GCE members working in the Shakespeare Garden about 1931.

A History of The Garden Club
of Evanston


By Eleanor Ellis Perkins


A history of The Garden Club of Evanston should include the reasons for its beginning, its continuance and for its activities. To think back to the year 1915 when it was organized is to realize that the garden club was an evidence of changing times. The First World War had been raging for a year, and Americans, conscious of their ancestral ties with Europe, were standing by, torn between a desire to help and the conviction that it was wrong to go to war, except in self-defense.

Great Britain, one of the most heavily involved of the Allied Powers, still ruled the waves, and her empire was still one on which the sun never set. Proud of their tradition, Americans of British ancestry were strongly pro-British in sympathy and sought ways of showing it, short of war. Bundles for Britain and the organization of The English Speaking Union were two such efforts. There was also a nationwide campaign to recognize and commemorate the tercentenary on April 23, 1916, of the death of the great Shakespeare, who belongs equally in all English-speaking inheritance.

The wish to join in this expression by making a Shakespeare Garden was the project around which the Garden Club of Evanston took shape. To make a garden which would perpetuate the cultivation of the flowers that Shakespeare had immortalized in poetry, and in which the peace of natural beauty could descend upon war-torn souls, became the purpose of the charter members.

The first stirring of the garden club idea seems to have come from a meeting of the Smith College Circle in May, 1915, when a program on gardening was presented. Mrs. Albert H. Gross was inspired by it to send out cards inviting a list of women she knew to come to her home at 1100 Ridge Avenue on June 3rd, if they were interested in forming a garden club.

The women who accepted typified. Although no one recognized it at the time, an era of hostesses and homemakers was passing. With genuine administrative ability, they managed spacious homes, set far back from tree-shaded streets amidst wide lawns and gardens. It goes without saying that these women were aware of their opportunity and their responsibility to run their homes almost as public trusts, and to make them centers of social life and public service. They were hostesses trained in the exercise of wise hospitality, who set high standards for the community. To these women, the pleasure of a garden was indispensable.

There was Mrs. Daniel H. Burnham, mistress of a garden of several acres that stretched from Burnham Place to Dempster Street and from Forest Avenue to the lake. Her rambling stone house was encircled by wide porches; a vegetable and cutting garden was bisected by a wide brick walk, shaded by a pergola, that ended in a flight of stone steps leading up to the Burnham terrace and bronze-roofed teahouse. Beyond this, the balustrade surmounting the retaining wall supported urns planted in summer with geraniums, pink against the vast blue lake – a dramatically beautiful garden.

Another charter member was Mrs. Gabriel Slaughter, whose charming cupola-topped mansion crowned the Ridge at Greenwood Street, set in half a block of rare plants and flowering trees. Mrs. Lawrence deGolyer was at the first meeting. Her white-columned house still stands at Forest Place. Mrs. Harrison B. Riley’s house on Sheridan Road also faced the lake; her walled back garden was beautiful in the spring with tulips and the heavy bloom of lilacs and peonies.

Mrs. Gross and her sister-in-law Mrs. Irene Rew shared the care of a famous garden that occupied the better part of a block on the Ridge on Greenleaf Street. This garden was known for its unusual trees, a cloister and landscaped vistas. It was a beautiful setting for debuts and receptions.

In addition to the ten or twelve administrators of large gardens, the group assembled at Mrs. Gross’ invitation included women whose skill and talents were exercised on their smaller gardens, for which they, rather than a staff of gardeners, had the credit.

Perhaps the names of the rest of the charter members should be recorded here, since they were all equally responsible for making the garden club a valued influence in molding the town. They were: Mrs. Frank Parker Davis, Mrs. William Nichols, Mrs. Robert Belknap, Mrs. Newell Knight, Mrs. Alice Houston, Mrs. W.T. Reeves. Mrs. James F. Oates, Mrs. Frank H. Armstrong, Mrs. Charles Quinlan, Mrs. James Murray, Mrs. Oliver Wilson, Mrs. Albert R. Barnes, Mrs. Ernest Woodyat, Mrs. Seldon F. White, Mrs. John H.S. Lee, Mrs. George Peaks, Mrs. F. M. Harnwell, Mrs. F.AW. Pomeroy, Mrs. Kenneth Barnhart, Mrs. Charles Lincoln Bartlett and Mrs. John R. Guilliams.

