In January 1891, a dozen women assembled in the parlor of Mrs. E. K. Lumpkin’s Georgia home to form the Ladies Garden Club of Athens. At first, membership was by invitation only; by the next year, however, the club’s ranks had been “thrown open (to) every lady in the city who might be interested in learning to grow anything ‘from a cabbage to a chrysanthemum,’” according to an article in the 1935-36 edition of Garden Gateways Yearbook.
Who knew they were sowing the seeds of a groundbreaking movement whose influence is still felt and seen throughout the United States?
The Athens group was the very first garden club in America, according to National Garden Clubs Inc., a not-for-profit group that comprises statewide clubs in all 50 states and the National Capital Area, 5,000 member clubs and 165,000 individual members.
As tempting as it might be to dismiss them as docile havens for white-gloved ladies to drink tea and talk petunias, garden clubs are a powerful force that’s altered our landscape both literally and figuratively. And whether it’s beautifying highways or educating the public and elected officials about environmental issues, the groundwork for much of it was laid here in Georgia.
In 1928, enough local groups had sprung up that the Garden Club of Georgia was formed by 29 of them meeting at the Biltmore Hotel in Atlanta. One of the group’s first initiatives was a campaign to weed out roadside signs —it predated presidential spouse Lady Bird Johnson’s high-profile highway beautification campaign by nearly four decades. Over the years, the Georgia group has also successfully lobbied to have a landscape engineer added to the state highway department; encouraged and educated citizens around the planting of World War II-era Victory Gardens; funded statewide horticultural scholarships; produced an anti-litter video for use in schools; helped bring “therapeutic gardening” programs to psychiatric hospitals around the state and much more.
And it all began in Mrs. Lumpkin’s parlor. Today, the memory of those 12 women lives on in the best sense: The Founders Memorial Garden, built with funds raised by the Garden Club of Georgia, is a 2 1/2-acre garden on the University of Georgia campus.
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