Monday, January 13, 2020

The Elmira Garden Club

By Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Every season planters in front of our museum are creatively arranged by members of the Elmira Garden Club. We always appreciate their work.

While our museum has been located on East Water Street for close to thirty-nine years, the Elmira Garden Club has been going strong and part of the community for ninety-two years. The idea of a club began as an inspiration of a local high school senior. James H. Draper, Jr. later said he always enjoyed flowers and gardening, and wanted to start a club similar to garden clubs popping up in other cities.
Garden Club founder James H. Draper, Jr. 1928

In early 1928, James placed an ad in the paper hoping to find other like-minded people. Fifteen people responded, and convinced he could find more, James placed a second ad. When another fifteen people showed up, the group had thirty members and the club began. The group met at Steele Memorial Library and elected James Draper as the club’s first president. He held this position for the next four years, during which time membership grew to more than sixty-five people. Soon after it began, the club affiliated with the Federal Garden Clubs of New York, broadening its scope.

Founded to promote, instruct, and assist area gardeners, its members also strived to conserve and protect forests and waterways for wildlife and recreation. At one early meeting, Chemung County 4-H leader Frank Essick spoke in favor of Elmira’s new club. He let them all know they could count on the endorsement and resources of Cornell University’s College of Agriculture.

Early club activities included an annual flower show, and garden workshops for novice and experienced gardeners.
Dahlia show display at Arnot Mall, September, 1969
Meetings often featured speakers, who presented a variety of garden-related topics. In 1935, the club was instrumental in introducing an important conservation organization to the area, the Audubon Society. Formed in 1905, they are a non-profit environmental - and one of the oldest - organizations to use science, education and grassroots advocacy to advance its conservation mission.

The Garden Club was also actively involved in keeping Elmira beautiful, and received national recognition for their outstanding civic beautification projects.

While club meetings continued to be held at Steele Memorial Library, an opportunity arose for them to obtain their own clubhouse, which included available space to garden. The building at Fulton and Pleasant Streets had once housed the hospital for Civil War families and was later used as an orphan asylum. It had been abandoned and vacant since the 1930s.
Elmira Garden Clubhouse
Agreeing to care for the building and grounds, the Elmira Garden Club took it over and nine years later were able to purchase the property. The year was 1943. The USA was involved in WWII, and not surprisingly the featured garden that year celebrated Victory Gardens.

In addition to annual flower shows, Elmira Garden Club activities have included planting window boxes at the Post Office, assisting City Planners with mini-park landscaping, plantings at Mark Twain’s and Hal Roach’s gravesites, and container gardens at the Arnot Art Museum. Members have been involved in beautifying gardens surrounding the SPCA in Big Flats, and gardens at Riverfront and Wisner Parks.

Over the years, club membership has fluctuated. Numbers have been as high as 150 and as few as 27. Today, according to Garden Club President Karen Coletta, there are eighty-three active members. The group meets at their clubhouse located at 426 Fulton Street, gathering at 6:30 pm on the first Thursday of each month, from April through December. All are welcome to join their hands-on workshops, and hear invited guest speakers. More information can be found on their website

Founder James Draper, Jr. was a member of the Elmira Garden Club until he died in 1967. By then he had served as director of the sixth district of the Federated Garden Clubs of New York State which had jurisdiction over similar garden clubs in Broome, Chemung, Onondaga, Chenango, Cortland, Delaware, Otsego, Schuyler, Tioga, Tompkins and Madison counties. He had also organized the Garden Club Workers of Western New York, and served as its president for two years. Well-known as a gardening expert, he wrote a gardening column for the Sunday Telegram as well as other New York newspapers and various home magazines. Reading the entry in his 1928 senior yearbook we can almost imagine a gardener, though he writes ‘undecided’ for his direction.

In addition to our outdoor planters, the Elmira Garden Club supplies the Chemung County Historical Society with holiday wreaths, and arranges flowers for our annual Great Car Thing fundraiser in early June. We are lucky to benefit from their hard work and grateful for what they continue to do. 
Enjoying the flowers at The Great Car Thing, June 2019

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