HISTORY OF THE HOUSTON FEDERATION OF GARDEN CLUBS
If HISTORY is the record of past events, ideas, and acts that shape the course of the future, then it was during the summer of 1936 that our record begins. At that time several women got together to form a city- wide garden club, which they named the Houston Federation of Garden Clubs. When some skeptics asked where the money would come from for a Garden Center, the answer was: “there has to be a beginning of all things, and we have the courage and ambition to try it.”
Their Federation objectives were first, holding monthly garden lectures, second publishing a garden magazine for the Texas Gulf Coast, and third building a garden center. They held their first meeting in the Houston Public Library in October, elected their first President (Mrs. B.E. Kenyon), and launched what would become an 83-year history chronicling hard work, good deeds, creative ideas, and dedication to their original guiding principle of gathering together to learn and to share gardening experiences and talent.
The first educational program featured Mr. Teas of Teas Nursery, who lectured on “Cultivation of Roses”. The first issue of the “Gulf Coast Gardener” appeared in February 1937. The third objective reached reality in May 1938 when Mrs. B. F. Bonner found a plot of ground in Hermann Park meant to be a Rose Garden by Hare & Hare, who had laid out the grounds of Hermann Park. The Park Board agreed to donate the three plus acres for a Garden Center instead.
But where to get the funds for such a project was the great problem. America was just coming out of the Great Depression and World War II loomed dangerously close. With flower shows, fashion shows, and train trips east these determined ladies put $1,100 into their building fund.
In December, 1939, 400 volunteer garden club ladies with the help of 65 prominent business men from the Chamber of Commerce--such as E. W. Blum, Ben Taub, Judge Roy Hoffheinz, Oscar Holcombe—raised $9,100 in a city-wide fundraiser. Mayor Holcombe applied for $15,000 in labor by the WPA. Ground was broken January 6, 1941, with 97 garden clubs represented. When money ran short due to higher prices, the HFGC Board reminded the Houston City Council that the Houston Federation of Garden Clubs had provided all the city’s share of the original funds. City Council voted additional funds to complete the plumbing and sidewalks. The building was dedicated January 27, 1942. Ironically, the first educational forum in the new Garden Center was training leaders in the Houston Defense Program on growing Victory Gardens. The HFGC maintained and supervised the Garden Center until 1958 when that responsibility was turned over to the city. The Federation continued to meet there through 2013.
In addition to the original purposes and goals, in 1961 we became a federated club of the National Council of State Garden Clubs (NCSGC). In striving to uphold the purposes and goals of that organization we have had study segments on design, the environment, and horticulture at our meetings over the years. We have members serving at the District, State, Regional and National level, and are proud of the fact that three Federation presidents also served as Texas Garden Clubs President. We have hosted many conventions at all levels of our organization. In 2009 Federation played a substantial role in hosting the Spring National Garden Clubs Convention.
Garden clubbing has been alive and well in Houston for a long time. Our accomplishments had been many. We have planted hundreds of trees in Arbor Day celebrations in shopping centers, along bayous, and in city parks. Until 1999 we participated in the City of Houston’s Arbor Day program, distributing trees to its citizens.
We have been active in such civic projects as planting many lovely gardens including the restored gardens at the Staiti House in Sam Houston Park. In 1961, following the idea that one should help one’s neighbors, the Federation launched Project Sharing to help coastal residents whose gardens were destroyed by Hurricane Carla. In 1968 the Federation made a significant monetary contribution to the Arboretum helping to beautify the entrance and install the wall and gates. At the dedication Federation project leaders helped bury a time capsule. We built the Ronald McDonald Greenhouse in the late 1970’s, and for approximately ten years staffed it and provided supplies for the children’s gardening program, as part of our Garden Therapy project. Community Vegetable Gardening was our 1995 project. The Federation established a $2,500 matching fund, which resulted in a donation of over $5000 to Target Hunger to help feed the hungry in the Kashmere/Fifth Ward area of Houston. In 1999 the Educated Butterfly school project was established, and three schools were awarded $500 each to establish habitats at their campuses. In 2001 six schools received grants of $500 each.
The generosity of our members at Christmas time has been tremendous. We have for many years collected and donated toys and filled stockings for children, working with such organizations as the Good Fellows, Toys for Tots, the Salvation Army and Star of Hope. We support Brookwood by purchasing poinsettias and donating the to area hospitals, nursing homes, and women’s shelters.
Our many projects and activities have been funded by our own efforts. We have staged Christmas bazaars, holiday home tours, Christmas tree sprees, and holiday extravaganzas and drawings. There have been style shows; rummage sales, garage sales, bake sales, plant sales; game parties; book signings; teas, trips to points of interest near and far; and workshops of all kinds. We have published and sold date calendars, recipe booklets, and the Gardeners’ Journal.
We have held countless Flower Shows – in furniture and department stores, malls, coliseum, and the Garden Center. From 1990-1998, our Flower Shows were held in conjunction with the Texas Home and Garden Show at the George R. Brown Convention Center, and in 1995, a joint Flower Show was sponsored by the Houston Council and Houston Federation of Garden Clubs. In 2000 the shows returned to the Garden Center and are presently held at the First Christian Church Houston.
A community project during the 2001-2003 administration involved planning and designing landscaping for a new Community Center in the midst of a 200-home Habitat for Humanity neighborhood in northeast Houston. During the 2003-2004 administration we began working with the planning committee at Rice University to establish the Lynn Lowery Arboretum; and we began the “Seeds for Life” project, working with Texas Garden Clubs and National Garden Clubs. Members have served on the planning committees for the Margaret Sharpe Antique Rose Garden at the University of Houston, the Houston Botanic Garden and the Mayor’s Garden Center Advisory Board. Substantial monetary contributions were also made to these projects.
On January 27, 2007, HFGC celebrated the 65th Anniversary of the Houston Garden Center with an old-fashioned tea, a vintage style show, and a program giving the history of flower arrangements through the decades. Although in 2014 we lost our beloved Garden Center to “progress” in Hermann Park, Federation continues to honor those early objectives of education, civic pride and the beautification of Houston. At present HFGC has found a meeting home at the First Christian Church at 1601 Sunset Blvd. in Houston.
From our early years in the Library and in the temporary Garden Center on the ninth floor of the Stower Furniture Store (1937), the Houston Federation of Garden Clubs has followed a bright path to the present. We anticipate an equally energetic effort in the future. Perhaps Mrs. W. H. Benton (President from 1947-49) said it best: “Coming together is the beginning, keeping together is progress, working together is success.”
However, we needed to cancel our March, April, and May 2020 meetings due to the Corona-19 virus and those goals became a challenge. Our monthly newsletter and our website enabled our members to stay in touch and reports flooded in from members spending time IN their gardens and sharing their joy of gardening. As we embarked on a new year, 2020-21, we used modern technology to host virtual General and Board meetings as we needed to reduce our person to person contact and stay safe. Fortunately, in December, we were able to continue our support of Brookwood by purchasing poinsettias and also provide toys to children at Star of Hope. Again, technology helped to keep us together with virtual meetings, email, electronic newsletters, and the website keeping us together. Sheltering at home does not mean being isolated! We are looking forward to a return to in-person meetings in 2021-22!