The Wilton Garden Club is celebrating its Centennial this year. Just who were the founding members of this Club 100 years ago? A historical treasure trove was discovered while taking a look at its founding in 1921 and the Club is proud to honor two Charter Members, Grace Schenck and Hannah Ambler, as part of its Centennial Celebration and during this year’s “Women’s History Month.”
The seeds were planted in 1911 when the Wilton Civic League was organized to encourage more women to get involved in Wilton’s town affairs and government. First, members of the league started a Garden Committee to educate Wilton school children to become good gardeners and to enter a Garden Contest. This was in the days of one-room schools, each in a neighborhood district of approximately three square miles. Wilton was divided into 10 school districts at that time. Since it was mostly an agricultural community then, the encouragement of good farming practices was appropriate.
Detailed notes and lists of expenses were kept in a notebook kept by Miss Sally Middlebrook. Rules and instructions were distributed to students along with packets of seeds provided by the Civic League. The contest entries were exhibited during the month of September in the Congregational Church chapel on Saturday afternoons. The typical entries included bush lima beans, corn (in the husk), onions, tomatoes, Swiss chard, carrots, pumpkins, asters, marigolds, zinnias, cosmos, a variety of perennials, and an arranged bouquet of wildflowers. An average of 50-60 students exhibited for around eight years.
The founding of the Civic League came at a time when the Town of Wilton was changing. Beginning in the 1910’s, abandoned farms were discovered by New Yorkers for summer homes resulting in noticeable stresses at Town Meetings between the “old-timers” and the “new people.” The town was changing from agricultural to one of commuters. Women were no longer tied to arduous hours of household duties and had more time to enjoy activities pleasing to their interests and talents.
Among the newcomers to Wilton was Florence Gotthold who moved from Greenwich, CT to live in a more rural setting. She was an accomplished gardener and an artist of some note. The story goes that after Florence arrived in town, she exclaimed, “What! You have no garden club?” Obviously, Greenwich did. Gathering together the Comstock sisters, Mary and Georgiana, Sally Middlebrook (former secretary/treasurer of the Wilton Civic League), and Estelle Dickinson, Florence held a meeting on Monday afternoon, Oct. 17, 1921, in the Wilton Library for the purpose of organizing a garden club in Wilton. A constitution was read, discussed, and voted upon. It was unanimously agreed that all people who desired to become members of the Garden Club should contact Miss Sarah Middlebrook and report at the next meeting to be held in May. Noted suffragists and community activists Grace Schenck and Hannah Ambler became two of the Charter Members.
Grace Knight Schenck was known to be the person who had the most influence on Wilton’s civic activities in the 1920’s. Born in 1877 in Orange, NJ, she trained to become a registered nurse and, at the age of 30, she served as chief surgical nurse at Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. In 1909 she married Ernest G.H. Schenck, a Belgian diamond cutter and jewelry designer. Two years later, Grace and Ernest moved to Wilton with their first child, hoping the country air would improve the boy’s health.
Grace’s gardening skills were well known around town and her home in Wilton was “Graenest Farm” (named after Grace and Ernest). It was an old run-down farmhouse and surrounding acreage that the Schencks renovated by adding trails, outbuildings, gardens, and putting the land back into production. The house stood in Wilton Center near where the Stop & Shop is today. Grace Schenck was a woman who “made things happen” as longtime Wilton resident and author Robert H. Russell states in his book Wilton Connecticut, Three Centuries of People, Places, and Progress. Old newspaper clippings reveal that the Schenck home was used as a venue for fundraising events. Her activities and accomplishments covered many aspects of community service and were substantive.
Hannah Ambler was born at Ambler Farm in December, 1843. Her diaries show the yearly patterns of her life running Ambler Farm: setting red geraniums and potted palms out in the spring, cutting hay and preserving fruit in the summer and fall, butchering hogs, cutting ice, and working on her scrapbooks in the winter. Besides keeping house and, after 1897, running the farm, Hannah and her sister Elizabeth managed the family’s finances and numerous rental properties. The sisters were active in the struggle to increase women’s power through suffrage and she was active in many town issues throughout the area.
History reveals that the Wilton Garden Club’s current members follow some very substantial footsteps and they are “making things happen” too. One such member is Christina Duncan. Ever since she moved to Wilton, she has been getting good things done through her leadership roles in Wilton Go Green, serving as town Tree Steward, Lumpkin Foundation Grants, and more. Club members Jacqueline Algon and Elizabeth Craig have been guiding lights with the Pollinator Pathway Initiative as well as numerous other important conservation projects. Pamela Nobumoto and Laurie Musilli have done wonders with the award-winning Green Teen Youth and Family Gardening Program at Trackside Teen Center. The 130 members today and members who have come before them have made good things happen in our town for 100 years.