By Shelley A. Sackett
On January 7, 1928, 20 men and women met at the home of Mr. Wilis H. Ropes. Bound by a love of gardening, the mostly married couples had decided to form the Salem Garden Club, a Salem mainstay that celebrated its longevity on May 20 with a 90th Anniversary Tea and Social at the First Church.
Mayor Kim Driscoll was on hand to express Salem’s appreciation. “It was an honor to recognize the club’s 90 years of dedicated service beautifying our city, sharing horticultural knowledge and providing social enterprise to members young and old,” she posted on her Facebook page.
On display were artifacts from years gone by, including old program books, photos, certificates of recognition, handwritten thank you notes from the people of Britain for seeds sent in the 1950’s and a slide show of special moments over the last nine decades. “Some members wore hats, which added to the festive atmosphere,” said SGC 2017-2019 Co-president Meg McMahon.
Following its 1928 establishment, the club’s first decades of existence were marked by much activity. It joined the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts in 1929 and participated in the annual spring Flower Show in Boston that same year.
At the suggestion of local architect Philip Horton Smith, members rebuilt the garden at the Brookhouse Home on Derby Street. For a few years in the 1930’s, SGC sponsored a garden contest for children involved in the Salem summer playground program. With cash prizes for the best home gardens, the event was a summer favorite.
To celebrate the club’s 10th anniversary in 1938, the ambitious membership sponsored the city’s first garden tour, opening to the public ten gardens on Federal and Chestnut Streets and others along the Salem Common. Called “Open Garden Day,” the event drew over 600 people at $1.00 each, and the club raised enough money to hold its own horticultural show in historic Hamilton Hall on Chestnut Street the next year.
The club sponsored a second, smaller garden tour in 1941 to celebrate the opening of the Gardener-Pingree House on Essex Street, designed by Salem architect Samuel McIntire. As one of its missions, SGC had taken on the responsibility for replanting the gardens at this magnificent Federal mansion.
Over the next decade, WWII interfered with the club’s many activities, although conservation chairperson Mrs. Willis Ropes advised citizens on how to plant their own war gardens. Never ones to remain idle, members began diaries with interesting facts and entertaining anecdotes about their own gardens. “Old Salem Gardens,” a compilation of these entries, was published in 1946 and remains available for purchase 72 years later.
McMahon, who has been a club member since 1999, described the SGC’s early years, when meetings took place in members’ homes. “Some records indicate that there may have been Saturday night meetings and sherry drinking with lovely flower arrangements set up by one’s maid or butler,” she said.
Today, with over 100 active, associate, sustaining and honorary members — all women —, the meetings take place in many venues that can accommodate the club’s growing numbers. Tracy Rubin, who has been a SGC member since 2013, is its co-president.
Another difference is that membership in SGC is “very hands on. Today’s members dig in their own dirt and enjoy refreshments that the hostess committee provides,” McMahon said. Programs typically include presentations by experts in landscape and floral design, environmental studies, local farming and native plants, among many others. Open to the public, the meetings are held on the first Thursday of the month from September through December and from March through June.
Although the style and membership of the club has evolved in the last 90 years, McMahon stressed that its traditions, missions and objectives remain unchanged: the advancement of gardening; the development of home grounds; civic beautification, and aiding in the protection of forests, wild flowers and birds.
Committed to the beautification of Salem, the club has worked on the Town House Square, planted shrubs and annuals in Lappin Park, donated and planted trees in Salem Common and maintained the gardens at Brookhouse and Emmerton House.
Today, SGC’s civic involvement can be spotted in the celebrated large urns on Washington Street, the City Hall window boxes, and the Blue Star Marker on Hawthorne Boulevard. The club also provides monthly floral arrangements to the Salem Public Library and helps judge the window box and traffic island contest during Heritage Days. Each year, one lucky qualifying student receives a generous $1,000 scholarship, courtesy of club members.
The club is hardly idle during the winter months. Since the Christmas House Tour began in 1984, SGC members have participated by decorating one of the homes in the annual event. Starting in 1999, the club expanded its involvement to include the Christmas Boutique, where members sell handmade wreaths, swags, boxwood trees and arrangements to raise funds for its activities.
In 2017, the club’s biennial Garden Stroll, which highlights gardens in different neighborhoods, featured 15 private gardens in the McIntire District. The club is already busy planning its 2019 Garden Stroll.
McMahon has enjoyed her almost 20 years of SGC membership, with its monthly meetings where she has learned much from the many presenters and from fellow members. “Most of all, I’ve loved being a part of a dynamic organization and having the opportunity to meet so many wonderful people,” she said.
For more information, visit salemgardenclub.com or its Facebook page.