—many had drivers and gardeners and maids at home caring for the children. 

 Before the days of email and websites, Maryland’s garden clubs were organized one hand-written letter at a time. Before long, a few clubs statewide got together to organize the Federated Garden Clubs of Maryland. In 1929, Maryland joined other state federations to become a charter member of the National Garden Clubs. Today’s National Garden Clubs, Inc. is the largest volunteer gardening organization in the world and a dynamic, educational nonprofit boasting nearly 6,000 member garden clubs with 200,000 individual members. National Garden Clubs provides resources, educational initiatives, and projects that promote horticulture, environmental protection, and beautification.

A century ago, retail garden centers and public plant nurseries were virtually unknown. Most plants and gardening information came from friends and family—or from the expanding reach of mail-order seed catalogues relying on the nation’s developing railroad system and postal service.

Sharing perennial plants from their own gardens is a tradition among gardeners—particularly bringing plant lovers together at the Four Rivers Garden Club annual Flower Mart at the Annapolis City Dock. A tradition in downtown Annapolis for more than 85 years, the Flower Mart fundraiser is staged around May Day, so that downtown residents and businesses can purchase cut flowers and finished May baskets to display on their doors. The baskets are made for the May Day basket judging that is an honored tradition of another strong local club, the Garden Club of Old Annapolis Towne.

 This past summer, the Four Rivers Garden Club celebrated the Club’s 90th anniversary with a luncheon at historic Maidstone Farm overlooking Whitehall Bay. Maidstone’s owner, Peggy Sue Atterbury, joined Four Rivers in 1974, encouraged by her mother-in-law who was a 1924 founding member of Four Rivers. She recalls, “I was not sure it was in my nature to join a garden club, but thank goodness I did! Some of my fondest memories of life at Maidstone have involved Garden Club events. My dearest friends are my Garden Club friends.”

Mrs. Atterbury adds that, “Back then, Club meetings started at two o’clock, followed by tea with beautiful sandwiches and homemade desserts. We all used our silver and best tea cups, and Garden Club could be an all-day event. We were a close group of ladies who shared our love of gardening and civic community. I have plants in my garden today—more than 40 years later—that came from members’ gardens.”

Garden clubs nationwide share common objectives, similar to the mission statement of the Four Rivers Garden Club:

… to stimulate the knowledge and love of gardening and floral design among amateurs, to aid in the protection of native plants, birds, bees, and butterflies, to encourage civic and community planting, and to promote environmental responsibility.

During the past 90 years, Four Rivers Garden Club’s community projects have included numerous historic sites, schools, libraries, senior centers, hospitals, the Courthouse, City Dock, Maryland Hall, garden therapy activities, and something the Club founders called “roadside beautification.” Historic sites among the Club’s beneficiaries include Hammond-Harwood House, Chase-Lloyd House, and Historic London Town and Gardens.

The Club’s first project in the 1920s was downtown at the Annapolis “Emergency Hospital,” which later became the Anne Arundel Medical Center. At the original Emergency Hospital, the Club installed a pond with numerous trees and shrubs to create a “restful, beautiful outlook for those afflicted with pain and suffering,” as noted in 1949 by past Club President, Mrs. James “Margaret” Magruder. This determined lady continued, “It was almost a hopeless task, for awful billboards stood on the Cathedral Street side where handsome evergreens now flourish.”

In the 1950s, Four Rivers Garden Club members were alarmed by the prospect of commercial development and billboards populating the new Rowe Boulevard connecting downtown Annapolis to the recently constructed Route 50. Four Rivers Garden Club members met with City and State officials and campaigned to influence the artery’s limited development and beautification. 

Betty Childs joined Four Rivers Garden Club 63 years ago in 1951, later serving as the Club’s president and holding the prestigious position of President of the Federated Garden Clubs of Maryland. Mrs. Childs remembers the Club’s work in the 1950s: “We protested any commercialism and worked very hard to keep Rowe Boulevard pure without filling stations and billboards.” Working with Federated Garden Clubs, Four Rivers obtained permission to plant trees and shrubs to beautify Rowe Boulevard.

Now in her nineties, Mrs. Childs attends nearly every Four Rivers meeting, noting that she “loves the Garden Club and enjoyed it tremendously all these years. In the early days, we wore hats and gloves, and Garden Club meetings were very formal occasions—everybody loved it. It is a great honor to be a member of Four Rivers.”

