Former teacher founded city’s oldest garden club
Editor’s note: This series of historical columns will run weekly throughout 2016 to highlight Bartlett’s roots in honor of its 150th anniversary this year.
The Bartlett Garden Club was founded in 1931 by Miss Mabel Richmond (1886-1972) at her home “Broadlawn,” located on the southeast corner of Court Street and Woodlawn Road. The founder, Miss Mabel, had been a dedicated teacher at Bartlett High School (grades 1-12) and sometime during the 1920s she became ill, which caused her to be confined to a hospital bed at the home she shared with Miss Dora Gholson, also a teacher and devoted friend.
She earned her living from her bed, by selling insurance, magazine subscriptions, greeting cards, etc. Her business was carried on by telephone, letters and customers coming to her home. In the early years of the Bartlett Fire Department (1950s), when it was a volunteer department, Miss Mabel was employed to answer the fire department telephone at her bedside and alert volunteers of the location of the fire. She was the only person known to be at home all the time.
Miss Mabel was very civic minded and actively took part in community and church affairs. It was often said that she did more good deeds from her sick bed than most people who were running around on two feet.
She loved flowers, trees, birds and all of nature and decided to organize a group to help promote beautification, civic pride and community improvements. So she invited a group of friends to her home and on Feb. 14, 1931, the Bartlett Community Garden Club (now Bartlett Garden Club) was organized.
The records from 1931 to 1939 cannot be found, so it is not known for sure who the first president was, but the earliest records list Miss Mabel Richmond as Honorary President for Life. The meeting date and time was the first Friday of the month at 10:30 a.m., and for more than 10 years the club met at Miss Mabel’s home and had lunch following the meeting. At first Miss Mabel provided the meal in its entirety. Mary Neal, her maid, said she cooked for two days every month preparing the lunch, which was served on the lawn in the summer and in the house in the winter. Then members started bringing the lunch to Miss Mabel’s home, and later due to her health the meetings were held in members’ homes. The meeting date changed in 1957 to the second Wednesday of each month at 11:30 a.m. Annual dues went from 50 cents in 1931 to $10 in 1981 and to $30 today.
The Bartlett Garden Club became a member of the Tennessee Federation of Garden Clubs Inc. in 1935. It was one of the six oldest clubs in District 1, which covers 21 counties in West Tennessee and was made up of 108 clubs at that time. Members believe that their club is the third oldest garden club in Shelby County. The Bartlett Club was also a member of the Memphis & Shelby County Council of Garden Clubs and the Nation Council of State Garden Clubs Inc. Between 1939 and 1981, 160 members joined the club, some on the rolls for a short time, but others for many years.
In the early 1940s and again in the early 1960s, two other local garden clubs were organized in Bartlett but each only survived for a few years. The Brunswick Road Garden Club was founded by Mrs. Ellen Davies Rodgers (exact date unknown, but thought to be in the 1950s-60s). It was active until around 2000 when it disbanded. The Ellendale Garden Club was organized in 1951 and did many projects through the years. In 1988 its members presented a suggestion to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen to make the periwinkle the official flower of Bartlett; it was adopted and became the official flower. The club disbanded around 2000 (exact date unknown).
During the early years, the Bartlett Garden Club started a garden club plot on the east side of Court Street just north of Stage Road. They made several rows, propagated cuttings and divisions of various plants and shrubs, and gave the plants/shrubs to members or used them for beautification projects.
Over the years, members conducted Garden Therapy projects at Shelby County Hospital, Ave Marie Home, Mid-South Christian Nursing Home, Arlington Development Center and Care Inn. The club sponsored several beautification projects in Bartlett and helped with others. Over the years, some of the club’s beautification efforts have been erased to make room for civic growth projects, but the club sees their efforts as worthwhile because they improved the looks of public areas at the time. The last of the club’s permanent plantings that were on the grounds of Bartlett High School were lost in 1977 with the construction of the new high school building and off-street driveways for loading and unloading buses. Those planting consisted of a large tulip poplar planted in 1938 in honor of Miss Mabel Richmond and a crimson maple planted in 1953 in memory of Mrs. A.G. Warner Sr.
In 1981 the Bartlett Garden Club celebrated its 50th anniversary, and Mrs. Ethel McPherson wrote a history of the club. Since the 1990s the Bartlett Garden Club and Ellendale Garden Club (before its demise) have put flower displays in the Atrium in City Hall during the first week of June, which is National Garden Week. In 2008 they erected a Blue Star Memorial at the entrance to W.J. Freeman Park in cooperation with the City of Bartlett and the Tennessee Federation of Garden Clubs. The memorial is a tribute to the Armed Forces that have defended the United States of America.
The members continue to meet monthly in their homes, and they have themed meetings, hear speakers and do plant swaps. They participate in the annual Flower Show at the Botanic Gardens and in March celebrated their 85th anniversary with a tea at the Botanic Gardens with women from the 34 other garden clubs in District 1 attending, along with the State President and District Director of the Tennessee Federation of Garden Clubs. It is with pride the members celebrate their long and rich history and believe their founder, Miss Mabel Richmond, would be proud to see that her idea has flourished for 85 years.
Written by Suzanne Griffith Coleman, special to the Express.