Constant Gardeners: the Founding of the Easton Garden Club
In June 1939, five Easton ladies were selected by the Federated Garden Clubs to represent Connecticut at the newly opened Gardens on Parade at the World’s Fair in New York. Mrs. Katherine Rauschkolb, Mrs. Edith Duff, Mrs. Lillian Shook, Mrs. Rose Coon and Miss Esther Foote served as exhibition hostesses at the main horticultural building. This impressive monumental rotunda was set within 5 1/2 acres of lush plantings that included 8,000 rose bushes and over 250 botanical species from more than 18 different countries. State-of-the-art greenhouses run by Cornell University offered visiting garden club members educational resources along with a chance to interact with plant enthusiasts and scientists from across the country. In all, this was an amazing opportunity for these women and their selection was an honor acknowledging their hard work founding the Easton Garden Club just one year earlier.
It was in the Spring of 1938 when thirteen townswomen met at the house of Lillian Shook on North Park Avenue for their first meeting on May 24th. Looking over their names published in the local paper, one might get the sense that this group was nothing more than housewives pursuing a hobby. It is true that the majority were wives and mothers, but many of them had extraordinary life stories and all were deeply affected by profound changes in their world. With an average age of 48, almost all of the original members were born in the last quarter of the 19th century. As young ladies, they gained the right to vote, and indeed at least two of the Easton Garden Club founders were leading figures in the suffragette movement. Mrs. Mary Washington Frazer Price, originally from Tennessee, once served as the vice-president of the Nashville Equal Suffrage League in 1913. Adele Szold Seltzer, a famous translator and author, was active in the Haddassah Women’s Organization founded by her sister Henrietta in 1912.
Supporting their country through World War I, many of the charter members of the garden club had job experience as bookkeepers, stenographers and nurses. While there were several who had attended college, including Helen Hubbell who was a trained teacher, there were those amongst the group without any formal schooling at all. And despite many of the women coming from families of wealth and privilege, some came from more modest homes and means. The group included Blanche, the wife of Bridgeport Hydraulic Company’s president, Samuel P. Senior, as well as Ruth, whose husband John Allen ran the local towing company. Together, despite their differences, these women began an ambitious schedule of activities that reveals quite a bit about their interests and how they perceived their civic role in our community.
Alternating their meetings between member’s homes, the club’s original purpose was to further the practical knowledge of gardening and to stimulate community interest in the care of “flowers, shrubs, trees, birds and wildflowers.” They hosted luncheons and teas where they shared their experiences and heard from guest speakers on topics ranging from rose cultivation to soil chemistry. Members with specific knowledge and skills were tasked with teaching others. The first president, Katherine Rauschkolb, gave talks on bulbs and flowering shrubs. Balancing the more scientific and scholarly presentations were demonstrations on artistic floral arrangement and local contests were held between neighboring gardening clubs. Blanche Senior was particularly skilled in floral design. She lead classes for members that culminated in a showcase of their work that was open for the public to enjoy.
Seasonal events included Christmas wreath making as well as town wide competitions for decorative doorway, mantel and table settings. These activities were closely tied to important contributions the women made to the greater Easton community. The club provided the holiday decorations for the town hall and for the elderly and shut-ins. They supplied Christmas trees to the local hospitals, donated funds to the Red Cross and provided gifts for local orphanages.
These acts were more than generous philanthropy as the members believed that beautification as well as community and land stewardship was an extension of their maternal responsibility. Stemming from the development of women’s clubs in the Victorian era, the early garden clubs of the 20th century held that nature was our larger home. Yards, roads, public building and parks were extensions of the domestic sphere and therefore a woman’s responsibility. Many of the founding members of the Easton Garden Club also established the Easton Improvement Association (EIA) in September 1938. This coed organization worked to clean up unsightly dumping areas and improve roadsides. Both groups seem to have coordinated their community projects and both funded their work entirely through private donations. While the Improvement Association was planting 150 flowering dogwood trees along Center Road from the Fire House to Town Hall, the Easton Garden Club was installing the foundation plantings around the municipal buildings. When the EIA was improving the appearance of the school athletic fields, the Easton Garden Club was clearing the poison ivy around the playgrounds.
The landscaping and the maintenance of these public areas was encouraged by the National Garden Club Federation as a way for women to reconcile the manmade features of modern life with nature. The newly constructed Merritt Parkway was a prime example of this environmental and aesthetic movement influencing urban design at the time. Its chief planner, Weld Thayer Chase, wanted the roadway to appear organic and in harmony with its bucolic surroundings.
The garden clubs of Connecticut assisted by populating flower beds and transplanting trees to create the road’s park-like vistas. Significantly, these groups worked with the designers to preserve many of the native species displaced by its construction and then replanted them. The Easton Garden Club was part of this grand project and they installed the landscaping along the town’s southbound exit. A bronze plaque sits on a boulder commemorated their handiwork and was dedicated in 1941. Despite its relocation in later years, it is still visible off Congress Street just off exit 46.
