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REMEMBER THIS: Garden club cultivating beauty for nearly 150 years

In this week's column, the History Hound explains the evolution of what is now the Newmarket Garden Club

The Newmarket Horticultural Society has contributed to natural beauty and its communal beauty for more than 146 years in Newmarket, making the town a more pleasant place to live for all of us.

Horticulture is defined as the art and science of growing plants, typically small-scale or ornamental in nature, as compared to the larger-scale cultivation of crops.

Horticulture started with the domestication of plants, beginning with those grown and maintained for sustenance. Eventually, plants were grown for their ornamental value, more for pleasure than sustenance. Today, horticulture has become fundamental to our way of life, enhancing our environment and connecting us back to nature.

Horticultural societies focus on the study and culture of cultivated plants, and they can be local, regional, national or international. Some have a broader focus; others are focused on a specific group or genus.

The first horticultural society was founded in 1768 and listed as the Ancient Society of York Florists. It was the first registered society on record, but if one looks further back, one will find the mention of community gardening groups.

Horticulture has been part of our human history for at least 20,000 years, dating to the domestication of plants for food, with agriculture and horticulture diverging at some point during the Middle Ages. (Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by John Carey.) 

There is historical evidence gardens maintained by the Aztec were sacred, as they grew plants that held religious value. Flowers held symbolic power in religious rites as they were offered to the gods, as well as being given in ceremonies to leaders to demonstrate their connection to their gods.

I now turn to Ethel Trewhella’s History of the Town of Newmarket for the early history of the local horticultural society. The first reference she could find to the existence of a local society was in 1876, for the part it played in a civic celebration. Then in May 1901, a flower show was held in the skating rink on Main Street near Davis Drive.

In the late summer of that year, the society offered to unite with the local agricultural society to assist it in the annual fall fair and the North York Old Boys’ Reunion. This merger between the two societies was to become permanent. A new society was organized in 1919, with Charles Denne as its president and John Davey as its secretary. It held its first show at the rink on Main Street, with the Hon. E.J. Davis contributing several trophies to the event.

Two people were active in establishing the society, as well as being the first to exhibit their flowers. They were Arthur Fildey and L.P. Cane. Cane won five silver trophies and Mrs. Harman was the winner of the Eaton trophy for their arrangements.

The societies’ website picks up the story online under the heading, Celebrating 96 Years of Active Community Gardening. In the winter of 1926, the current edition of the Newmarket Garden Club (formerly the Newmarket Horticultural Society) was founded with its goal to promote all things horticultural locally, and to bring the joy of gardening to its members and the public.

This organizational meeting took place in the McCauley Block on Main Street and was attended by Denne, Miss Toole, Ed Brammer, James Gibney, Ward Clarkson, Cane, Dr. C.S. Gilbert, R.B. McTavish, Duncan Murray and Howard Hugo. The elected officers included B.W. Nichol (president), A.E. Brammer (vice-president), the Rev. R.K. Nichol (secretary) and Gilbert (treasurer). There were three local flower shows held that year at the fairgrounds and in the market building. The society sponsored garden plots for children and floral awards for adults.

They planted trees and shrubs throughout town, on school grounds and corner lots, and undertook landscaping projects around town. If you were a student back then, you would likely have received a gift of bulbs in the spring, courtesy of the society.

In 1950, it sponsored the local trade fair and continued to do so until 1956. All this information comes from the publication, 1857-1957 Centennial Red Book, by John Luck.

Over the years, the society has continued to serve the horticultural needs of our community. Some of those I want to recognize are Howard Procter, Arnold Reinke, Eugene McCaffrey and former mayor Bert Kent, who served as the president in the late 1950s.

One of the familiar scenes from my childhood was that of McCaffrey, who owned a flower shop at the south end of Main Street in the 1940s, tending the flower bed on Millard Avenue just west of Church Street, across from the Newmarket Veterans Hall. I have included a photo of this garden, which is still maintained by the club today.

It is interesting to note the club’s logo is the Monarda (scarlet beebalm) plant, which is said to be useful in attracting bees, given the Town of Newmarket’s slogan, the Hive of Activity, which seems more than appropriate as an official logo.

The society’s membership draws not only expert gardeners but also welcomes novice gardeners. Its website details its social activities such as seed and plant exchanges, annual plant sales, maintenance of public gardens, communication through newsletters, and associations with other horticultural societies throughout Ontario.

It also promotes many plant-related activities in the community, including monthly guest speakers, a bursary, an annual spring plant sale, friendly flower and photography competitions, as well as maintaining two town gardens.

It was through the society’s maintenance of local public gardens that I came to admire this organization.

Did you know there is a provincial network of dedicated horticulturists? The Newmarket Garden Club is just one of the area community members of District 5 of the Ontario Horticultural Association, participating in various inter-society functions.

If you are a plant enthusiast, you are aware of its plant sale fundraising event each spring, with these plants mainly being supplied from members’ own gardens. This was always a popular event with the public and it sold out quite quickly.

Should you wish to join the Newmarket Garden Club or simply check out its event listings, visit its website for more information.

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with NewmarketToday, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.

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About the Author: Richard MacLeod

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years
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