By E. ASHLEY ROONEY
The Lexington Field & Garden Club was founded in 1876. It began with men at its helm. They were the community leaders with a heritage of good bloodlines, intellectual superiority, and economic success. Their wives addressed them as “mister,” and most belonged to the mainline Protestant churches.
Lexington was primarily a farming community. It began to prosper when the Lexington and West Cambridge Railroad, later the Boston and Maine Railroad, began its service in 1846
In 1875 as the 2,277 Lexingtonians prepared to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Battle on the Green and welcome Ulysses S. Grant and his cabinet to the festivities, a letter to the relatively new Lexington Minuteman pointed out that the area in front of the railroad depot was most unattractive. It soon became apparent that a permanent association was needed to improve our streets and open spaces, and the Lexington Field & Garden Club (LFGC) was organized. Matthew Merriam was its first president.
In 1876, the club adopted a constitution that stated, “the object of this association shall be the care and protection of trees and shrubs in the streets and public places of Lexington and the improvement of the town by the planting of additional trees and ornamental plants, the study and development of the natural resources of this vicinity, the cultivation of taste in arboriculture and horticulture and the discussion of these and kindred subjects.”
The club was incorporated in 1891, but long before that it was making its mark on the environment. From its inception, the group focused on improving the appearance of the disreputable train and freight area, which dominated the center of the village. By 1886, the Boston & Maine Railroad had opened double tracks to Boston and back and eventually provided train service 22 times a day, each way. Unfortunately, all those trains led to disreputable mess of railroad ties, coal bins, and piles of wood in the center of Lexington.
The LFGC also sought to beautify the islands at Hancock and Bedford Streets, Pleasant and Massachusetts Ave, and Lincoln and Concord Streets. To this day, the LFGC beautifies these and many other islands. In 1887, it was willing to assume care of the Common on condition that the town provide $150/year while the club gave $50/year. Under its authority, the hay-covered Common, often filled with cows, became a beautiful historical park.
Many new technologies, such as commuter trains and trolleys, were improving daily life, yet the increasingly mechanized environment led to social reformers calling for the construction of parks and recommending physical exercise as a way to ward off stress. Enjoying this new focus on leisure, the club members took many field trips to explore their environs. In 1875, 51 members went to a field meeting at Shaker Glen (off Woburn St.). Mrs. G.O. Whiting organized a committee to provide saucers for the ice cream furnished by the club, which also provided lemons and ice to make lemonade. Forty-four members traveled to Franklin Park and Arnold Arboretum in Boston. When they arrived at the park, they boarded four large park carriages to visit the principal points of interest and enjoy the views of Blue Hills.
A 36-year old patent attorney, Frederick L, Emery assumed the presidency of the garden club in 1904. In September of that year, the Club acquired land now known as Hastings Park and raised the funds necessary to grade and adapt it. During his tenure, he began to petition the railroad to sell the land to the town. By late 1921, Boston & Maine agreed to sell it for $20,000. In 1922, the area became known as Depot Square, but after Emery’s death, it was renamed in his honor. In his will he left $5,000 to the town with the income from the bequest to be spent by the garden club to beautify his Lexington.
Initially and until the 1950s, the men paid dues of $1.00 while the women paid only 50¢. Although the club was founded in 1876, it did not have a female president until Mrs. Hollis Webster was elected in 1933, some 57 years after its founding.
Since 1955, all the presidents were women, but they are listed as Mrs…until 1988. Then they became known without any personal title. Today, you see the LFGC women working on the islands, holding the Arbor Day ceremony, or getting ready for their grand plant sale.
Looking around Lexington, you can see many signs of the club’s work: Emery Park, Captain Parker’s statue, The Cary Library Garden, the Hancock-Clark House Herb Garden, the Munroe Tavern Colonial Flowers, St. Brigid’s Mary Garden, and all the many civic gardens. This year the club has been working with the US Post Office to beautify their grounds.
As the twenty-first century progresses, its leaders are looking for a way to involve more newcomers and men, once again, the club and its activities. They are planning a pruning workshop and a program on stone walls to attract men to the club.