April 2010
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Chunnenuggee Public Garden Club is 'America's Oldest'

  Chunnenuggee Public Garden Club members are (seated, from left) Enola Bozeman, president; Mary Richards; Eleanor Summerhill, life member; Margaret Baxley; Mary Seymour; Sadie Pugh; (standing) Kizzie May; Dina Mason Moore; Sharon Capps; Marie Allen; Barbara Cox; Patsy Gholston; Ann Daniels, Garden Club of Alabama President; Anne Maxwell; Melanie Short.

They came one or two at a time, the ladies of the Chunnenuggee Public Garden Club.

Some wore wide-brimmed hats and some wore hats adorned with flowers. Others came simply sharing the pride in the celebration before them.

The members of the Chun-nenuggee Public Garden Club and special guests gathered at Master Rack Lodge near Union Springs in Bullock County on March 11, 2010, to celebrate the 163rd anniversary of the Garden Club. The years alone would be worthy of a celebration, but the years coupled with the fact that the Chunnenuggee Public Garden Club is the oldest continuously operating garden club in the United States made the celebration "top of the pot." The term "top of the pot" was used in the early days of the Chunnenuggee Public Garden Club to describe the distinguished guests from Montgomery, Mobile, Columbus, Georgia and the Carolinas who attended the gala functions of the club.

Hostesses for the Chunnenugge Public Garden Club’s anniversary celebration were Alice Maxwell (left) and Melanie Short, who dressed appropriately for the occasion.

 

And, if the Chunnenuggee Public Garden Club of 2010 were not "top of the pot," it would be difficult to find a club equaling its proud history.

"The Chunnenuggee Public Garden Club was organized at Chunnenuggee Ridge in Macon County, which is now Bullock County, on March 6, 1847," said Enola Bozeman, club president. "Chunnenuggee comes from an Indian name, Tcha-Na-Naghi, meaning high, long ridge. Settlers from Virginia, Georgia and other states came to the Chunnenuggee Ridge area after the Creek Indians were removed."

The settlers built homes on the high ground of the Chunnenuggee Ridge and grew crops in the lowlands.

"One of the settlers was Dr. Norborne Berkley Powell who came to the ‘Ridge’ in 1838," Bozeman said. "He bought several thousand acres and built his house that was named Old Field."

The area along the Ridge gradually developed and included churches and a female college and a school for boys.

"Dr. Powell developed a flower garden and the women who lived along the Chunnenuggee Ridge also began to have beautiful gardens," said Mary Richards, who gave a history of the club. "Interest in gardening grew and, on March 6, 1847, men and women organized a horticultural society. Their plans were to have exhibits of fruits and vegetables, and a monthly exhibit of flowers."

At its third meeting, the horticultural society passed resolutions to build a public garden on the Chunnenuggee Ridge and to appoint a committee to implement the project. The committee selected a site for the public garden in front of Old Field, Powell’s home, and he deeded the land to the trustees of the society and its successors.

  Alice Maxwell served tea to her fellow garden club members in much the manner of "high tea" in old England. Sadie Pugh, left, was graciously served.
   

The Chunnenuggee Ridge Garden Club grew in membership and with an honorary membership including nurserymen from as far away as New York.

"The members enjoyed many gala events and gave prizes for monthly exhibits of flower arrangements," Richards said. "The club ordered dahlia bulbs in great numbers and committees were organized to supervise the cultivation of strawberries and cotton in the Public Garden."

In 1848, the Chunnenuggee Ridge Public Garden Club held its first May Fair and it was so successful it was held annually until 1860.

The May Fair was a flower festival and was held around the first of May when flowers were in full bloom. Prizes were awarded for flowers and flower arrangements, the best essay on horticulture and even the most skilled in horseback riding.

"The May Fairs were gala events," Richards said. "They attracted visitors from far away. There are reports of visitors arriving by stagecoach and on carriages loaded with carpetbags and hatboxes. Concerts were given by choirs and by young ladies who played the harp and piano."

The grounds of the Public Gardens boasted of summerhouses covered with honeysuckle and roses, "seats in flower retreats" and lush, green stretches of lawn. The Public Gardens were a place of serene beauty.

But then the country went to war, brother against brother, and the gardens fell into ruin during the War Between the States.

Ann Daniels, right, state president of the Alabama Garden Club, and Mary Richards, club member, view historical records of the Chunnenuggee Public Garden Club.  

Richard said the property was obtained by Janice Turnipseed Ikenberry in the 1920s. The property was planted in pecan trees except for the 90x120-foot plot, which was donated to the Garden Club by Ikenberry and her mother in 1948.

The plot marks the place that was the entrance gate of the gardens and is enclosed by an iron fence and planted with flowering shrubs.

"Mrs. Ikenberry gave the surrounding land to Auburn University and it’s an agricultural experiment station," Bozeman said. "Auburn has leased to the Chunnenuggee Ridge Public Garden Club the fenced area and our hopes are Auburn will lease other land to us so we can bring the land back to what it once was."

The Chunnenuggee Ridge Public Garden Club is a federated Garden Club of Alabama and also a nationally federated garden club. The club has been recognized as a "Club of Distinction" in District VII of the Deep South Region.

The Garden Club of 16 members continues to be very active in the Union Springs area.

The club plants trees, shrubs and wildflowers at sites around the city. They decorate the Episcopal Church, the senior nutrition center and the cabin at City Park with Mother Nature’s offerings. Members decorate windows in town on Veterans Day and for the Field Trials and conduct Arbor Day ceremonies.

The club sponsors essay contests at local schools and arranges visits from Smoky Bear and Woodsy Owl. The club’s Cedar Oak Ranch Project is an outing for fourth graders where they learn about trees and their importance. An annual donation to the local Junior Miss Scholarship Program is another way the club supports the youth of the community.

  Alice Maxwell was a hostess for the club’s 163rd celebration.

The club lends its support to the annual May Fair which was revived by the Bullock County Historical Society in May 1980.

The Chunnenuggee Ridge Public Garden Club maintains the club’s Memorial Garden on Peachburg Road, which is the site of the historical marker marking the location of the club’s Public Gardens, honors its founders and recognizing the survival of their interests.

Ann Daniels, president of the Garden Clubs of Alabama, was a special guest at the 163rd anniversary celebration of the Chunnenuggee Public Garden Club.

Daniels told the members she was excited to be a part of such a momentous occasion and they should be very proud of the club’s distinction as "The First Garden Club of America."

"Can you believe it," Daniels said. "One hundred and sixty-three years. That’s incredible for a garden club to be in operation for 163 years. You are to be congratulated."

Daniels challenged the club members to put together a ‘Book of Evidence’ that would include the club records and serve as a validation of all that has been done and will be done.

She also challenged them to celebrate the "Golden Days of Daffodils" by planting the "dils" and to "Beautify Blight" by turning the old and ugly into something beautiful.

Club members are Marie Allen, Margaret Baxley, Enola Bozeman, Sharon Capps, Barbara Cox, Ann Daniels, Faye Gaston, Patsy Gholston, Kizzie May, Nancy May, Ann Maxwell, Dina Mason Moore, Sadie Pugh, Mary Richards, Mary Seymour, Melanie Short and Eleanor Summerhill. Life members are Eleanor Summerhill and Aileen Blow.

Jaine Treadwell is a freelance writer from Brundidge.