Something magical was in the air Sunday in the heart of Orange.

It wasn’t just birdsong, blooming flowers and spring showers that drew a high-powered clutch of national and state leaders to the historic county seat on Sunday.

It was respect for what the Dolley Madison Garden Club has achieved in its first century, and many people’s desire to thank the club’s members for their many good works.

The officials—a bipartisan group, to boot—included U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine; Rep. Abigail Spanberger; state Sen. Bryce Reeves; Del. Nick Freitas; and U.S. Sen. Mark Warner’s regional director, Sam Louis Taylor. Each traveled to Taylor Park in the town of Orange to celebrate the centennial of the Dolley Madison Garden Club, founded in Orange County in 1919.

There, the politicians joined top plantswomen who included Garden Club of America President Dede Petri; Kathryn Shea, chairman of the Garden Club of America’s Garden History and Design Committee; Cynthia Brown, the Smithsonian Gardens’ collections and education manager; and Jean Gilpin, president of The Garden Club of Virginia.

‘Bringing people together’

All of the elected officials expressed their appreciation to garden-club members—whether local, state or national—represented at the event.

During his turn at the podium, Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, thanked the women for what they do today, have done in the past and will do in the future.

“It’s more than gardens. We all know that,” he said. “It’s about building community. It’s about bringing people together.”

When his time came, Kaine dipped into history to put in context the accomplishments of the Dolley Madison club and its sister organizations.

Founded over a bridge table by a group of civic and garden-oriented women, the Dolley Madison club predates the Garden Club of Virginia. Kaine noted that the U.S. Constitution’s 19th Amendment, which guarantees all American women the right to vote, was passed by Congress in June 1919 and ratified the next year. He said he doubts the overlap between the club’s founding and women’s suffrage was coincidence.

Now, Kaine noted that Dolley Madison club members pulled off the centennial celebration after having just hosted, on May 5, Orange County’s daylong house and garden tour contributing to Virginia’s Historic Garden Week.

Kaine said his mother, Kathleen Kaine, a Kansan who has visited Virginia many times, described the state’s Garden Week as “a massive win-win—the celebration of beauty, dedication of volunteers, joy for the visitors and fund-raising for great causes.”

Influential advocates

The senator said he thinks the enduring value of garden clubs is not just their commitment to beauty and gardens, but their advocacy. That advocacy is powerful, he said, a lesson driven home while he was Virginia’s lieutenant governor and governor.

And speaking of garden women, Kaine said he was struck by what he learned while researching Elizabeth Price Martin, a Philadelphian who was the first president of the Garden Club of America.

The club’s purpose, Martin wrote at the time, was to work toward a better knowledge of horticulture among amateurs; “the improvement of our national taste”; “preservation of our national union”; and “war on its disfigurement,” he said.

Kaine congratulated the Dolley Madison Garden Club, the Garden Club of Virginia and the Garden Club of America for doing “a wonderful job” in all four of those areas, singling out their efforts at controlling billboards and planting trees along the state’s roads.

He recalled working, as governor, to preserve 400,000 acres of open space using Virginia’s conservation-tax credit program.

At that time, Kaine noted that he and other conservation advocates had “a contentious battle to try and stop something that many in Orange thought would be a disfigurement, a disfigurement of our Civil War battlefields,” he said. “The Garden Club played a major role in that.”

He was referring to the national fight over a Walmart-anchored shopping center planned on the Wilderness battlefield between Culpeper and Fredericksburg.

The power of nature

On a personal note, Kaine shared that Historic Garden Week bonded his mom and his mother-in-law, Virginia “Jinx” Holton,formerly the state’s first lady.

A couple of years after Kaine and Anne Holton were married, Jinx Holton, wife of former Gov. Linwood Holton, invited Kaine’s mother to join her and her friends for a week of touring sites on Historic Garden Week. That experience forged a great friendship between his parents and his in-laws for the 34 years of he and his wife Anne’s marriage, Kaine said.

The senator, who curtailed a three-day hike on the Appalachian Trail to attend Sunday’s ceremony, said that time in the Blue Ridge mountains reinforced his regard for garden clubs’ mission of improving natural beauty.