The second meeting of the group was held at the home of Mrs. Burnham and a constitution and bylaws were adopted. Article Two of the carefully prepared document states: “To stimulate the knowledge and love of gardening among amateurs, to share the advantage of association, through conference and correspondence in this country and abroad; to aid in the protection of native plants and birds, and to encourage civic planning.”

Professor C.B. Atwell, head of the botany department at Northwestern University, became the godfather of the club’s first project. Shakespeare Garden. Through his intercession with President A.W. Harris of the University and with Mr. William A. Dyche, the Business Manager, a plot of ground on the campus, measuring seventy by one hundred feet, located just south of what was then the Patten Gymnasium, but is now the site of the University’s Technological Institute, was assigned to the club. With the help and advice of Professor Atwell, the club began the planning which converted the area into the lovely, secluded garden refuge that it is today.

The club had the great good fortune to secure the services of Jens Jensen, well-known landscape architect, poet. Dreamer and patriot, to design the garden. Mr. Jensen is renowned as the father of the priceless forest preserve system which rings the city of Chicago and the man who was, more than any other, responsible for our cherished lakefront parks. Members of the club, working with Mr. Jensen, pondered the pages of Shakespeare’s poetry to list from them the names of the flowers he celebrated. These names alone evoke our pleasure: monkshood, roses, eglantine, and sweetbriar, columbine, cowslip, ragged robin, buttercup, daffodils, honeysuckle, hawthorn, lavender, mallow, marigold, pansies, primrose, rue, wild thyme, violets, marjoram, and rosemary for remembrance.

The hedges of hawthorn that enclose the garden were planted, and the beds were filled, the drudgery of planting often done by members themselves on their hands and knees. Money was saved bit by bit for a fountain. Benches and a bronze plaque designed by the sculptor Leon Hermont, given by Mr. Herbert Burnham in honor of his mother, were installed. The hedges grew and filled out and after a few years the garden was developed to the point where a formal presentation to the University could be made.

A reading of the club minutes down the years reveals the constant loving care given to the garden. The hours of labor invested by members are not recorded, nor are their satisfaction and pleasure in gardening together that they found there a matter of record. The records do attest to the appreciation of the garden by the public; varied social functions have taken place there, including weddings. And the garden was once so loved by a stranger that after her death her ashes were scattered there in accordance to her final request.

Shortly after the end of the first World War, the club purchased and supervised the planting of eighty carefully matched young elm trees on the grounds of the Evanston Township High School, as a memorial to the young men of Evanston who died in the was. Now, after more than forty years of growing, they are among the most magnificent trees in the city. They were maintained under the direction and at the expense of the club until 1951. when the school Board of Education assumed that responsibility. As this is written, only two trees have been lost to the Dutch elm disease and the superintendent of grounds at the school reports that the others seem to be in healthy condition. A fine bronze marker stands at the end of the avenue.

In 1921 Mrs. Leslie Hildreth, then president of the club, received a welcome telegram from the president of the Garden Club of America informing her that “a resolution was presented and unanimously adopted that the Garden Club of Evanston be admitted to membership in the Garden Club of America.” This was a long, slow and painstakingly earned honor. The club’s application for membership in the distinguished national group was sponsored by the Lake Forest Garden Club and seconded by the Lake Geneva Garden Club.

Inclusion in the Garden Club of America augmented and extended the scope of the work of the Garden Club of Evanston , and, since 1921 to the present, a large share of the activities of the club have paralleled GCA programs. Members of the club have also participated vigorously as individuals in its nationwide achievements. Constructive work is carried on in the field of conservation with some notable achievements. The GCA national program has made financially possible through the Founders’ Fund a long list of educational and conservation benefits. The Fund, which amounts annually to more than two thousand dollars, has been given for such diverse uses as a grant to the New York Botanical Garden for research on plant diseases, the purchase of the Ridges Sanctuary at Bailey’s Harbor, the restoration of the gardens at Oakley Plantation in Feliciana Parish, the planting of the Cathedral Close in Washington D.C. and the garden at Abraham Lincoln’s home in Springfield.

