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SBGC Archives

Marie Hemphill's Reminiscences on 25 years of SBGC

When I was asked to write a "History" of Stony Brook, I was flattered, but the more I read the voluminous Record Books, the more I knew that editing and boiling them down was beyond me, Instead, I have settled on reflections of what were, to me, the highlights of my years as a member I am also having them mimeographed so that you can be spared the boredom of having them read at a meeting.

It all began in the Spring of 1939 when four gals were having read at Sukie Williams' house on Library Place. Besides Sukie, they were Maggie Donoho, Mary Jane Paynter and Charlotte Schluter.

They talked of starting a small, young, and informal Garden Club, arranging to meet the following week at Charlotte Schluter's, across the street in the house she was renting from the Yeatman’s. Helen Griffin, Sue Steele and Dottie Cart were also invited to this first meeting. Such was the enthusiasm, that they drew up a constitution which would limit the membership to those who grew their own flowers and worked in their own gardens, Charlotte Schluter was chosen the first president and “Green Fingers” the name. Later that year, with additional members elected, the name was changed to “The Gardeners”.

From the beginning the new club got encouragement and help from The Princeton Garden Club. Mrs. Marquand was especially interested and helped, and it seems appropriate that Stony Brook is honoring her memory with a wild garden. I never appreciated what a distinguished friend we had until at the University B-Centennial commencement she was given an Honorary Degree in Botany and Horticulture.

In 1944 we were proposed for membership in the Garden Club of America by the Princeton Garden Club, seconded by The Trenton Garden Club, and sponsored by many others, \, including The Hortulus Club of Greenwich and Mrs. Robert Goldborough Henry if “Myrtle Grove” in Maryland, who was a Member-as-Large and Maggie Donoho’s mother.

Before we were admitted they sent a V.I.P. group to look us over. We chose the following gardens: the Leon’s, Wallace’s, Fleming’s, Dielhenn’s, Williams’, Thomson’s and Griffin’s. They must have been impressed because we were quickly invited to join that august body, making us the second club so chosen in a small community already having a member club. The first was our good friend, The Hortulus Club.

The things I remember best about Stony Brook, excluding the interminable talk and controversy, were our gardens and projects.

Some of the Gardens:

1) Helen Griffin’s miniscule one on Edwards Place and her large one on Washington Road, where the poor soil presented a constant but successful battle to build it up, so that she could raise her lovely roses and chrysanthemums in the sun, and unusual shade-loving plants where it was shady.
2) “Sukie” Williams’ walled garden on Library Place, where there was not ventilation and constant dampness, but where she managed to have endless shade-loving shrubs and plants, Also the cool hallway filled with exotic plant, including a Night Blooming Cereus. She called me one winter’s night to invite me to watch it bloom. The twelve buds quite literally shook and trembled before blooming into breath-takingly beautiful flowers. It was a never to be forgotten sight, that a less than attractive plan could produce such dramatic flowers that lived only seconds.
3) Bea Thompson’s house and garden, converted from the old Pyne potting sheds, greenhouse and cold frames. It had everything from roses, annuals perennials, to a planting of small fruit trees.
4) Mary Jane Paynter’s lawn and perennial borders.
5) Kathie Bray’s ilex, carpet of myrtle and bulbs was a corner of Virginia in New Jersey.
6) Dottie Fleming’s Spring Garden – like a trip to “Lenteboden” in New Hope.
7) Ann Lippencott’s fenced-in yard in Princeton’s first bleak “Development”. The roses on the fence and the flowering trees and shrubs were so unexpected that it was like finding an oasis in a desert.
8) Marion (Rachel Carson) Leon’s formal garden, acres of dogwood and fantastic vegetables – all grown, of course, with organic fertilizer.
9) Alice Lindabury’s horticulturist’s dream garden.
10) Charlotte Schluter’s little greenhouse off the dining room – a riot of rare primulas in winter.
11) Kathleen Paynter’s vast woodland garden, basically all native trees and shrubs, designed by a friend of her mother’s Marian Coffin, who was one of the first of the American landscape architects Miss Marian was a fascinating old lady, and never minded when I took time off my job to watch her work. She would have an illegible plan in her pocket which she never referred to – just pointing with her cane to where things were to go. Her rules were: Have a focal point, surprises around every corner, and use native materials I suggested to her once that having acres to deal with was one thing, but how did one manage to follow her rules on a small lot. She never answered that one, but invited me to spend a weekend at her summer cottage in Rhode Island, on a lot approximately 100 by 150 ft. on a wind-blown hill with a view of the sea. Its focal point was an old, gnarled and twisted tree with a terrace around it, with white thyme growing between the flagstones. Wide grass paths led from it to small secluded gardens hidden behind beach plums and their native shrubs. Each one had a focal point, and the elements of surprise where so enchanting that I fully expected to see the little lame boy of the “Secret Garden” sitting in his wheelchair in one of them. Off the dining room on the shady north side of the garden was a split white cedar fence enclosing a small garden with the sculpture of a bot at the end oxidized by the sea air to a brownish green. The fence was covered with the great white blooms of Hydrangea Petiolaris. When I told her I had never seen anything to compare with her gardens, she laconically said: “You should have come in the spring when the beach plums bloom – they make such delicious jam in the fall, too.” She certainly proved that acres aren’t needed if one has imagination.

