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Rockford Garden Club: Growing Beauty for 100 Years

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The members of Rockford Garden Club have been making our world more beautiful and vibrant for a full century. This year, they reflect on a century that’s changed and guiding principles that haven’t.

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One hundred years is a major milestone, whether for individuals or organizations. Such longevity reveals that a person or entity has the value, health, substance and gumption not only to survive but to thrive.

This year, Rockford Garden Club (RGC) members are setting down their shovels and trowels long enough to look back and take pride in the 10 decades of service they’ve given to the greater Rockford community. Because they’ve shared their gardening expertise through beautification projects and generous support, the city is a healthier and more beautiful place.

The club celebrates its anniversary at two major events, beginning with a members-only luncheon on June 22 at Klehm Arboretum and ending with a public luncheon and workshop at Forest Hills Country Club, with national gardening expert Lindsey Taylor as the featured speaker.

One reason this club has lasted for a century is its forward-thinking nature. Another is its generosity. The spectacular statue “Glassinator” that it has purchased for the community illustrates this point.

“Our 100th anniversary committee started raising funds for this anniversary 10 years ago,” says Sally Baker, a 30-year club member and co-chair of the anniversary celebration. “We wanted to do something significant, so we researched many ideas and several sites for our gift and selected the Klehm site since this allows RGC to connect to the beautification efforts, transformation and redevelopment of the South Main corridor to our city. Hopefully, our sculpture gift will be an impetus to others to participate in civic beautification.”

Glassinator is a strikingly graceful 9-foot-tall kinetic sculpture with a twisted metal base representing a tree trunk. Rotating multi-colored glass cups that resemble leaves hang from the tree’s branches and rustle in the wind. Globally known Seattle artist Andrew Carson created the piece. This gift from the club to the Rockford community will be a permanent installation at Klehm Arboretum. The $10,000 sculpture was chosen and purchased by the club, which will dedicate it on June 22 at 11 a.m., as part of its anniversary celebration.

“We feel it’s our civic duty to connect with every part of the city, and Glassinator is just one of the integral parts in our plan to add even more beauty and grace to Rockford,” Baker explains.

Cherri Eaton, co-chair with Linda Salmon of the celebratory June luncheon, says, “We started more than a year ago, May 2015, to secure a place and develop a theme along with the menu.”

The theme is a salute to the club’s glorious history, illustrated with items such as gloves, pearls, vintage clothing, photographs, linens and crystal all interwoven with fresh flowers from members’ gardens.

“Many of our members have magnificent gardens,” Eaton says. “It’s going to be truly spectacular. It’s our job to make this occasion as beautiful as we possibly can. The color theme is pink and green.”

One of the most important parts of the celebration is honoring 10 of the club’s longest-standing members.

“Jean Larson has been a member since 1966. That’s 50 years,” Eaton says. “Others who will be recognized for their long-term dedication are Beverly Rosecrance (1967), Kay Mattison (1967), Georganne Eggers (1977), Denise Oliver (1977) and Frannie Heggblom (1982). Most of the 10 have been members for at least 40 years.”

Eaton hints at surprises that are lined up as well.

“We will not just celebrate the past and our passion for nature and environmental issues,” Eaton says. “The luncheon also will focus on the future. We’re a hands-on club. We really dig into the dirt and get things done.”

The June luncheon crowns a full year of meetings centered on the club’s unique history and its vital place in the Rockford community.

The October Centennial Luncheon, which will be open to the general public, is already generating excitement because of keynote speaker Lindsey Taylor, says Susie Murray, program co-chair.

Landscape designer, floral stylist, garden editor, creative director and writer are just a few of Taylor’s titles. The Manhattan resident worked for many years in the publishing industry as a garden editor for Garden Design Magazine and was garden editor-at-large for Martha Stewart Living and creative director for Domino Magazine.

The luncheon and a workshop earlier that day will be open to the public at Forest Hills Lodge, says Murray. Taylor will speak on “The Art of Flowers: Finding Inspiration from Great Works of Art.”

In addition to these major events, the club is being treated to a decade-by-decade monthly program focused on its history.

