The flagpole outside of the Washington Parks Department office near Lions Lake is adorned with an ornamental tree, shrubs, flowers and a bench. It’s a beautiful tribute to the late Lucile Mauntel, a great among many in the Washington Garden Club, but it wasn’t always so.

There was a time not too long ago when the ground surrounding the flagpole, which was dedicated to Mauntel, was barren.

Enter the Washington Garden Club.

Once it came to their attention, members dug in, literally, to plan and plant a garden that would be worthy of Mauntel, who served as president of the National Council of State Garden Clubs at a time when there were 400,000 members.

Today the Lucile Mauntel Flagpole Memorial Garden is one of three gardens around Washington that the club maintains.

Others are the “pocket garden” at the corner of Lafayette and Second streets, across from the Downtown Post Office, and at the Lions Lake bridge, where many people come to take photos for proms, graduations and weddings. Washington Garden Club members also help with gardens at the Downtown Washington Post Office, the old water works building on Front Street and at the Washington Public Library.

For 75 years now the Washington Garden Club has been actively working to make the community a more beautiful place, even if the approach has changed over the last 7 1/2 decades — their commitment has not.

“There’s a verse that I read when I was in middle school, and I think it holds so much meaning for our garden club,” said Sally Bocklage, president:

“ ‘I have found that those who love a dog, a tree, a bird and flowers are usually thoughtful of larger needs that may be ours.’ ”

Organized in 1939 With 21 Members

Washington’s first run at establishing a garden club was in 1930, when a meeting was held in Washington City Hall Oct. 22, noted Charlene Jackson, a club member since the ’90s. Mr. L.P. Jensen from the Missouri Botanical Garden site in Gray Summit (now Shaw Nature Reserve) spoke, and attorney H.A. Krog led the meeting. Mr. J.T. Gibbs, a vocational agriculture instructor at Washington High School, was elected chairman and there were 21 members who signed up, including Mrs. Edwin Thias, Mrs. Harry Hirschl, Mrs. J.H. Dickbrader, Mrs. O.W. Arcularius and Mrs. E.C. Fenner.

That group, at some point, dissolved, said Jackson, who has found no information for why.

The current Washington Garden Club was organized July 6, 1939, said Bocklage. The first meeting was held Oct. 5, 1939, at the Washington Elks Hall.

Officers were Mrs. James McClure as president; Mrs. H. Dickbrader as vice president; Mrs. Carl Otto as secretary; Mrs. Edwin Thias as treasurer; and Mrs. Fred Mauntel as corresponding secretary.

There were 18 committee members, but other members were not listed, said Jackson.

A yearbook was put together with string, she noted, and the Christmas program that year was “The Origin of the Christmas Tree.”

Meetings were held the first Thursday afternoon of each month at 3 p.m. at the Washington Elks Hall. From the beginning, the club flower has been the rose, and club colors have been pink and green.

Club members have a stack of scrapbooks filled with details and photos of their history that they keep on a shelf at the Washington Historical Society Museum, but not much goes back to the earliest years.

“We have books as far back as 1949, ’57, but not a lot of records from the beginning,” said Bocklage. “Prior to 1949 there are several cards here . . . We don’t have more than a couple of note cards.”

Lucile Mauntel Garden

Lucile Mauntel was born and raised in Washington and served as the Washington Garden Club president three times in three different decades, said Bocklage, whose husband was Mauntel’s nephew.

Mauntel was elected president of the Missouri Federation of State Garden Clubs in 1951 at the organization’s 18th annual convention in Kansas City, said Jackson. To honor her, the council later presented a flagpole to the city of Washington.

Mauntel went on to serve as president of the National Council of State Garden Clubs.

“She was a very good friend of (First Lady) Lady Bird Johnson,” Jackson recalled, noting Mauntel and the wife of President Lyndon Johnson worked together on the Highway Beautification Projects, including the Blue Star Memorial Highway.

“This work took her to every state in the Union and its affiliates in South America and Europe,” said Bocklage.

In her position with the National Council of State Garden Clubs, Mauntel met with many famous and influential people, said Bocklage, from Native American Indian chiefs to astronauts to Rockefellers. She lived in Washington at Sixth and Cedar streets during her term as national president.

Mauntel also was active in the Girls Scouts and the Red Cross and she also helped organize the Washington Historical Society, serving as its first president.

She was in the Outstanding Civil Leaders of America. She received the Governor’s Award, the highest honor given to an individual by the Conservation Federation of Missouri.

“She was the first woman to be accorded this citation for her outstanding work in the field of conservation centering around the preservation of our country’s natural resources,” said Bocklage.

In recent years when Washington Garden Club members became aware that the flagpole here dedicated to Mauntel was unadorned, they formed a committee to return it to its original beauty.

“For our 75th anniversary year, our project has been to enlarge that flagpole garden,” said Bocklage.

Fashionable Members, Junior Garden Club

Old photos of Washington Garden Club members from the ’50s and ’60s show the women were not only smart about flowers and planting, but also very fashionable.

Pointing to a photo from 1963, Jackson commented, “They all have hats on, they all have furs on.”

They did their best to make Washington fashionable and beautiful too.

In 1952, the civic committee of the garden club, under the direction of Mrs. C.J. Burger, dedicated six trees along Grand Avenue as living memorials for the war dead, said Jackson.

“In the early days they did a lot of flower arrangements,” she added. “They worked with the library and would do a lot of flower arrangements for the library.”

Garden Club members distributed many daffodil bulbs to families living along Highway 100 for planting around their mailboxes, said Jackson. In 1953, the club distributed 500 walnut seedlings among elementary students.