“You can’t help but be a Virginian or a visitor to Virginia and see why that is so very important,” Kaine said. “[T]he riot of God’s creation—box turtles, tiny black snakes, birds and woodpeckers off in the distance—the amazing diversity of the flora; ... springs coming out of the ground, cold and clear; streams making a beautiful sound as they rush over the rocks. All you have to do is just get out a little bit.

“For those of us in public life, how can we inspire young people to more want to connect to nature and disconnect a little bit from the electronics? When we do that, our lives are so enriched,” he said to club members. “That’s what you’ve done for a hundred years, and that’s what you’ll keep doing.”

Spanberger, D-Henrico, said the Dolley Madison Garden Club’s efforts align with the conservation, sustainability and stewardship mission of the House Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry, which she chairs.

Preservation action

The 7th District congresswoman praised the club for being “a staunch defender of Virginia’s natural landscape,” noting that it has saved many acres of dogwoods, fought visual blight, and planted trees along U.S. 15, heart of the multistate Journey Through Hallowed Ground heritage area.

“The Dolley Madison Garden Club has proven, through action, that civic engagement can not only protect our resources but it can multiply them,” she said.

“I stand shoulder to shoulder with you in your mission to preserve the beautiful natural resources that sustain our area’s massive horticultural economy and instill a love of gardening in future generations. Congratulations on your 100-year anniversary. I look forward to seeing your continued success for at least a hundred more.”

Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, thanked club members for what they do to preserve historic sites, build communities and enhance the natural appeal of the commonwealth.

“You take personal responsibility for the issues and things you care about and you spend own time, your own creativity and your own resources to make sure the things you appreciate and love so much—the natural beauty we see all around us—is preserved for future generations,” Freitas said. “When you think about 100 years of this club doing that, you’re not just preserving gardens, you’re actually preserving a living monument that will be passed down to future generations.”

Then Reeves and Freitas presented the club with joint resolutions they guided through each chamber of the Virginia General Assembly to commend the club.

The heart of Orange

One of the club’s longtime efforts has been to plant and maintain the gardens in Taylor Park, a favorite public meeting place in downtown Orange.

That commitment to Taylor Park began in 1974, when Jacquelin E. and Helen Marie Taylor gave land and money to the Orange County Bicentennial Commission to benefit residents of the town and county.

Mrs. Taylor, a member of the Dolley Madison Garden Club, and her husband wanted those funds to be used for a memorial to an ancestor, Col. James Taylor II and his wife, Martha Thompson, great-grandparents of President James Madison of Montpelier. (James was husband of Dolley, the nation’s first “first lady,” for whom the club is named.)

Over the ensuing 40-plus years, club members have steadfastly tended and enhanced the park’s gardens.

Cindy Brown, the Smithsonian Gardens’ collections chief, announced on Saturday that Taylor Park has been given the rare honor of being added to the Archives of American Gardens. For landscape designers, historians, preservationists and garden enthusiasts, the archives document historic and contemporary gardens throughout the nation.

Normally, those gardens—such as those of Mount Sharon, an estate in Orange County—are private ones. Including Taylor Park, a public entity, in the archives is an unusual recognition.

To add one more element to Taylor Park for its centennial, the Dolley Madison club donated a centerpiece for its fountain, a metal lotus-flower sculpture crafted by Raindrops in Virginia, a Gordonsville business run by husband-and-wife metalsmiths Adam and Kathryn Krehbiel.

The Dolley Madison Garden Club approached the Krehbiels to design and create the sculpture as a gift to the community of Orange County, and to commemorate the club's centennial year.

Helen Marie Taylor, a member emerita of the club and a former U.S. representative to the United Nations, flipped the switch that sent water pumping through the sculpture and into the fountain.

Gordonsville Mayor Robert Coiner, Orange Mayor Martha Roby, Garden Club of America President Dede Petri, Garden Club of Virginia President Jean Gilpinalso and Dolley Madison Garden Club members also spoke during the ceremony dedicating the fountain sculpture.

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