“I wanted to come up with a fun program that took the members through 100 years, broken down into decades,” says program co-chair Susan Huntting. “I denoted each decade by wearing an appropriate hat and explaining not only what was going on with the club, but also what was happening worldwide in that decade.

“For 1916 through the 1920s, I wore a lovely big, straw garden hat that women gardeners traditionally wore at that time,” Huntting says. “For the 1930s, it was the slouch hat and, in the 1940s, a blue woven straw hat with a veil.”

The 1950s saw a return of big, elegant hats, Huntting says. The 1960s were characterized by Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hat.

“To represent the 1970s, I created a halo wreath of flowers with long ribbons to depict the flower child era,” Huntting says. “That was a big hit. And for the 1980s, I found a red rolled-brimmed hat with a blue grosgrain ribbon around the crown.

“For the 1990s, I wore a fascinator to the club’s 100th decade English tea that was the final meeting of the anniversary year held at Indian Hill Manor estate.”

For the final presentation, four ladies portrayed past members and appeared in vintage dress speaking about the times when they were most active in the club.

“Celebrating the final meeting at Indian Hill Manor was particularly meaningful because its owner, Mrs. C.C. Barrett, was a past president of the Rockford Garden Club,” Huntting explains.

One of the club’s longest-standing members, Georganne Eggers, has fond memories not only of Indian Hill Manor but of the amazing women whose contributions made RGC the viable organization it is today.

“I found a newspaper photograph not long ago that shows Mrs. Barrett being installed as the president,” Eggers says. “My mother served as treasurer on that board in 1933. I didn’t remember this, as I was only 11 years old at the time. We used to live across the street from Indian Hill Manor, which is also observing its 100th anniversary.”

Eggers grew up with RGC as an integral part of her life and knew many of the club’s earliest members. One was Mrs. Florence Hicks, a charter member who owned a large section of land that now forms part of Anderson Japanese Gardens and Keith Country Day School.

“Mrs. Hicks and her husband built a cottage on the land with plans to build a home later,” Eggers says. “Sadly, Mr. Hicks died and Mrs. Hicks made the cottage her home. I was taken there to visit as a child. Mrs. Hicks and Mother were close friends. Mrs. Hicks designed all of the flowers for my garden wedding and gave me a lovely glass vase that I treasure to this day.”

In those days, prospective members were expected to have a fairly good grasp on gardening skills. Mrs. Hicks often visited their homes and inspected their backyards to ensure they were up to the club’s high standards.

“Now it’s good to see younger people join, and we have relaxed that standard so that newcomers can gain the gardening skills they need to become experts,” Eggers says.

Eggers also remembers Katherine (Tottie) Carrico, who had established an exceptionally fine, highly stylized garden with elegant furniture.

Eggers knew Marion Hourdequin, who, with her husband, opened a flower shop in Loves Park, Ill., that featured beautiful elements for weddings.

“Marion was an earthy gardener who never hesitated to dig right in,” Eggers recalls. “She was very tall. When she was invited into the club, her sponsor told her to sit in the back so she wouldn’t block anyone’s view. Marion did exactly that, so the members had to turn around and crane their necks to see her when she was introduced.”

For the English Tea at Indian Hill Manor, Eggers fulfilled the role of Mrs. Barrett and acted as hostess, greeting club members at the door.

Rockford Garden Club traces its origins back to an invitation by Mrs. William Robertson to ladies in the Rockford community to organize a club that would not only provide opportunities to share gardening experiences but also work to beautify neighborhoods in the city. The organizational meeting was held July 17, 1916, as World War I raged in Europe, when the minds and hearts of Americans were in need of positive impetus.

With 29 charter members led by Robertson, who served as the first president, the club took very seriously its mission to provide education, resources and networking opportunities for members and to promote the love of gardening, floral design and civic and environmental responsibility.

The group wasted no time in drawing up four goals: to interchange ideas; to stand for civic betterment in beautifying our city; to sow wildflower seeds along the roads approaching Rockford; and to spread seeds with those who show a love of growing things. The club’s first civic beautification effort was creating a garden for the tuberculosis sanitarium.