In addition to the wider field of action offered by membership in the GCA, there are advantages to be gained in gardening education and ideas. Annual meetings are held in every section of the United States, when both private and public gardens are visited and studied. In 1933 the Garden Club of Evanston and the Lake Forest Garden Club were hosts to the Garden Club of America when the Chicago Century of Progress brought the Annual Meeting to the North Shore.

Our club supports a large group of allied organizations through memberships, including the Garden Clubs of Illinois, the Chicago Horticultural Society, the Nature Conservancy, the Wildflower Preservation Society and many others.

An important part of the club’s program lies in the fields of education and conservation. Through the years, students of botany, landscape architecture, and conservation have been assisted by gifts of money, in amounts ranging from thirty dollars at the high school level, to one thousand dollars for scientific research.

In 1937, the Park District of the city of Evanston gave the club permission to establish a wildflower garden on the grounds of the old Grosse Pointe Lighthouse. Since that time, a nature trail has also been developed there. The superb collection of native wildflowers is clearly marked and described and a bulletin board is used for additional information, changed as seasonal changes take place in the garden. The Evanston Bird Club, with some assistance from the garden club, maintains a nature center in the old lighthouse keeper’s residence. The center and the garden are used extensively by public school teachers to implement class instruction in nature study and conservation.

The club actively supported The Nature Conservancy in the acquisition of the Volo and Wauconda bogs in 1957. A gift of $500 was made from the club’s treasury toward the purchase price and this sum was augmented by generous donations from individual members of the club. The bogs were saved from drainage for a housing development and are now under the care and supervision of the botany department of the University of Illinois.

Dr. Margery C. Carlson. Associate professor of botany at Northwestern University until her retirement in 1960 was elected to honorary membership in the garden club in 1950. The club takes great pride in her accomplishments and honors in the field of botanic exploration and research, and also in the fact that two monetary gifts made to her by the club helped finance her plant hunting expeditions in Central America. It was on these expeditions that she collected specimens of the genus Russelia (snapdragons) and other plants for the herbarium of the Chicago Museum of Natural History. Her monograph, The Genus Russelia (Socrophulariaceae), which illustrates and identifies fifty two species of the genus, many of them hitherto unknown to botanists, was published by the Museum in 1957, in the Fieldiana Botany Series. It is recognized as the standard work on the genus and is in use in the libraries of herbaria throughout the world. In 1952 on the nomination of the garden club, Dr. Carlson was awarded the Eloise Payne Luquer medal of the Garden Club of America for her distinguished work in the field of botany.

An interesting undertaking of the club’s civics committee was the initiation in 1937, of the organization of a group of prominent citizens incorporated as the Evanston Associates. With help from the club’s treasury and from many Evanston residents and business firms, the group undertook and successfully carried out landscaping projects on the lakefront, between Simpson Street and other arterial roads leading into the city. The Associates disbanded during the second World War, but much of their good work is still evident.

In 1959 the club joined with other clubs in the Central Western Zone of the GCA and the Chicago Horticultural Society to revive the old Chicago Flower and Garden Show, which had been a casualty of World War II. The club gave two general chairmen and one co-chairman for the Garden Club of America sections in the show, and all members of the club have participated in the effort. Many have also worked closely with the Horticultural Society to give Chicago a botanic garden. Plans for the garden have advanced to the point where ground will be broken in the spring of 1965.

The club has helped to design and establish a number of gardens, notably the inner court garden of the Evanston Public Library and the Senior Court at the high school. Funds were given to assist the landscaping of the grounds of the Evanston Day Nursery and the Evanston Community Hospital.

The first fundraising project of the club, a garden market and fair, was undertaken in May of 1916, the profits earmarked for the club’s first public benefaction, Shakespeare Garden. In 1966 the market will have survived the vicissitudes of fifty years; in some respects it has changed and in others it remains the same. It is now managed by the Evanston Garden Council, an organization of all garden clubs in the city, formed in 1949, and sponsored by the Evanston Chamber of Commerce. Our club, as a member of the Council, has an active voice in the management of the event and profits from our club’s participation still pay for the maintenance of Shakespeare Garden.