“One of the most interesting projects was the planting of boxwoods at the Washington Post Office,” said Bocklage. “All the plants were derived from a 100-year-old boxwood at the original zither factory.”

In 1956, a junior garden club was organized by Miss Cora Muench for children ages 7 to 14. Sandi Hillermann McDonald and Carolyn Horn Gildehaus, now adult members, were both junior club members. The junior club’s motto was “Enjoy, Do Not Destroy.”

In 1963, the Washington Garden Club was awarded a check for $125 from Sears, Roebuck and Company. The club added $100 from its own coffer and gave the funds to the Washington Parks Commission to develop plantings of approximately one acre at the east entrance of the city park, said Jackson.

These include four white pine trees, six bald cypress trees, eight American holly, 14 pyracantha and 25 red-leaf barberry.

In 1975, the Garden Club, in cooperation with the city, developed a “mini-garden” at the corner of Lafayette and Second streets, said Jackson.

“The city constructed a crescent-shaped walk in the small park and placed benches along the walkway,” she noted. “Garden Club members did all of the landscaping.”

Today this mini-garden is considered one of the gems of the community, said Wanda Rogers-Larson, a garden club member since 2008 who currently serves as recording secretary, not just by residents, but also by visitors, like judges with the America In Bloom program, which had this to say:

“It has all the elements of a well-designed landscape, including balance, harmony and diversity.

“The flowers in this little park bloom in abundance, and the foliage is colorful and attractive. We like this garden because it uses a large number of perennial and shrub species that return year after year, and yet it appears to be a floral display . . . Use this garden as a model for other pocket gardens.”

Scholarships, Christmas Trees, AIB

Today, the Garden Club’s stated purpose is to help make our community a place of beautiful homes, lawns and gardens.

“In that endeavor, the Club has taken the responsibility for beautifying and maintaining several areas in Downtown Washington, in conjunction with the Washington Parks Department,” said Larson.

Another of its objectives is to grow more gardeners, so each year the Washington Garden Club awards an annual scholarship to someone interested in studying horticulture. They don’t have to be a member of the club.

The club also participates each year in the St. Peter’s United Church of Christ’s Festival of Trees for the Christmas season. The second year the festival was held, the club won. Members had created an all-natural tree adorned with hydrangea flowers, blown eggs, seedpods . . .

In 2008, the Washington Garden Club received the Volunteer of the Year award from Downtown Washington Inc.

In 2011, Washington Garden Club began participating in the national America In Bloom program, and Bocklage serves as co-chair of the local AIB committee.

It’s not a project of the Garden Club, but several Garden Club members are involved in the project.

“It really fits our goals and objectives — beautification,” said Bocklage.

“Not only beautification, but also betterment, heritage preservation, making the community the best that it can be, taking pride in the community, forest management, water treatment, anything that a city does for its people is betterment, and that’s what AIB is about,” added Rogers-Larson.

Newbies and Gifted Gardeners Welcome

There are currently 55 members of the Washington Garden Club ranging in age from 50s to 90s.

Years ago the garden club was much larger, said Jackson. There actually was a time when the club was getting so large that it was difficult to find meeting spots, so membership was limited for a short time, said Bocklage.

Members are largely retired from their careers, although very active in their lives, said Bocklage.

There are three male members. One of the earliest men in the club was Bernie Hillermann, who joined in the 1960s, Bocklage noted. There also were several boys in the junior garden club at that time too.

Members meet the third Wednesday of the month at 11:30 a.m. Locations vary. They have met at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church, Historical Society Museum, Hillermann Nursery, Cowan’s, Washington library . . .

Years ago the group met regularly at Altemueller’s Restaurant and later at Elijah McLean’s restaurant.

Typically about 30 to 35 members attend each meeting. Each meeting includes a guest speaker, along with reports on horticulture, birds and miscellaneous topics, said Rogers-Larson.

“Some of our meetings are field trips with guided tours,” Bocklage noted. “We went to a lavender farm in Eureka, and will be returning this fall.”

The group also has a trip planned to a daylily farm in Owensville.

In addition to monthly meetings, the garden club also has “workdays” when members get their hands in the dirt. A workday is held at the Lafayette Plaza garden once a week, every Friday morning.

The garden club does not meet in January, when they are all busy planning their gardens, or August, when members volunteer to receive, classify and judge horticulture entries at the Washington Town and Country Fair.

Members of the Washington Garden Club say they feel very much like family and care for each other in much the same way. Whenever a member has been sick or unable to care for her own garden, fellow members come to her house to weed and handle the physical work, said Larson-Rogers.

“We love each other, we really do,” Bocklage commented. “We take care of each other.

“We value the time we can work together and are constantly learning from each other! Every project brings new challenges as well as job,” said Bocklage.

Today’s garden club includes members who are master gardeners, which means they have taken a course through the Missouri Botanical Garden.

For many years, Dorothy Strader was the club’s only master gardener. Now there are at least 15.

“It’s really made a difference in our club, too,” said Jackson.

Although that’s not to say that master gardeners are any more knowledgeable or better at gardening than anyone else, Bocklage stressed. It just means they have taken the course to receive the official designation.

“We embrace all of our members,” Bocklage said.

Several members planned and planted the library garden and landscaping as their master gardener project.

A knowledge of gardening isn’t required to join the Washington Garden Club. Even gardening newbies are welcome to come learn and grow.

“I think just a love of flowers is all that’s required, and a desire to learn,” said Jackson. “We’d never reject anybody because they didn’t know enough.”

“In fact, wouldn’t that be fun,” said Rogers-Larson, “to teach somebody, and watch them grow.”