If you have sat in the shade of a Garry oak tree in Smith Park, checked out a book from the Oak Harbor Library or smiled at the sight of flowers in bloom on Pioneer Way at any point in the last century, thank a member of the Oak Harbor Garden Club.
Oct. 3 will mark the 100th anniversary of the inception of an organization that has its roots in every aspect of civic life in the city of Oak Harbor.
To celebrate a century of service to the community, the Oak Harbor Garden Club will host a public open house from 1 to 4 p.m. Sept. 30 at Smith Park, the location where the club got its start. The event will include informational displays about the club’s history, speakers, refreshments, live music by local band Kick Brass and, according to club leadership chair Kathy Chalfant, some fun surprises.
Throughout the decades since its inception, the Oak Harbor Garden Club has had an outsize impact on life on North Whidbey. Originally the Women’s Improvement Club, the organization got its start in the fall of 1923 when one town resident, remembered by her husband’s name, Mrs. Walter Elliott, approached then-Mayor Hill Barrington about building a sidewalk up the hill to the high school. The city was building a sidewalk in front of the bank, and Elliott thought the children should have one to assist them in their walk to school.
To her request, the mayor purportedly replied, “Mrs. Elliott, that is something for you women to do.”
Elliott called the first meeting of the improvement club on Oct. 3, and the members went on to raise one third of the money required to build the sidewalk by hosting bake sales, bazaars, a flower show and more. The city provided another third of the funds required, and property owners near the high school donated land for the sidewalk.
It was the first of many projects these women would undertake. The improvement club rallied to protect the Garry oak trees in Smith Park, then called City Park, when the city was considering their removal; brought a doctor and a nurse from Seattle to the town; built a float for small boat moorage; raised money for a new apparatus for the fire department; and decorated the wooden shoe float for the city’s first ever Holland Days Festival in 1936.
Current garden club member Helene Valdez, a fifth-generation Whidbey Islander whose grandmother was an early club member, admired these women for their grit.
“Those women at the very beginning — they kind of just did it right,” she said.
The improvement club even funded the city’s first library, which was operated out of people’s homes, the United Methodist Church and local businesses until 1935 when the city offered a room at city hall. The club paid the librarian 50 cents an afternoon, and donated $5 every month to purchase new books.
Club member Kathy Harbour said she remembered checking out Nancy Drew books from the library at city hall when she was in grade school and bringing them back to Smith Park to sit and read in the grass.
Like Valdez, Harbour is a “legacy member” of the garden club; her mother was involved in the club and encouraged her to join because of how “snappy” the other women in the club were, Harbour said.
Harbour and Valdez both recalled with fondness Valdez’s grandmother, Dorothy Boyer, a former club president known for saving the tree that to this day dominates the center of Northeast Eighth Street. Story goes, Harbour said, that Boyer saw some city employees examining the tree and asked them what was happening. They said the city was preparing to remove the tree from the road at 8 a.m. the following morning.
“And she said, ‘Alright, I’ll see you there at 8 o’clock, and I’ll have my gun,’” Harbour said. “And she was serious.”
“Serious as a heart attack!” Valdez chimed in with a laugh.
Much is owed to these early club members, the “matriarchs of the island,” as club member Robin Boyle called them. Today’s club members are following in their tradition of dedication to making Oak Harbor a beautiful and desirable place to live.
In 1946, the club reorganized, officially designating itself the Oak Harbor Civic Garden Club and joining the state and national garden clubs networks, which Valdez said opened it up to a whole slew of new opportunities and resources.
Today, the club meets on the first Tuesday of the month from September through June. Each meeting has a program devoted to horticulture, design and other aspects of gardening, as well as a continued emphasis on civic improvement.
In recent years, the garden club has taken on landscaping and beautification projects at locations all over town, including the Oak Harbor Marina, Pioneer Way, the Whidbey Playhouse, the post office and more. Just last year, club members planted nearly 7,000 daffodil bulbs across the city, which saw their first bloom this spring.
In 2010, the garden club headed a community effort to plant a garden in the courtyard at Hillcrest Elementary School, launching a junior garden club program that still exists to this day.
Chalfant said the club almost didn’t survive the COVID-19 pandemic, but with so few years remaining until the 100th anniversary, club members rallied to invest in interesting programs and recruit new members. To date, the club has 104 members — including around a dozen men, Chalfant said — and is looking forward to the next hundred years of supporting the Oak Harbor community.