WILMINGTON — They’ve been at it for 90 years now, and like the gardens they’ve planted and supported through those years, the Cape Fear Garden Club continues to grow. From 12 charter members in 1925, the club is now comprised of just over 400 members, including 33 emeritus members, who must either be 80 years old or have been members of the club for 40 years.
The club’s reach has grown, as well. In 1925, its 12 charter members did a lot of the “cultivation of flowers, shrubs and trees” work themselves. These days, the club raises money to support the work of others — scholarship grants to the University of North Carolina Wilmington and Cape Fear Community College, for example, along with conservation efforts at Battery Island and at a National Audubon Society bird sanctuary. In 2014, the club gave over $80,000 in grants to 26 local organizations.
“They have a grant program that funds beautification, education and stewardship,” said Ted Wilgis, an education coordinator for the N.C. Coastal Federation. The federation has received some small grants from the club.
“Their funding is wonderful because it’s an easy grant,” he added. “It doesn’t require matching funds and theirs can be used as matching funds for other grants.”
The singular sources of funding for these grants are the annual Cape Fear Garden Club Azalea Garden Tour and the N.C. Azalea Festival. The festival, held last week, has been going on for 68 years. The garden tour held with the festival is six years younger.
“The young club was already on location, playing midwife, when the festival idea was birthed at Greenfield Lake,” wrote Susan Taylor Block, local author of the definitive history of the club, the festival and the garden tours – Belles and Blooms: Cape Fear Garden Club and the North Carolina Azalea Festival. “They intersect and re-intersect through time like the tendrils of a morning glory vine, climbing a white picket fence.”
Block details the formation of the garden club, which started in 1923, as a literary round table known as the Tuesday Book Club. In January 1925, though, three of its members decided that they’d rather discuss gardening instead of books and proposed a change in the club’s purpose. They met for an organizational meeting a month later. They wrote the new club’s objective, which would later expanded to include the preservation of native birds; chose the yellow jesamine as the club’s official flower; and received an official gavel carved from The Dram Tree, a local landmark that grew in the Cape Fear River, “watery fork in the road to sailors going either to Brunswick Town or to Wilmington.”
“Among their early objectives was the idea of a club without dues,” noted Elaine Henson, the club’s historian and a past president, “although that one didn’t last.”
Mrs. E.K. Bryant in the early 1930s planted the seed of garden touring when she opened her garden at 11 South Fifth Ave. for the first known Cape Fear Garden Club tour. The tour was open to members only, but according to Taylor, “the concept took root.”
In May of 1933, the club held its first flower show, and in 1939, hosted a Camellia Festival in the Great Hall of St. James Church, that, Taylor notes in her book, “spawned annual encores.”
The final piece of the puzzle was Greenfield Lake. As the Garden Club, in its early years, “continued to consider Wilmington its personal landscaping project,” Greenfield was originally part of a plantation owned by a Dr. Samuel Green. The lake went through several owners before it became known as McIlhenny’s Pond, where, in the early 1900s, rowboats were rented to young men, “courting their sweethearts among the water lilies and cypress trees.”
“Greenfield lovers and lovers of Greenfield were horrified when a carnival purchased the lake,” Block wrote, “and walled it off with a high board fence.”
In the city election of 1925, voters approved $65,000 to buy Greenfield Lake. Though the onset of the Great Depression, as Block described it, “made bread more important than blossoms,” improvements to the lake continued, albeit slowly.
“We helped plant azaleas there,” said Henson. “It was a WPA (Works Project Administration) project; our very first. Later, about 1938 or so, we helped improve the road (around the lake), and the landscaping. Our members donated azaleas from their own gardens.”
World War II and its aftermath when 30,000 servicemen and shipyard workers left the city would further interrupt improvements around the lake. In 1947, however, looking to promote tourism at the lake, Hugh Morton and Dr. Houston Moore began to plan a festival that would be a small affair with a parade, a dance and a flower show.
Members of the Cape Fear Garden Club were present at the early organizational meetings and became among the 36 ‘Incorporators of the Azalea Festival.’ Others included the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, Airlie, Orton Plantation, various civic clubs, several fraternal organizations and the Homeowners Association of South Third Street.
This year’s festival started at Greenfield Lake’s Hugh Morton Amphitheater on Friday and featured 13 private and public gardens. “It takes a total of about 300 people to do that,” said Henson, adding club members work in shifts throughout the tour schedule.
The New Hanover County Arboretum is among the organizations that benefits from the activities of the Cape Fear Garden Club. The recipient of a $1,400 grant in 2014, the arboretum, according to Director Al Hight, affords club members an opportunity “to hang out in a place that’s not concrete and asphalt.”
“They have a long history of working with us, supporting the (arboretum) since its inception in the ‘80s,” he said, “awarding us grants for different projects.”
The club, he says, plays a community-unifying role. “They’re gardeners,” Hight said, “but they’re also a part of the social fabric of the community. It’s a powerful group of people, and they make things happen.”