A HISTORY OF THE GARDEN CLUB OF EVANSTON
The first mention of a garden club followed a meeting of the Smith College Circle in May, 1915, when a program on gardening was presented. Mrs. Albert H. Gross was inspired by the program to invite women she knew to come to her home at 1100 Ridge Avenue on June 3rd if they were interested in forming a garden club. Twenty-five socially active and civic minded Evanston woman accepted and became the charter members. Mrs. Daniel H. Burnham, widow of the famed architect and urban planner, was the mistress of a garden of several acres and attended the first meeting. The By-Laws that were adopted stated that “Those persons shall be eligible for active membership who are workers in their own gardens, those who take personal interest in and who supervise work in gardens valuable for exhibition purposes, those who are keenly and actively interested in garden projects, civic or semi-public, and those who possess valuable knowledge of gardening and kindred subjects.” When women were invited to join, they were expected to be a “sincere lover of nature,” be dependable and personally agreeable to all other members of the club. By 1921, the Garden Club of Evanston was granted membership in the Garden Club of America.
Immediately, the project that the new Garden Club of Evanston adopted was to create a Shakespeare Garden. The First World War had been raging for a year and Americans, conscious of their ancestral ties with Europe and in support of Britain, launched a nationwide campaign to recognize April 23, 1916, as the tercentenary of the death of the great William Shakespeare. Professor C.B. Atwell, head of the botany department at Northwestern University, became the godfather of the club’s first project. 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, was assigned to the club.
The club had the great good fortune to secure the services of Jens Jensen, well-known landscape architect, to design the garden. It was fortuitous because he had already begun working on such a design. In order to raise funds for the installation of the garden, the club held a garden market on May 13, 1916, in Raymond Park. Plants, flowers, and other garden related products were sold. This market grew to include other Evanston garden clubs (which then became the Evanston Garden Council), became known as the Garden Fair, and continued to be GCE’s major fundraiser for eighty-six years.
When Shakespeare Garden filled in and was developed satisfactorily, Anna Rew Gross formally presented the garden to University President Walter Dill Scott and the Northwestern Board of Trustees at a dedication on May 18, 1930. Years later in November of 1988, Shakespeare Garden was listed on The National Register of Historic Places, the first historic Evanston landmark to be so designated. This magnificent garden, over 100 years old, continues to be carefully and lovingly maintained by members.
Another very early project of GCE, shortly after the end of the First World War, was the purchase and planting of eighty carefully matched elm trees on the grounds of the Evanston Township High School as a memorial to the young men of Evanston who died in the war. Through the years ETHS has been the recipient of GCE’s money and time. Contributions have helped fund the ETHS Nature Center, the Nature Demonstration Project, and the Edible Acre. Donations were made to ETHS to maintain the perennial garden, to plant the inner courtyard, to plant 90 Bonica roses, and to renovate the greenhouse.
The Park Commissioners of the North East Park District of Evanston approved a request by GCE in 1937 to place a garden on the Grosse Pointe Lighthouse Grounds. Thus, the Wildflower Trail Garden, also designed by Jens Jensen, became the second major garden that the club was responsible for planting and maintaining. An honorary member of GCE, Dr. Margery Carlson, well-known Professor of Botany at NU, was a lover of wildflowers and a conservationist who founded the Illinois Chapter of the Nature Conservancy. She chaired Wildflower Garden for several years and made significant contributions to the Lighthouse Nature Center. In 1983 and 1984, GCE was awarded funds from GCA and the founders Fund to help restore the greenhouse on the Lighthouse grounds.
During the Second World War, the club’s activities slowed but did not stop. Some projects included donating a fully equipped mobile kitchen bearing the club’s name, which operated in England for residents of bombed cities. By 1941, the club had invested $1,000 in war bonds and, three years later, $16,000 was earmarked for War Bonds. The following year the club furnished two apartments for families of enlisted Navy men in Cabrini Green. Naturally, members joined other Evanston residents with developing and maintaining Victory Gardens.
During the 50’s, GCE joined with other area clubs and the Chicago Horticultural Society to revive the old Chicago Flower and Garden Show which had been a casualty of WWII. Many of the club’s members worked to establish a botanic garden for Chicago. There was much celebrating when ground was broken in 1965 for the Chicago Botanic Garden
In 1995, a Butterfly Garden was established adjacent to the Wildflower Garden. Planting and maintaining this garden became the responsibility of the conservation committee of the club.
Beyond the commitment to fund and maintain these community gardens, the Club has made significant contributions to the City of Evanston, the State of Illinois and the country. GCE 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.
In order to acknowledge the Millennium, an effort was spearheaded on the lakefront at North East Park just beyond Lighthouse Park from 1997 to 2000. The goal of the project was to clear out the underbrush and growth so that Lake Michigan would again be visible from the park. Dead trees and scrub debris were removed, the nature trail was reinforced with fresh wood chips, and native plants were saved and new ones introduced.
Once again the high school became the focus of the club’s civic project. As a response to Garden Club of America’s suggestion that all clubs participate in the GCA Centennial in 2013 with a project focusing on trees, GCE responded by collaborating once again with ETHS to create the Centennial Tree Project. The club sponsored a site inventory of the high school’s trees and woody shrubs by providing the funding and the volunteers. It took seven years to inventory, research, photograph, and add to the collection of trees on the campus. Finally, for educational and display purpose, the trees and woody shrubs were marked with signage that included descriptive botanical information thereby qualifying the site to be called an arboretum. The arboretum for the students was completed in 2015 as part of the Garden Club of Evanston Centennial celebration.
After withdrawing from the Garden Fair in 2002, the club began holding a House Walk every two years as the major fundraiser supporting all its activities. In the years when the club is not holding a major fundraiser, an educational program often about conservation is offered to the community.
The year 2015 was exciting as the Garden Club of Evanston celebrated its centennial. Yearlong activities, included a Kick-off Party in December, 2014, a celebration in Shakespeare Garden in June, receiving a proclamation from the City of Evanston naming June 14th as Garden Club of Evanston Day, the addition of an honorary street name to eastbound Garrett Street “Shakespeare Garden Founders’ Way,” creating a traveling poster presentation displaying the history and contributions of GCE to the City of Evanston, presenting a Water Symposium to the community, dedicating the completion of the Tree Project at ETHS, and staffing an information booth at the Evanston Farmers Market. The club presented Northwestern University with a GCA Historic Preservation Award and the City of Evanston with a GCE Certificate of Appreciation.
In recognition of the centennial, Northwestern University underwrote the renovation of Shakespeare Garden so, in 2016, a new underground sprinkling system, new benches and lighting were installed. Northwestern received a Design Evanston Award 2017 for the garden under the category of Landscape Design.
Throughout the entire GCE history flower arranging and horticulture have been integral parts of annual programming whether it be through demonstrations, speakers, in-club shows, or field trips. Photography has been more recently included as a part of sanctioned Flower Shows by the Garden Club of America. Members enjoy entering and participating in competitions at Zone XI Meetings and GCA Annual Meetings.
The Conservation and National Affairs and Legislation Committees work together enhancing the GCA purpose to “restore, improve, and protect the quality of the environment through educational programs and action in the fields of conservation and civic improvement.” GCE has been and continues to be deeply committed to protecting and beautifying our land.