Around the Island

Garden Club celebrates diamond jubilee

75th anniversary program for the dinner dance at Mashomack’s Manor House.

Seventy-five years ago a group of well turned-out ladies in hats and gloves sat around a tea-table in a Sutton Place apartment in New York City discussing the creation of a garden club on Shelter Island. These ladies lived in the city or elsewhere and only went in the summer to their lovely but unheated homes in the Heights.

The idea for a garden club came about in a typically Shelter Island fashion when two neighbors on Divinity Hill, Mrs. Thomas Green and Mrs. Charles Angell, found a plant they couldn’t identify and called on the Island expert, Mrs. Henry Naegell, to see if she knew what it was. The three women became the first officers of the new Garden Club. Thirty-six women attended the first meeting at the New Prospect Hotel in spring 1934, and the club was off and running.

Next came plans to produce the first Flower Show on Shelter Island, to be held in early summer at the Yacht Club, a location chosen because the husbands of Garden Club members were Yacht Club members and officers. In fact, when the club’s by-laws were drawn up, men were invited to join but on no account were they permitted to hold office in the new organization! 

Yacht Club and Garden Club ties became even stronger when the New Prospect Hotel was destroyed by fire in 1942, and the Yacht Club allowed the Garden Club members to meet one day a week until the war was over in 1945. Winter meetings, for the first 25 years, were traditionally held in members’ homes, clubs and hotels in Manhattan.

The last Flower Show before the war paid tribute to our allies; formal shows were canceled for the duration and instead, members opened their homes to show their flower arrangements informally. These were the forerunners of today’s house tours.

By 1952, some Yacht Club members felt that the real purpose of the Yacht Club as a sailing club was somewhat diminished by the presence of the Garden Club and its flower shows. A considerable debate took place at one meeting when a member protested that “men and boats had developed the Yacht Club, not flower shows!”

Fortunately, the majority prevailed and the ladies continued to use the clubhouse for another 14 years. 

The year 1952 also saw Shelter Island celebrating its 300th anniversary and the Garden Club’s contribution was a beautiful float, depicting the gardens at Sylvester Manor. The manor’s Alice Fiske was a leading light in the Garden Club; she served as president twice and introduced the first Daffodil Show in 1996, which was to become an annual event.

There were two little girls whose mothers were very active in the Garden Club in those early years and who wanted their daughters to become junior members. Neither wanted to join, but Mrs. Fiske prevailed, and daughter Lissa Williamson joined — “one didn’t say no to mother,” she said. Lissa is now a national Flower Show judge and very active in her own Garden Club in Maryland.

The other little girl was Patricia Shillingburg, whose mother, Mrs. Richard Moser, suggested that her daughter become a junior member. Not wanting to, and upon being asked “Why not?” by her mother’s friend, Mrs. Alfreda Snyder, Patricia replied, “We cannot afford it!” (Junior dues were around $1 at the time.) When she heard this, Mrs. Moser was furious and punished Patricia who promptly became a junior member. Today Patricia is very active in the Garden Club, has created prize-winning arrangements and is the creator of the club’s website. Junior members, ages 5 to 17, now meet as the Youth Division, learning about gardening at three teaching gardens.

From its modest early days, the Garden Club has grown to over 100 members, who serve on committees involved in numerous civic projects. Mrs. Fiske initiated one of these early on — the planting of Japanese kousa dogwood trees from South to North Ferry along Route 114. Current members clean up and plant grasses to prevent erosion and serve as “garden godmothers” to more than a dozen Island roadside gardens. Volunteers care for the Native Plant Garden at Mashomack while another team creates and delivers small bouquets with Meals on Wheels trays. 

Club members maintain the colonial herb garden at Havens House and place flower arrangements at the Shelter Island Library every other week. Over the years, benches and trees have been installed in public places for everyone to enjoy.

In addition to its annual activities — design workshops, garden visits, fundraisers, guest speakers — the highlight this year was September’s Diamond Anniversary Dinner Dance at Mashomack Manor.

The theme was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Tender is the Night” with live music from the 1920s. Flower arrangements featuring hundreds of hydrangea blossoms filled the Manor House and dinner tables, picked by club members from their own gardens. 

Today, the Shelter Island Garden Club is stronger than ever and looks forward to the future. It welcomes new members of all ages, and anyone interested in joining is encouraged to call Membership Chair Gail Vielbig at 749-1801.

Excerpted from an article on the 75th anniversary of the Garden Club by Hilary King.