The 1940 Garden Show

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, April 1991,
April 1991

Author: Grace Shackman

When gardening was a civic cause

When the Matthaei Botanical Gardens organized the 1990 Ann Arbor Flower and Garden Show, they revived a local tradition that had lain dormant for forty-nine years. From 1926 to 1941 Ann Arbor was the site of twelve garden shows, beginning with a members' competition organized by the garden section of the U-M Faculty Women's Club and growing to a sophisticated community-wide effort.

When the original shows were held, a number of leading citizens were dedicated gardeners. In what was then a smaller, more close-knit town, the serious gardeners were all known to each other, and they saw gardening not only as a hobby but as a cause. In 1937, a front page article in the Ann Arbor News called on "every man, woman and child" to join the gardening movement so "the entire community will gain in beauty, will become a more delightful place in which to live and work."

The first flower shows were internal club events for members to compare their garden output, and only a few hundred people came. The change to a community event began in 1931 when the Faculty Women's garden club invited the Ann Arbor Garden Club and the garden section of the Ann Arbor Women's Club to host a joint show that would be open to everyone. They recruited a token male, Dr. Louis Hall, a prominent dentist, to be chairman. (He had an old-fashioned English garden, complete with hollyhocks by the side door, at his house at 1530 Hill.)

The new format encouraged serious male hobbyists to become involved, including contractor Carl Weinburg, whose peony gardens off Lutz were a showplace of the city; hardware merchant Andrew Muehlig, who had a beautiful garden at his old red brick house at 609 North Fifth Avenue; tailor Samuel Burchfield, known for his glorious irises; Dr. A. S. Warthin, whose garden was well set off by the stone wall he built along Ferdon; and Charles Harris, proprietor of the Harris Seed Company at 303 South Main.

During the 1930's, shows were held in Harris Hall, in the Masonic Temple on Fourth Avenue (since torn down to make room for the Federal Building), and finally in the U-M's Yost Field House.

Though the core group was made up mainly of wealthy citizens who employed professional gardeners, the organizers encouraged as many people as possible to become involved. The shows were always held in June and so featured the flowers then in bloom--roses, peonies, irises, and delphiniums. Along with species flower judging, other competitions that anyone could try their hand at were tea table arranging, shadow boxes, miniature gardens, flower arranging, landscaping, and photography.

Special exhibits varied from year to year. The 1934 show featured a "Wayside Garden," similar to one planned by Mrs. Henry Ford for the North American Flower Show in Detroit, which showed the best way for farmers to arrange their goods for sale. The next year a "French Market" of potted plants, cut flowers, nosegays, and window boxes was designed and equipped by Mrs. Rollin Drake (women were always called by their husbands' names), reproducing as far as possible the flower and vegetable markets she visited on her trips abroad. In both 1935 and 1936, Mrs. Harry Boyd Earhart, with the assistance of her gardener, James Reach, re-created her June garden on the Masonic Temple stage.

For the 1939 and 1940 shows, held in Yost Field House, Dr. George Ross, assistant professor of landscape design, transformed the gym area into a scene of outdoor beauty, with paths, trees, and even a fountain and reflecting pool. Many individuals and groups set up imaginative displays--an all-white garden by Mrs. and Mr. James Inglis, a trout stream complete with fish by Dr. and Mrs. Harry Towsley, and a re-creation of Ann's Arbour (the apocryphal scene of the city's naming) by the Northwest Civic Association.

The event was a lot of work, but it was obviously also a lot of fun, both before and during. Large numbers of volunteers, divided into committees to plan each part of the show, worked almost all year. They met at each other's houses, often staying for tea or a light lunch. Some took field trips to other garden shows, particularly to Chicago.

The show was an excuse for a lot of out-of-town visitors--each of them, in true small-town fashion, listed in the Ann Arbor News. Many were relatives of the show's organizers or representatives from other cities' garden clubs. In 1940, Mrs. Henry Ford attended, and a lunch was given in her honor, hosted by that year's chair, Mrs. Frederick Coller of Wallingford Road. Another distinguished visitor was author Carl VanDoren, who while visiting the university was persuaded to open the show. Attendance totaled an impressive 14,500.

The last show was held in 1941 at the cloisters of the university law school. Because of the impending war, it was a much scaled-down version of earlier shows and lasted only one day. The News, which always gave the garden show excellent coverage, was loyal to the end, reporting that it was "beautifully done and unique but on a smaller scale that proved as satisfying and attractive."

The flower show was revived as a fund-raiser for the U-M Matthaei Botanical Gardens last year. Both it and the upcoming 1991 show, to be held April 11-14 at Yost Field House, while modeled on past shows, also show changes in gardening. Besides the wider variety of plant materials available, the biggest change is probably that people have less free time for gardening or for volunteering, so the show is now organized by a professional staff, and more of the exhibits are from commercial firms. Nevertheless, volunteers still play an important part, especially at the time of the show, and local clubs and individuals still enjoy participating.

Despite the nearly fifty-year lapse, interest in gardening is clearly still high: 23,000 people attended last year's show. Organizers of this year's show expect that attendance will reach 35,000.


[Photo caption from original print edition]: Yost Field House was transformed for the 1940 show with plantings, a fountain, and a reflecting pool. The shows started out as a showcase for wealthy garden buffs (Mrs. Henry Ford was a guest in 1940), but organizers also sought to involve the whole community; an Ann Arbor News article urged "every man, woman and child" to join the gardening movement to help make Ann Arbor "a more delightful place in which to live and work."