Chris T. Wilson
The Ojai Valley Garden Club is celebrating its 85th anniversary this year.
In 1926, Mrs. Osgood — who had been asking questions about gardening and preserving local plants for a couple of years — took her curiosity to new level and initiated a campaign to protect native oaks and plant a World War I memorial for local veterans.
“Fifty-four women and one man established the original Ojai Valley Garden Club,” notes local historian Patricia L. Fry in “The Ojai Valley and Illustrated History.” Their objective? “Ojai is beautiful and we are going to work to make it still more beautiful.”
For starters, they hung a bulletin board at the post office and pinned notices and information of interest to local gardeners. And they began a tradition that has carried forward to this day — bringing a fresh bouquet of flowers to the post office.
Recently, three longtime members, Marilyn Essick, Cecily Blake and Shirley LaBarre, who all live in The Gables of Ojai retirement community, sat together and talked about their memories of years of active involvement with the Garden Club.
One long-gone tradition they recalled going out of fashion as they were joining was the exclusive, formal, highbrow nature of the club. Hats and white gloves were required attire, they recalled. And to be considered for membership into the invitation-only club, “a person had to have lived in Ojai for at least a year,” Blake said. “And you had to have two letters of recommendation to get in.” It was a pretty exclusive group.
“When we joined we had been at an exercise class for two hours, (and) most of us showed up in slacks and they frowned on us,” Blake recalled. “We had one gal show up in her work outfit and she was doing a slide presentation and nobody could see it. So she kept raising it up and up and up and by the end of it we were all leaning way back and staring at the slides on the ceiling.”
Marilyn Essick, now 92 and living in the assisted living facility at The Gables, brought in changes not long after joining the club in the 1970s.
“When I came in one of the first things I didn’t like about it was that it was handled like a sorority,” Essick recalls. “You had to be approved and you had to have two people that approved of you. That’s not gardening. I got on the board somehow and just got that wiped right off. And we made it public in the paper that you didn’t have to be approved to be a member. Anybody interested in gardening could join.”
Blake added, “When I became president in 1996, I said, ‘Why don’t we try instead of afternoon tea, why don’t we have a morning coffee that’s more informal?’ So the old-timers said, ‘You’re going to’ wreck the Garden Club,’ but it started growing.”
Nowadays, the Garden Club is going strong with about 35 members. They meet on the second Wednesday of the month at 10 a.m. at Fisher Hall at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 409 Topa Topa Drive in Ojai, for discussion and a special presentation from local or regional gardening experts. The public is welcome to attend.
“Many of us don’t work and we need people who can dig, who don’t mind getting dirty,” LaBarre said. “We need some young people who know one end of a spade from the other.”
To its credit the Garden Club has been instrumental in saving a multitude of the valley’s ancient oak trees. “In 1938 they fought to save trees at the corners of Signal and Oak streets and at Ventura and Eucalyptus streets. This was not their first, nor their last battle on behalf of native trees,” according to Fry’s illustrated history.
The club was also active in preventing a lot of billboards and advertising signs in Ojai. In addition they have built and planted flower gardens and trees around town. Their work can be seen at Rotary Park at the “Y,” the planter in front of the Ojai Valley Woman’s Club, trees and flowers at public schools, and many other projects.
All of the club’s money comes from members’ $25 annual dues and the one required day of work. That comes at the end of November each year, when in one day all the women and men who belong to the club spend one day at the Chaparral Auditorium decorating holiday wreaths. This sale of the wreaths provides funding for future beautification projects.
Other activities of the service club members include: tea tent floral arrangements at the Ojai Valley Tennis Tournament, table setting entries at the Ventura County Fair, and decorating a home for the Holiday Home Look In, which is this weekend.