She remembers Four Rivers’ involvement with bringing hanging flower baskets to the streets of Historic Annapolis. And she recalls the installation of a memorial at the Three Mile Oak under which George Washington resigned his military commission—the memorial stone remains on Route 450 near the present site of Annapolis Mall. Mrs. Childs adds that “In those days we seemed to flood the newspapers with stories and pictures. I am very proud of the things we did.” 

As a past President of the Hammond-Harwood Association, Mrs. Childs notes that Four Rivers has a long history with Hammond-Harwood House, which includes funding the historic home’s brick garden walls in 1949 and giving more recently to the building’s roof reconstruction. Club members serve on the Hammond-Harwood board and work on the annual Christmas greens show.

As environmental awareness and interest in native plants have grown, Four Rivers has contributed to environmental projects such as the Chesapeake Environmental Center, Kinder Farm Park, and Jug Bay Wetlands. Flower arranging was especially popular in the Club’s early days, and the Club continues to host prize-winning flower shows and participate in the annual Art Blooms at the Walters Art Gallery.

Civic projects have included work with the Annapolis Boys and Girls Club, wreath placement at the Annapolis National Cemetery for veterans, plants for Habitat for Humanity homes, roadside tree planting, and boxwood wreath donations for public buildings including the State House. The Club has contributed funds, flowers, trees, books, and benches to myriad projects throughout Anne Arundel County. 

Lisa Sherwood joined Four Rivers 43 years ago in 1971, and remembers helping at her first Flower Mart in 1968. Back then, Flower Mart took place in front of the County Courthouse on Church Circle, with the plant and flower sale sometimes overflowing into the St. Anne’s churchyard. Mrs. Sherwood remembers, “In those days, everyone wore hats and pretty spring dress coats in bright colors. The Club’s afternoon business meetings were preceded by small luncheons at individual homes and followed by elaborate tea parties.” Mrs. Sherwood continues, “The ladies were really smart and had a lot of energy for their projects. Even back in 1924, quite a few members had gone to college.”

Today’s Four Rivers Garden Club skips the elaborate tea parties, and tries to meet as efficiently as possible once per month in the morning. While silver tea services and punchbowls are still in use, jeans and sandals are occasionally seen—and sometimes babies tag along. Digital communication makes organizing easier, which is important since many of the members slip away from their professional jobs to attend Club meetings. Most wouldn’t miss hearing the monthly speakers engaged by the Club to educate the group about horticulture, conservation, garden history, and flower arranging. The Club’s numerous projects are accomplished in committee meetings and workdays, which is where the many strong bonds and friendships form.
Tracy Exarhakis became a member in 2003 and serves as the Four Rivers membership chair.

“Our Club presently has 72 members, some of whom joined 40, 50, or even sixty years ago. These longtime members act as mentors and connect past to present, sharing their vibrant history and incredible talents. Each year, new members are invited to join to help carry on the Club’s rich traditions.” 

Mrs. Exarhakis adds, “The history of our Club is intertwined with the history of Anne Arundel County and its historic sites. Over the years, creative, talented, strong women have enriched the lives of children and adults through projects benefiting schools, parks, museums, public gardens, senior centers, and disabled adult facilities. The list of local organizations touched by our Club in the past ninety years is staggering.”

Mary Carruthers is a past President of Four Rivers and now serves as a Delegate to Federated’s District II Board. She feels strongly about the good that Federated Garden Clubs and Four Rivers have accomplished over the years. “Federated not only serves individual gardeners, but also plays an important role in keeping Maryland roadsides beautiful, placing Blue Star Memorial highway markers honoring our military, and partnering with environmental groups to protect critical watersheds.”

Mrs. Carruthers adds, “To be a part of this dedicated group is a real privilege. These are wonderful ladies who share a love of gardening and work diligently to make our communities more beautiful.” Everyone seems to agree: 90 years of hard work and passion for gardening, conservation, and education have left an indelible mark on our community.

The writer joined Four Rivers Garden Club in 2000 and serves as the Club’s Vice President. She welcomes your comments at powell.ann.r@gmail.com.
Community community annapolis eastern shore garden west county november 2014
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