Back in the 1930s, garden clubs were pretty much a women’s domain. But Ray Cheetham thought men needed a place to share their hobby, too.
In April 1937, Cheetham, an Ohio Bell employee and gardening enthusiast, gathered some of his fellow male gardeners in what is now the Beacon Journal building for the first meeting of the Men’s Garden Club of Akron.
Cheetham wanted a garden club “which wasn’t overrun with women and could offer menfolk a chance to air their views,” a 1962 Beacon Journal story said.
This year, the group marks its 75th anniversary. And just as society has changed, so has the club.
Today it’s called Gardeners of Greater Akron, a name that reflects its more inclusive nature. The club accepted women into its membership about 20 years ago and changed its name in 2010.
“I was kind of responsible for that,” club member Leroy Hart said with a laugh. As he recalled it, he and another member were helping out at a garden tour when a woman approached and said she was interested in joining. “So we signed her up,” he said.
The change didn’t go over well with everyone. “It was their clubby night out,” said Sam Morlan, the group’s current president, and not everyone was eager to give up that opportunity for male bonding.
The group lost three members over the issue, Hart said, although one came back. And to both his and Morlan’s way of thinking, the inclusion of women has saved what had become a moribund club.
No one could have foreseen either the gender debate or the problem of declining membership decades ago, when the club was a booming bastion for men who shared an interest in growing things.
Records are scanty about the club’s activities early on, said Hart, a former president of the group who serves as its historian and is also president of the regional organization to which the club belongs. The records don’t even note how many showed up at the first meeting in 1937, although minutes from the October meeting that year showed 15 members in attendance.
A club history recounts a series of flower and horticultural shows, programs, picnics and stag Christmas dinners in the early years, as well as persistent problems getting members to pay their dues. In a Beacon Journal story from 1949, there’s a mention of civic projects that included sending flowers to veterans hospitals, helping with gardening at the Children’s Home and tagging trees at a Boy Scout camp, presumably Camp Manatoc in Boston Township.
Throughout the early decades, the club’s membership grew. It had reached 80 by 1948, and by the 1970s, it was the largest men’s garden club in the United States. In 1977, the group counted 250 on its rolls, according to a Beacon Journal story at the time.
Among the major projects in the group’s heyday were planting spring-flowering bulbs and chrysanthemums at Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens and then digging out those mums at the end of the season for Stan Hywet’s big annual Mum Sunday sale. The late Bill Snyder, a club member who was also grounds superintendent at Stan Hywet, described in his gardening column for the Beacon Journal in 1980 how members spent hours digging and bagging mums for the sale, only to return a few days later to plant thousands of tulip bulbs.
Hart even remembers when a member collapsed and died during the planting one year.
The group also hosted two national conventions of its umbrella group, now called the Gardeners of America/Men’s Garden Clubs of America. The latest was in 1993.
Today the club’s focuses include selling geraniums and auctioning plants to raise money for scholarships for students at Ohio State University’s Agricultural Technical Institute, leading programs at schools, maintaining a garden at Crown Point Ecology Center, presenting beautification awards and identifying the area’s biggest trees.
The group also landscapes the yards of houses built by Habitat for Humanity of Summit County, a program that’s “probably one of our more successful ones,” Morlan said. There’s talk of expanding the Habitat effort, perhaps by adding a mentoring program for the new homeowners.
Throughout its history, though, one thing hasn’t changed: The club is a social outlet for its members. That’s probably more important today than ever, with many of the club’s 92 members aging and unable to do much hands-on gardening, Morlan said.
Morlan is pleased the club has managed to maintain its membership numbers in recent years, at a time when most affiliates of Gardeners of America/Men’s Garden Clubs of America have seen their numbers decline.
And it’s always willing to welcome new members. The group meets monthly for dinner and a program at St. George’s Fellowship Center in Copley Township, and a membership application is online at http://ohiogardeners.org.
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also become a fan on Facebook at http://tinyurl.com/mbbreck, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckenridge and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.