The Projects – some fun and some gruesome:

The Fun Ones:

1) The Gardens at the New York and Philadelphia Flower Shows

Helen Griffin and Sue Steele designed them, with much unsolicited advice. But all of us worked. We either planted, built walls, carried and hauled, or watered plant material.

One of the nicest was designed around a little “St, Francis of the Birds” statue. We missed first prize on that one because the judges thought the statue was too glaringly white to fit in with the cedar fence and woodland planting.

Another was centered on a sun dial, ivy and myrtle, and we espaliered fruit trees on the fences. We got first prize. No one would believe how many places sell sun dials – my feet still hurt remembering searching for just the right one.

Another one was a garden on one side leading down steps from the façade of a colonial house, provided by The Garden Club of America. It was a wild garden with a white birch shading it. I thought it the best we had ever done, but we lost out to Kathleen Peyton, our ex-member's planting of fabulous tulips for the Princeton Garden Club. I still think the judges got carried away with the magnificent display of tulips’ like a florist’s Easter window. And I wasn’t alone in my opinion, because out planting drew crowds writing down our unusual labeled plant material.

2) Another fun project was the Sale of 18th and 19th Century Botanical Books and Prints at the Williams’. Jack was the auctioneer, and his amusing and persuasive patter earned so much lucre for Sony Brook that it made a Mr. Slatoff look like a piker.

3) My favorite project was our Stony Brook Flower Show in September. We held in in the lobby of McCarter Theatre, and all entries were strictly by invitation. The result was few but outstanding Specimens, Arrangements, Displays by Mr. Clark of the University, the New Jersey Dahlia Society, and Geraniums by Mr. Arndt of Hightstown. We drew visitors from all over the East and gained renown for Stony Brook. I never shall understand, though I have a vague idea, why we gave it up, in view of the acclaim it earned for Stony Brook but especially for the pleasure it gave so many people; three men especially took pride in their being invited to exhibit, but sadly, are no longer with us. Dean Sayre, who know the nature of his illness took a lot of persuading to exhibit his roses, only to win two prizes; Joan Prentice Von Erdberg’s husband was also a prize-winner, and of course dear Mr. White, with his prize-winning fruit and vegetables.

The really gruesome projects were:

1) The Compost Pile in the now defunct Community Gardens, complete with leaves, eagerly dumped by Borough officials, and our worms which were supposed to go up but didn’t. And the necessity of taking turns periodically in boots and armed with a pitchfork to turn the nauseous mess.

2) The Botany Class I dreamed up, conducted by a quite Freudian young man from Rutgers, who seemed obsessed by the “Birds and Bees” of flowers and sectional drawings of same on a blackboard. He seemed to have a chronic cold in the head, but probably was simply allergic to the mere thought of pollen!

3) The Community Flower Show. It was held in the assembly room of the Nassau Street School during the Memorial Day weekend. This one was a real killer! The first hurdle was getting the custodian to open his precious doors the night before the Show. He got even with us by taking a long after-dinner nap at home. The result was that we practically spent the whole night making niches for the Arrangement and covering literally miles of tables with brown wrapping paper for the Specimen Classes. The morning of the Show, the “Custodian” was on hand early with mops and cloths to make sure we used them to protect his equally precious floors from the least drop of water. We’d get all the class signs in place, but the exhibitors were always late and always brought more roses or peonies than we had anticipated, so that they landed in the aquilegia or tulip sections, to the dismay of the judges.

Two exhibits I’ll never forget:

1) A real live bride on a black velvet-covered dais in the corner. She was supposed to stand motionless, so it was necessary to replace her at frequent intervals, but invariably she was fair, fat and forty-plus, and wilted from the heat besides.

2) A large space had been reserved months ahead of time by a pretty determined old party. Whenever I tried to find out whether the space was to be in the Arrangement or Specimen Section, all she would say was: “Just save me a large space young woman, and wait and see.” What with the “Custodian”, the mops and the heat, I was about ready for a nervous breakdown, when a triumphant procession marched in, consisting of the elderly party, her dejected husband, carrying the largest shallow bowl I’ve ever seen, and numerous “Camp Followers”. The bowl contained masses of tired red and white roses and Bachelor’s Buttons with small “Flags of all Nations” pin-cushioned among the flowers. In the middle a two by three Old Glory proudly waved and an even bigger sign reading; “Symbolism I’m glad to report, was the last Community Flower Show.