When the parkway was completed in 1940, it was immediately popular for its scenic beauty. People would often stop their cars on the shoulders for picnics and photo opportunities; a behavior that was quickly forbidden for safety. It was even said that Elenor Roosevelt drove along it every Spring to see the mountain laurels and dogwoods in bloom. The success of this roadway helped garden clubs throughout the country in their long standing battle against billboard usage. In Easton, the legacy of these efforts remains today in the restrictive ordinances that limit signage on our local roads.
The landscaping projects taken on by the Easton Garden Club were halted in 1941 even before the United States entered World War II. Some of the founding members were busy working with additional service organizations like the Red Cross and the Easton Civil Defense Council. Others chose to leave and volunteer in areas of more critical need. Adele Seltzer travelled to Palestine to work with refuges. In 1939, she submitted a resignation letter from her post as club historian. Preserved in their archives, she describes her reason for leaving with a gardener’s poeticism:
“…a unique flower has been discovered which comes from the heavens above not the earth below-the bomb. It scatters vast fiery petals. However, I will do my best to prevent its importation to our happy country. So the bombs remain there. For us, the azaleas, the gardenias, and petunias.”
Gardens in America were dramatically changed by the war and attention to flowers gave way to vegetables. Food production became the focus of local economies as huge quantities of produce were needed to support allied countries, our servicemen and the home front population. Government agencies encouraged local women’s groups, particularly gardening clubs, to pivot their attention towards household economies.
Prominent horticulturists such as Albert E. Wilkinson from the University of Connecticut were invited by the club to give lectures on “War Gardens” and “Canning the Garden Surplus.” Easton families were advised to have one hundred cans of vegetables and fifty cans of home prepared fruits for each member of the household to ensure an adequate supply. Presented at the Grange Hall, these talks were intended to prepare the local community for shortages caused by a lack of farm labor as well as reduced supplies of crates, boxes, and cans. Specific crops with high yields were recommended and advice was given on garden layouts. Working in tandem with government bureaus such as the County Agricultural Extension Services, garden clubs throughout Fairfield created a network to share resources. In person and hands-on instruction was made available through traveling home demonstration agents who were hosted by the clubs to teach women how to preserve food safely.
The Easton Garden Club was particularly concerned with the young and they sponsored a Victory Garden Contest in 1943 to encourage children in this activity. Cash prizes for the best results were $15 for 1st Place, $10 for 2nd Place and $7.50 for 3rd Place. These were substantial awards for the time and they were set for three separate age groups: 9-12, 13-15 and 16-20. Although a record of the local winners has not been found, these competitions were commonly held around the country. Promoted by the Disney Studio, there were Victory Garden themed cartoons, materials for a Green Thumb Contest as well as comic signage to delight youngsters and adults.
Commercial tie-ins to the Victory Gardens were frequent as the local civil defense councils often used department stores like Howland’s in Bridgeport to host their Harvest Shows. Through these events, government agencies were able to offer additional services from a central location and could get a better sense of the quantity of canned goods being produced in a region. The ladies from the Easton Garden Club participated in the “Pantry Corner” events and attended additional presentations on food safety to share with the women in town. Sponsors included companies like General Electric whose food science representatives were keen to introduce the latest in kitchen technologies while providing pamphlets and cook books to attendees.
A word of caution is needed though as these wartime gardens were not organic. Insecticides were used that we now known are extremely toxic. Early garden clubs and environmentalists had already raised awareness and worked to curtail the use of older pesticides, such as arsenic, particularly in fruit orchards. However, the newer compounds created in the 1940’s were thought to be safe alternatives. DDT, used to protect soldiers from insect born diseases like typhus and malaria, was marketed specifically to women. With no reason to doubt its safety and efficacy, moms liberally used this cheap chemical throughout their homes and gardens.
As the war ended, many civic organizations disbanded but the Easton Garden Club continued and thrived as it pivoted towards education and conservation. Approaching their tenth year anniversary in 1948, guest speakers addressed issues of bee keeping, soil erosion and town planning. The latter was particularly significant for the post-war era when residential construction boomed with returning soldiers. Realizing the importance of the younger generation in continuing their work, they sent local teachers like Helen Bilash to the Rhode Island Center for Conservation to bring back important lessons to share with school children. This began a tradition of funding scholarships in environmental studies that continues to this day. A book legacy was also instituted at this time with the Club donating publications to the town library in honor of those members who had passed on.
In the span of it first decade, the Easton Garden Club provided an astounding level of community service and established many philanthropic and seasonal traditions that have continued now for over eighty years. Despite the changing times, their core belief remains the same; the natural world is our home and it is our responsibility. They are still promoting native species, providing educational opportunities, and supporting local agriculture through their Pollinator Pathways Initiative and Easton Farm Map project.
It’s an inspiring story that hasn’t ended. With a new website and their new president, Jean Stetz Puchalski, the Easton Garden Club has responded and adapted to the current health crisis by offering online events and resources. The founding members would certainly be proud!
Interested in learning more about their programs? https://www.eastongardenclubofct.org