First Steps by Florence Bellis

(originally printed in the Quarterly Summer 1976 issue)

 Some years ago I traced the first steps of the garden club movement in this country. Etched on my memory as clearly as writing on glass are the first steps taken by the American Primrose Society. Somehow I feel that this is the time and the place to share it.

Maryland took the first step in 1860 by organizing the Horticultural Garden Club but stumbled when war was declared a year later. The Civil War could also have some bearing on the founding of the Ladies’ Garden Club in Athens, Georgia in 1891. But perhaps it is just my fancy as a southern-born that the memory of Sherman’s march from Atlanta to Savannah had something to do with this invitation: “Every lady who might be interested in growing anything from a cabbage to a chrysanthemum is welcome.”

Still, only twenty-seven years had passed since Sherman’s 60,000 men had cut a sixty-mile-wide swath some three hundred miles to the sea. In those twenty-five days, they burned everything they could not eat. I am quite sure that many of the ladies who gathered in Mrs. Lumpkin’s ante-bellum drawing room that chilly January day remembered it very well. General Sherman died two months after the ladies organized.

Should anyone be interested, I have the names of the “twelve home-loving women” who attended that first meeting. They did not know that they planted a tree that day which would grow on and on, never stopping. That it would branch and flower over north and south alike, bearing sweet fruit for anyone who wished to pick it.

In the 90’s and on past the first World War, most men found little pleasure in the garden. Then Leo W. Nack initiated the first Men’s Garden Club in Chicago in 1927-some have it 1928. His widow wrote me of his earth-love and how he had won first prize and $1,000. in a contest sponsored by a Chicago newspaper. His garden measured 45 x 60 feet.

Two years later Jay N. Darling (Ding Darling the famous cartoonist) organized the second club in Des Moines. The third and fourth clubs were set up the same year in Fort Wayne and in Aurora, not far from Chicago. The men held their first national convention in Chicago, September 26, 1932, banding the clubs together into the Men’s Garden Clubs of America.

Nine years later a small group of gardeners with a mounting primrose enthusiasm came together in Portland and formed the American Primrose Society. Primroses were still new to this country, then. I can think of only a handful who grew them in the 1920’s – Lou Roberts, Audra Link and the garden columinst, Carl Maskey, all of Milwaukie just out of Portland; Rae Berry in Portland and possibly, Henry Wessinger.

Dean Collins was drama editor of the old News-Telegram in Portland at this time and I managed the Toy Theatre Players of Portland. We met by way of the reviews. In 1936, circumstances moved me to a shell of a barn on Johnson Creek in Gresham, ten miles east of Portland, which became Barnhaven. Mr. and Mrs. Collins were frequent visitors and one day he persuaded me, much against my will, to do a series of twelve primrose articles for his garden page in the Oregon Journal. They caught on and he conceived the idea of a society dedicated to primroses – one flower societies being much in vogue at the time.

On the strength of “The Journal” articles, the Board of Directors asked me in 1943 to take on the job of editing the Quarterly. I cannot tell you the depth of my despair. The barn was still a barn, the business was growing as was my small daughter, I had no background material, and the APS files had attracted but two short articles from New Jersey in the two years since inception.

Among Mrs. Roberts’ British seed catalogs, much loved, thumbed and penciled, were some Royal Horticultural Society Journals which reported on primroses exhibited in their Spring Shows in London and on the Primula Conferences. The Portland Public Library yielded the information that two complete sets of the RHS Journals existed in the United States. One was in the Oregon State University library only ninety miles away.

The OSU library’s kindness to me will always remain a shining thing. The staff provided me with a typewriter and desk in the stack room housing, all the RHS Journals dating from early Victorian years, the French Horticole volumes, and those of the Horticole Belique. For ten days I copied primrose history. Not a scrap escaped.

Yet after nine years of editing the Quarterly, I had used but a fraction of the material. Before me are those first three mimeographed Quarterlies, No. 1, 2 and 3 of Volume 1. Thirty-three years disappear and I am again walking around and round the round table in Lou Roberts’ dining room table picking up the freshly mimeographed sheets in sequence, she folding them on the kitchen table into booklets.

After the mimeographed issues had been reissued in print and Volume II was on its way, the Quarterly could have become a monthly publication had the Board of Directors accepted Mr. Collins’ offer to have “The Journal” take over its publication. But in my circumstances I could not edit a monthly. So the Society kept its national identity – young and dreamful though it was – the Quarterly continued to be published in Gresham, and Mrs. Roberts’ daughter, Margaret Pearson, had drawn the first APS emblem and the little article-stops I called dickies. For the very personal parts of this piece I beg understanding but I could think of no other way to accurately record our first steps.

Reading Mrs. Balla’s report of the Eastern Chapter’s Second Annual Meeting and Show held last year in Acworth, New Hampshire was a genuine pleasure. We are hoping that you all will, indeed, share your whole-hearted primrose enthusiasm and your experiences in notes and articles for the enjoyment of the entire membership. A fitting thing, for was it not Mrs. Ernest L. Scott and Mr. T.A. Weston, both of New Jersey, who wrote the first two articles for the American Primrose Society?