3) Annual Meeting of the Federated Clubs of N.J. at the Inn. In Televisionese this one was a real “gasser”! We had been pressured to join the Federated Clubs of New Jersey, and they reciprocated by holding their annual meeting at the Princeton Inn with instructions to the Princeton Garden Club and Stony Brook to arrange a Tour of our gardens, My job was to put up the direction signs early in the morning ad check with the owners, but before the hordes were scheduled to begin the Tour, I checked on the signs again, only to find that the one for the McAplin’s had been changed to the farm gate of the North Road, so I moved it back to the front driveway, noticing a car parked at the farm gate. It moved down the hill and one of the more determined Princeton Garden Club ladies came back with my sign and put it back by the farm gate, I then told her that Sally had instructed me to put it by her front drive, but she said it was nonsense so we played “Puss-in-the-Corner” until she must have decided that I was going to have it my way – short of fisticuffs, so she went home, At this point my real troubles began. Knowing these Federated Ladies from a previous encounter with them at Fort Dix, when they ordered me, as Chairman of the Red Cross Council, to see that gardens were planted for the patients. When I told them that I had no authority to do it, it was up to the Commanding Officer of the Hospital, they dropped me like a hot potato and burst into his office unannounced. I can imagine his pleasure!
Sure enough, they were still running true to form – and when they got to Sally’s they ordered me to open the door and show them to the “Powder Room”, but I reminded them that it was a Garden Tour – no houses open.
Their bus then headed for the Peyton’s, with me in hot pursuit. Unfortunately, they had a head start, and I got to the Peyton’s to find the butler in a Gallic frenzy. They had just barged in and were all over the house. It took courage, but I got them out! My only solution seemed to climb right in the bus with them and confide my problem to the driver. He only roared and said: “Gee Ma’am, you sure don’t know these dames likes I do, the all got the same old Garden Tour Bladder Trouble.”
The rest of the tour was uneventful, but when we got to the Inn Madam President sent her Storm Troopers inside, and asked me my Official Title. I admitted to being assistant to the Lavatory Keeper. Nothing daunted, she thanked me for the tour and said: “No wonder your Club has such a reputation, we don’t have that office, but I’ll take it up at our next Board meeting.” My pal, the driver, nearly fell out of his bus, and I staggered home.

Any account of Stony Brook’s first 25 years, ought to mention some of our other good friends: Mr. Clark of the University, who was always ready to help us with suggestions and to lend us plant material. Mr. Reynolds helped us too, and so did Mr. Arendt, “The Geranium Man” and many other Nurserymen, local and out of town.

Another thing struck me in reading the books was why Stony Brook ever did me the honor of making me an Honorary Consultant. My attendance record was appalling, and I’m ashamed to say, deliberate, since the tea-and-cake bit bored me, the real fun was seeing the gardens and talking about them and the unofficial trips some of us made to out of the way nurseries to find unusual plant materials. Old Mr. Tom Barry’s on the New Hope Road was one of my favorite jaunts. He was a real character and the nursery wild and untended, but he had every kind of unusual plant. I first made friends with him when I wanted a Laurocerasus (cherry laurel). He told me he liked people who knew the botanical names of plants because his plants were his “babies”, and he figured, if his customers had taken the trouble to learn their real names, they could take good care of them. He used to embarrass me by giving me things gratis and practically daring me to grow them. Then when he was in Princeton he’d stop to check up on them, and once told me he was ashamed of me to have planted Daphne Cneorum and Lupine – that I should know better than to think they’d do well in the hot humid Princeton nights. They didn’t.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about Stony Brook were the varied interests of the members. From garden design, horticulture, flower arranging to conservation and organic gardening. My own chief interest was always trees. This dated back to my childhood in North Jersey, where we had many very large chestnut trees and still coming home from a short summer vacation to a scene of utter desolation. In the space of two months, not a single chestnut was alive.

I know Stony Brook’s next 25 years will continue with the enthusiasm of the first, and it is nice to know that daughters of the first members are now joining the Club, to carry on in the tradition of their mothers. Alas, mine is only interested in trees and painting, so I’ll have to hope that my almost seven-year-old granddaughter will be a candidate someday. She is already an old hand with three years of experience in her own garden and a passionate interest in wild flowers.

Good luck from an ancient alumna, who will always remember the pleasure she got from Stony Brook, and hope the above ramblings will prove her continued interest.

Marie Hemphill

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