Club members rolled up their sleeves and got to work on major projects. RGC was barely one year old when America became involved in World War I in 1917.

“The women of the club rolled gauze bandages for the soldiers and improved the landscaping around the Camp Grant Hospital so it was a more pleasant, comforting place,” says Huntting. “They picked flowers from their gardens to take to the patients to cheer them up.”

In 1922, RGC President Katherine Barnes declared that RGC must “go on its flowery way each year a little stronger, a little wiser, a little larger until it becomes for the community that which cannot be spared: the standard bearer for civic beautification.”

Along with donating plants at the Lincoln Memorial in Springfield, the club worked with Rockford to preserve the beautiful trees that led to the city’s nickname, the Forest City. The women not only beautified areas around the I-90 corridor and tollbooths, but also strongly supported the elimination of highway billboards, in solidarity with the same effort on a national level led by First Lady Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson. Other ambitious landscaping projects, over the decades, included the installation of plantings at Rockford University, Rockford Public Library, Burpee Museum and Crusader Clinic. The tradition of being fully involved in the community’s enhancement continued steadily.

“As part of the 75th anniversary in 1991, the club members established the garden island in front of Riverfront Museum Park,” says Rita Houlihan, who is co-authoring a decade-by-decade history of the club. “In 2001, they updated the garden. The club’s involvement in the Riverfront Museum Garden continued until 2010, when it was rejuvenated, after which Riverfront assumed responsibility for it.”

Rockford Garden Club partners with the Rockford Park District to enhance community landmarks including Sinnissippi Gardens and the Nicholas Conservatory.

Beyond beautification projects, the women participated in improving the lives of Rockford residents by donating food to the poor and funds to the Winnebago Home for the Aged, during the Great Depression. Through the decades, the club has donated both flowers and funds for plantings by raising money through special events. They have used the money to benefit nonprofit organizations including Klehm Arboretum and the Nicholas Conservatory; the club purchased a large urn for the latter, which is now part of the beauty surrounding the lagoon in Sinnissippi Park garden. The club also supports the Natural Land Institute.

Today, the 70 active club members are involved in beautification efforts in Rockford’s downtown. One of their most ambitious and visible projects is filling dozens of hanging baskets with greens every winter and planting flowers in four large planters each season. The club financially supports the City of Gardens summer hanging basket efforts.

“The club began beautifying the downtown area in 2001,” Houlihan says. “It’s one of the club’s longest- running community projects.” The four large pots have been moved around several times and have been standing in front of the Coronado Performing Arts Center since 2014.

“In 2005, we helped the City of Gardens fund its participation in the America in Bloom contest,” she continues. “In 2001, we supported the Muldoon Grove Garden of the Senses with a donation.” That garden is located on the Crusader Clinic property on West State Street in Rockford.

In addition to fun, flowers and historical recognition, education is also a big part of RGC’s agenda.

“It’s a mainstay in our programming efforts,” says Murray, program co-chair with Hunttiing. “We get crazy-busy finding good, knowledgeable speakers and planning season-appropriate programs.”

As an example, Murray points to last September’s meeting when Candice Miller, of the University of Illinois Extension, spoke to members about how to design and plant trans-seasonal container gardens.

“We seek out master gardeners, experts who live and breathe gardening,” Murray says. “Our members get truly jazzed up about these speakers, ask lots of questions and take photos.”

Murray says the November program focused on Victory Gardens from the World War II era as a reflection of Thanksgiving. The December program was dedicated to holiday arrangements. Floral designer David Bryan brought in a fresh, 5-foot evergreen tree and showed members how to shape a beautiful 3-foot-tall miniature Christmas tree and how to use the cut-off branches for other holiday decorations.

“Each month’s program adds more depth and dimension to our members’ knowledge of gardening,” Murray says. “And we’re all very generous when it comes to sharing our experiences with our fellow members.”

When its centennial year wraps up, RGC will be poised to start its second century in much the same manner as it conducted its first. There’s no question that the Rockford community has benefitted immensely from this club’s dedication to bringing lasting beauty wherever it is needed.

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