PENINSULA: This isn’t your great grandmother’s garden club.
The dress is casual. Nobody pours tea. And to be honest, interest in gardening is optional.
Jane Lemmo, a 50-year member of the Peninsula Garden Club, remembers that back in the day, one did not request membership to the group. You had to be invited, sponsored and voted on.
“We never turned anyone down that I remember,” she said. Then with a mischievous glint in her eye, added: “Though we should have.”
The friends seated around her laugh heartily as she continues her nostalgic trip through time.
“When I was a young bride and nervous, it was all very prim and proper,” she said.
Today, the 78-year-old club is a collection of current and former Peninsula area residents — friends, really — who use the opportunity to break bread and catch up on each other’s busy lives. Unlike the highbrow wives’ clique of yesteryear, many of them are working women or retired professionals.
While members once boasted about their own gardens, these women seem more interested in the look of their community.
Since the 1970s, they have been responsible for the planting and daily watering of 14 flower boxes along the village’s iconic Main Street bridge, as well as the annual Peddler Day event that raises money to pay for it all.
Peninsula, a bucolic, arts-loving village surrounded by the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, has a population of just under 700. The garden club also draws from neighboring Boston Township’s 1,400 souls.
Membership is limited to 40 women from those two communities for practical reasons. They need to be able to fit into a member’s home for the monthly social gathering.
In June, they were lucky to have landed at Wendy Rybka’s spacious stone house whose builders put in a ballroom, because it was the group’s annual shared dinner with the Northampton Hill and Vale Garden Club. About a dozen of that group’s 17 members arrived bearing desserts.
As with the Peninsula group, the members were all women, though Northampton’s president, Hazel Broughton, said they’d allow a man to join if he cared to.
“They don’t because they’d have to tolerate us,” she said.
But the Peninsula group is ladies-only by design.
The only Y chromosome at the June affair belonged to Randy Bergdorf from the Peninsula Library & Historical Society, who was invited to present a lecture on the area’s famed historic stone quarries.
Judy Lahoski chuckles when she remembers she once suggested moving the meeting from its traditional lunch start to the dinner hour so more working women — and men — could come.
The idea was dashed almost before it left her lips.
Why no men, a reporter innocently asked after hearing a brave man who was prepared to wade into this sea of femininity just a few years ago was gently rejected.
Lois Unger thought a moment and said with a shrug: “I don’t know.”
“Tradition!” another club member shouted out.
Others admit they don’t want the dynamics of the group to change. Women share unique life experiences, something that is a subtle part of these gatherings.
In the kitchen, Betty Reinhart and Evelyn Kaczmarski — cheerleaders together in the 1950s — are carrying out their duties as the assigned “food hostesses.” They’re responsible for bringing everything but the desserts for the 40 attendees, and have laid out a spread that includes chicken salad sandwiches on croissants and fresh fruit.
Reinhart is excited to be in Rybka’s house, whose exterior came from a Peninsula stone quarry. She remembered riding in her step-grandfather’s truck when he told her, “I cut the stone for that house.”
Reinhart joined the garden club eight years ago. Her daughter, an attorney, is also a member. The group is also proud of its age diversity, with members ranging from their 20s to their 90s.
Rybka’s daughter, Laura, 19, who will study nursing at Malone University this fall, and her friend, Jordan Wessel, 18, were guests and volunteer dishwashers.
After lunch, the women assembled to watch Bergdorf’s slideshow.
“If anyone can’t hear me back there,” he began, casting his voice across the room, when he was interrupted by a cuckoo clock.
“There’s always a critic,” he joked after the cuckoo’s single chirp.
During the program, it became clear just how tight-knit this tiny village is. His talk — which reaches back to the start of the stone quarries in 1825 — was peppered with last names shared by some of the women in the room, or featuring early residents whose homes are now owned by garden club members.
As he waded back into history, Norma Preneta snapped pictures. That’s her job as this year’s official club historian. At the end of the year, she will create a scrapbook memorializing the meetings and events of 2013.
While Preneta has lived in town for 32 years, this is only her second year of membership in the garden club. “It’s a good way to socialize,” the retired teacher said.
That alone wouldn’t have been enough for Susan Delahanty.
“We’re a dirty-hands garden club,” she said, calling attention again to the bridge.
Every day this summer, a garden club member will drive onto the bridge, pop open her trunk to reveal 14 gallon jugs filled with water, and proceed to feed all 14 planters. In November, the flowers will be replaced by 500 feet of evergreen ropes and 60 holiday bows.
The original Peninsula Garden Club would never have been Delahanty’s cup of tea.
“I’m not interested in the snob appeal of a garden club,” she said. “That’s not what we’re about.”
Paula Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741.