Oak Harbor Garden Club celebrates a century of service
— Created September 27, 2023 by Kathy Reed
By Kathy Reed
Try to picture this – a century ago, the population of the city of Oak Harbor hovered somewhere around 400. The only way on or off the island was by boat because the Deception Pass and Canoe Pass bridges had yet to be built; they weren’t completed until 1935. Even the U.S. Navy didn’t arrive on Whidbey Island for another 18 years.
Yet it was in 1923 when a group of Oak Harbor women came together over what today might seem like a tiny thing: the construction of a sidewalk. When Mrs. Walter Elliot saw cement being poured for a sidewalk in front of the town’s bank, she approached the mayor, Hill Barrington, and asked why the walkway wasn’t being extended to the high school. His reported reply was, “Mrs. Elliot, that is something for you women to do.”
And so began the Oak Harbor Women’s Improvement Club, the precursor to today’s Oak Harbor Garden Club. The group is celebrating its 100th anniversary in October and will mark the occasion with a community celebration Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. at Smith Park in downtown Oak Harbor. There will be guest speakers, music by Kick Brass, cake to enjoy and there will be several informational displays depicting the important role this organization has played in the history and horticulture of Oak Harbor over the last century.
“We’re also going to unveil and dedicate a plaque which says, ‘Oak Harbor Garden Club, established 1923. Mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow,’” said Kathy Chalfant, the club’s current president. “We are inviting the public! We’d like to have people come and celebrate a hundred years. And the city is declaring October ‘Oak Harbor Garden Club Month.’”
Members say records from the early years of the club are scarce, but they have been able to piece together a lot of its history due in part to an account written in 1962 by club historian, Hazel Koetje, for the group’s 39th anniversary, and in which the story of the sidewalk, told above, was recounted. It turns out that sidewalk paved the way for a long list of projects, including fighting to preserve what is now Smith Park and its stand of native Garry oak trees, which has just been added to the Washington Heritage Register.
“Honestly, I don’t think anybody can really comprehend how much the club has done,” said Helene Valdez, longtime member and part of the garden club’s leadership team. Valdez was among a small group of members who met with Whidbey Weekly last week in Smith Park to talk about the upcoming celebration and the organization’s accomplishments, which are many.
“The men said, ‘you get together and make it happen,’ and so they made a civic club and made it happen,” Chalfant said. “They started the library, they paid the librarian, I mean, the amount of stuff they did was amazing.”
“And they paid for a clinic, for a physician and a nurse to come here,” chimed in member Robin Boyle. “All the matriarchs of Oak Harbor have been a part of this, so it’s just cool.”
“Most of the women in the garden club are strong women and when people say ‘Oh, no, no, no,’ then they don’t give up,” said Kathy Harbour, another longtime club member. “It’s very impressive to me.”
“They did so much, I mean, really they did. And so have we, we’ve continued on,” Valdez said. “The whole purpose has been for Oak Harbor’s benefit, and it’s still true.”
“It’s interesting the number of things the garden club has done,” Chalfant said. “They’ve done stuff around the police department, they did something around the Chamber of Commerce, they did something around Tennis Learning Center, which is now Heller Fire Station, the entry signs on both ends of the city, things around the Whidbey Playhouse. And if it was too expensive, they got 10 other organizations to join in with them. I read some of these early things and I go, ‘Wow.’”
The group’s name was officially changed to the Oak Harbor Civic Garden Club in 1946 and it later became the Oak Harbor Garden Club. Today the group helps maintain the blue flowerpots lining Pioneer Way in the historic downtown area and to commemorate its centennial anniversary, thousands of daffodil bulbs were planted earlier this year, promising a bright burst of color in the spring. The group’s annual garden tour and tea is always a popular fundraising event as well.
Like any group, the garden club has had ups and downs in membership over the years. Leaders are pleased to say it has come back strong after the pandemic and has reached its goal of having 100 members for its 100-year celebration. The club meets at 9 a.m. the second Tuesday of each month at the First United Methodist Church.
“We have a short business meeting and then we have a great program,” said Chalfant. “We want to have fun. If we’re not having fun, then why do it? That’s what I think is keeping it going. Now people are inviting their friends. It’s got momentum.”
“We also try to have great program,s” Boyle said. “I think that’s a draw. And I like the camaraderie. I’ve met some really fun people. I enjoy going to the meetings.”
“Every month is something new,” agreed Valdez. “It could be about conservation one month or how to do a floral arrangement, or any number of things. You can find something that you like. Everybody can shine.”
“Everybody’s needed,” added Harbour.
Learn more at oakharborgardenclub.org.