The Dade City Garden Club took root in the home of Thelma Gilbert, on May 9, 1947 — and the organization has been part of the civic and social glue of the city ever since, based on scrapbooks compiled by club members through the decades.
Club member Madonna Wise, who happens to be a local historian, gained an appreciation for the role the club has played in community life, as she paged through the volumes that were faithfully compiled through the years.
It has been involved in nearly every civic event during the past 70 years, said Wise, an author who has written a book about Dade City’s history.
One example of that involvement, she said, was when there was a send-off for troops leaving for Afghanistan. The garden club was there, providing desserts for the event.
“They’re just an integral part of Dade City’s fabric,” Wise said.
Gail Stout, the club’s outgoing president, said “the greatest impact we have are our partnerships with the community.”
It was Gilbert’s love of gardening that led to the club’s creation, Stout said.
“She heard that this organization in Florida (The Florida Federation of Garden Clubs) existed and was growing, and that’s what she decided to pursue,” said Stout, who recently helped to organize the Dade City Garden Club’s 70th anniversary celebration.
Within a year, the Dade City club was accepted for federation with the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs. And, less than a year later it had its first flower show, based on the theme, “The Spirit of Spring,” according to club records.
Through the years, the club has had the twin goals of beautification and advocacy.
“Early on, they’re saving the trees at the courthouse,” Wise said. “They started a junior garden club at the elementary school.”
They also have advised Dade City commissioners on decisions regarding landscaping, Wise added.
During its heyday, the club had a radio show, Stout said.
It had a column in a local newspaper, too, Wise added.
In the beginning, the club met in its members’ homes and then later, at civic locations.
In 1959, it purchased 2 acres on South Fifth Street for $9,000. By 1966, the club had paid it off.
Soon after that, the organization sought to build a clubhouse.
“Our building story is unique,” Stout said.
“Somehow, St. Rita’s Catholic Church, which is up by Old Dade City Grammar School, offers to donate the building,” Wise said. “That building (which was St. Rita’s mission church) dates back to 1913. It was quite the thing when they moved this building all across town.”
The structure was near what is now Cox Elementary School. Movers took the structure down Seventh Avenue and had to get the power company to move power lines so they could get the building through.
“It was really quite a move that they orchestrated,” Stout said.
A contractor named Michael Giella advised the club on how to renovate the building and held the $35,000 mortgage. Giella’s contributions were recognized during the 70th anniversary celebration, when a paver dedicated to his memory was presented to his widow.
The club had its first meeting in the building in September of 1977 and hosted an open house later that year — attracting members of garden clubs from Tampa, Lakeland, Clearwater and across Pasco County.
There were 57 charter members of the garden club.
“The last charter member was just deceased,” Stout said.
The club officially has 113 members, but there are some older members who are too frail to attend meetings, she said.
Through the years, the garden club has fostered leadership opportunities for women, and has helped to build connections throughout Dade City, Wise said.
It also has provided a forum for members to learn “the political ways of trying to influence legislators and local government for environmental purposes, that type of thing,” Stout observed.
“Two years ago, we had a fracking (hydraulic fracturing) seminar, to talk about the pros and cons of fracking, mostly the cons. We were leaning toward that,” Stout said.
Dade City has since banned fracking from within the city limits.
Although membership has declined, the club has staying power. It has several second- and third-generation members, and many come from families that have played an influential role in the life and development of Dade City, Wise noted.
The club is divided into smaller groups, called circles, which are named after flowering trees or plants.
“We had seven circles at the height of our glory,” Stout said.
Now, it has these six circles: Azalea, Poinsettia, Magnolia, Holly Hock, Hibiscus and Dogwood.
The club has traditions, too.
It decorates the Pioneer Museum at Christmas and also hosts “Uncorked,” a wine-tasting fundraiser.
It helps keep the memory of the community’s history alive, too, by creating an ornament each year to honor a local place or organization. Proceeds from the ornament sales help support the garden club’s upkeep and help pay for club projects.
The club also hosts a flower show every other year — which is a popular event, and which garden club members view as their gift back to the community, Stout said.
Members join the club for different reasons.
Stout became a member after she bought a 1925 bungalow that came with more than 90 camellias.
Stout decided she needed to join the club so she could learn everything she could about camellias.
Later, she learned that Gilbert had obtained camellias from Georgia.
Quite likely, Stout said, some of those camellias can be traced back to the garden club’s original founder.
Now, that’s what some would call coming full circle.
Published June 21, 2017