Natchez Garden Club celebrates anniversary with Wednesday party

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 31, 2005

A celebration of 75 years &8212; kind of a jubilee &8212; was what Natchez Garden Club members had in mind for their party on Wednesday, 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. at Magnolia Hall.

Club historians found, however, that 75 years already had past. Seventy-eight would have to do. And that suits everyone just fine. &8220;It&8217;s still a good excuse to have a party,&8221; said Kathie Blankenstein, longtime member who has spent decades researching the history of the club.

Five club members and friends sat together Friday in the dining room at Magnolia Hall, one of the club properties, and reflected on the 78 years, particularly the preservation projects and service projects carried out by club members through the years.

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They also recalled highlights, such as the 1975 designation of the House on Ellicott Hill, the club&8217;s first restoration project, as a National Historic Landmark. The sesquicentennial celebration of the raising of the first American flag on Ellicott Hill was held in 1947.

Margaret Moss was one of a small group of members who spearheaded purchase of the William Johnson House, now restored as a museum and owned by the National Park Service.

&8220;It was a wonderful piece of history that needed to be saved and to be publicized,&8221; Moss said. The club did not have funds to restore the house but kept it in trust until several sources of money made it possible for the Park Service to acquire the house and restore it.

Club member Ann Lanneau recalled the moving of two historic structures to the lots adjacent to the House on Ellicott Hill. &8220;In 1952, the club won a National Achievement Award for the preservation of the priest&8217;s house,&8221; she said.

Known as Father Lennan&8217;s home, now The Priest&8217;s House, the building was to be destroyed to make way for a parking lot on Market Street.

Soon after the rescue of that house, the club saved the second Market Street house, Lawyer&8217;s Lodge.

Preservation became important early in the club&8217;s history, said Beth Boggess. &8220;The House on Ellicott Hill was the very first restoration by an organization in the entire state of Mississippi,&8221; she said.

Purchasing the house in 1934, the club began restoration in 1935. Today, the house is undergoing another comprehensive restoration expected to be complete by early 2006.

&8220;The present project is based on drawings done for the 1935 restoration,&8221; Boggess said. &8220;They were done by students, some of whom went on to become famous architects of the South, such as Hays Town.&8221;

The restoration under way today may reveal new evidence about the importance of the house, Boggess said. &8220;I think we&8217;ll find the house is even more important than was first thought and even more important than we thought when we first started this project.&8221;

Anne MacNeil, a recent Natchez Garden Club president and Beth Boggess&8217; sister, recalled ways in which their mother, Grace MacNeil, had been involved in club work, especially preservation and beautification.

Lanneau did the same, remembering her mother, Anna Rose Metcalfe, and contributions she had made during many decades of membership.

Blankenstein&8217;s mother, Lillie Vidal Boatner, was executive secretary of the club. &8220;She was so interested in getting publicity for the club,&8221; Blankenstein said. &8220;They would write people you wouldn&8217;t dream would come here &8212; movie stars, writers. And many of them came.&8221;

A big splash of news came when Gorham Silver Co. decided to produce a silver pattern called Melrose. The club made use of that as a publicity tool.

Lanneau recalled that the bluff area along Broadway was a place where beautification projects were carried out in the early years. More recently, the club has contributed plant materials to the Natchez Habitat for Humanity houses.

Boggess said the garden club grew from an earlier established federated women&8217;s club. That may have had an influence on the club&8217;s orientation toward service projects.

Interesting to her, also, is that her grandfather, David McKittrick, is named as one of the founders of the Natchez Garden Club.

Founded during a time of economic depression, the club was like so many other women&8217;s clubs during periods of economic decline, Boggess said.

&8220;The women worked hard to find businesses and factories and getting people to come here to live. Some individuals found property for subdivisions and made sure the subdivisions were humane and that trees stayed and that some thought went into where schools would be located,&8221; she said.

Throughout its history, the club has been a charitable organization, also, Blankenstein said. &8220;You can read even in the early years about proceeds of club events being divided among charities,&8221; she said.

And that philosophy has carried into the 21st century, as only recently the club collected and presented a generous donation to hurricane relief funds.