The first market was held in Raymond Park. Booths and counters were set up along the paths through the park; members of the club brought divisions of plants from their own gardens and augmented their sales stock with purchases from local nurseries; blooming plants from members’ greenhouses made gay splotches of color, professional growers backed their trucks filled with pansies and sweet William into the curb on Grove Street and gave a commission to the club on all sales. Garden club members, their husbands, gardeners, chauffeurs, maids, sisters, cousins and aunts served potato salad, sliced ham, poured coffee, lugged flower pots, sold plants and dispensed gardening advice at the counters.

Mrs. Irwin Rew, who helped to organize and run the first market, has written this description of the day: “A beautiful day dawned; at 10 o’clock the Boy Scout troop beat a rata-tat-tat, the flag was raised, the Mayor bid us welcome, and so the first Garden Market was launched and proved to be a great success.”

In 1956 the club conceived and executed a successful money raising project called Tradition in Flowers and Furnishings. Rare antique furniture, beautiful accessories, paintings and bibelots from the homes of club members were brought together and composed as separate rooms, according to style and period. Beautiful flower arrangements complemented each group of furniture. The show was unforgettably lovely and received a very fine press. In addition to the exhibit of rooms, there was a boutique, stocked by talented members of the club, who worked for the better part of a year designing and creating decorative accessories to be sold at the show. In 1963 the club opened the homes of five members for a most successful Christmas house and garden walk,

Now at the end of the Garden Club of Evanston’s first half century, it is interesting to compare its present circumstance with that of fifty years ago. No longer is Evanston a city of comfortable mansions and smaller well-run homes and gardens, of sandy macadam streets where children could play and build their bonfires; where well-known folk such as the ice man and vegetable man from the truck farm on the western edge of town sell their wares from their wagons. No longer do adults sit on their front porches and recognize the coachmen and horses of the well-to-do amble past.

Other times! Other customs! Today Evanston still has a core of stable population, but here as elsewhere population is on the move. Citizens do not now serve the town as benefactors on the larger scale of former times. Evanston must now make conscious efforts to interest its residents in serving as good citizens even though their stay here is short.

What is the function of the Garden Club today? Wherein lies the satisfaction that members derive from it? There are many answers. For one answer, the garden club, in a fast-moving world, serves as a core that lends stability. It is still dedicated to the home and to the homemaker who must now combine in herself the skills that once were supplied by paid help. The club is a valued means of keeping alive and channeling the interest of good citizens who would like to create a good community. It offers a way for like-minded women to get together and do something creative. And finally, it encourages and trains its members in the gardening skills and in the tranquility to be found in the good earth and among growing things.

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Founding Members of The Garden Club of Evanston

Olga Balch has an original “Green Book,” from the first year of our Club’s existence, 1915. Here is a list of our founding members:

  • Mrs. Frank Armstrong, 1030 Ridge Avenue
  • Mrs. A.R. Barnes, 1314 Forest Avenue
  • Mrs. Kenneth Barnhart, 1120 Lake Shore Drive
  • Mrs. Charles L. Bartlett, 1415 Judson Avenue
  • Mrs. Robert E. Belknap, 2514 Sheridan Road
  • Mrs. Daniel F. Burnham, 232 Dempster Street
  • Mrs. F. Parker Davis, Sheridan Road
  • Mrs. Laurence DeGolyer, 1616 Forest Avenue
  • Mrs. A.H. Gross, 1100 Ridge Avenue
  • Mrs. F. W. Harnwell, 615 University Place
  • Miss Alice Houston, 1426 Forest Avenue
  • Mrs. Newell Knight, 1847 Asbury Avenue
  • Mrs. J.H.S. Lee, 1225 Sheridan Road
  • Mrs. James T. Murray, 320 Greenwood Boulevard
  • Mrs. William Edwin Nichols, 304 Stock Exchange Building, Chicago
  • Mrs. J.F. Oates, 2252 Orrington Avenue
  • Mrs. George H. Peaks, 709 Foster Street
  • Mrs. F. W. Pomeroy, 1832 Asbury Avenue
  • Mrs. Charles T. Quinlan, 728 Colfax Street
  • Mrs. W.T. Reeves, 1133 Judson Avenue
  • Mrs. Irwin Rew, 1128 Ridge Avenue
  • Mrs. H.B. Riley, 1822 Sheridan Road
  • Mrs. Selden F. White, 419 Greenwood Boulevard
  • Mrs. Oliver Wilson, 222 Lake Street
  • Mrs. Earnest Woodyatt, 619 Colfax Street

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