The winter of 1947-48 was long and miserable in Northwest Arkansas.
It was the season the Razorbacks tied 0-0 with the LSU Tigers in what would later be dubbed the Ice Bowl. Temperatures dropped to 14 below in Gentry, and March brought over a foot of snow instead of spring rains and flowers. By the end of the month, tornadoes ravaged Fayetteville and Mountainburg, and April brought little warmth.
Emerging from the turmoil, a small group of Bentonville ladies gathered together with a purpose that May — to bring spring to their city.
Among them was Audrey Robbins, a 37-year-old Bass native who had a great love for her adopted community. Like the other women that day, she was hoping to make a longstanding impact on the place she now called home.
Robbins moved with her father to Bentonville at 12 years old, and after graduating from Bentonville High School, she and husband Sherman helped create the Bank of Bentonville. The couple bought and operated several local businesses and raised two children. But the ambitious, and busy, Benton County “woman of the year” wasn’t satisfied.
Armed with a plan, a dream and a green thumb, Robbins helped found the Bentonville Garden Club, and according to her daughter, Carol Caldwell, did it with an indelible smile on her face.
“As kids, we used to go and pull carrots out of the garden patch in the back,” she said. “We had a garden wherever we were. My mother saw to that. She grew flowers with no problem. It her made her happy, and she wanted to share it with the rest of Bentonville.”
Bentonville was a beautiful city, the women agreed on that fact. But it was missing their special touch. The small group — fewer than 20 members — formed what is 67 years later hailed as one of the oldest garden clubs in Northwest Arkansas. It included some high society and now well-recognized names. Members from the Peel, Compton, McKinney and Walton families joined the club. Their goal was to beautify their city.
Juanita Fryer wasn’t a member of the original group, but she is currently the oldest living member of the club. To her, a city’s garden club is not just about the flowers and beauty but its effect on the community as a whole.
“We are all us members involved in a lot of projects that affect a lot of people in the community,” she said. “If they see a garden growing, then they see the beauty in it, and they get some idea what’s important for us all.”
Fryer was a transplant to Northwest Arkansas as well. And like Robbins, she had a great love for gardening.
The economics teacher came to Bentonville in 1959 with her husband after a childhood “on the farm,” she said. She had developed quite a knack for growing vegetables, and as faculty adviser for the Future Homemakers of America, promoted flower arranging as part of the curriculum.
Her husband, John, became mayor in 1992, and Fryer continued her mission to beautify the city. She is a recipient of the Circle of Roses Award for her service of nearly 30 years to the club.
“I’ve always been interested in gardening and had lots of friends in the Garden Club,” she said. “I enjoy it. And I have my vegetable garden and a flower garden, so I have lots of things to do.”
But Fryer’s involvement in the club does not end with her backyard garden.
The Bentonville Garden Club is responsible for many of the flowers seen around Bentonville, said Becky McCoy, second vice president, which means the nearly 50 members grow and maintain gardens, host fundraisers, promote conservation and hold classes and community outreach events at local schools and community centers.
“Bentonville already has an awesome beautification program, but the fact that a local garden club helps them do what they do makes us feel like we’ve given to the public,” she said. “It makes us feel like we’ve taken what we have learned and shared that with the public.”
Giving to the public is a tenet of the Bentonville Garden Club. Members fund an annual horticulture scholarship at the University of Arkansas, donate to the Heifer Project and Habitat for Humanity and provide garden therapy to children and seniors.
“We also lead the Knightly Gardeners program at Old High Middle School, helping the children to read and understand the lessons learned through nature,” said former Arbor Day program chairwoman Peggy Smith. “And at the other end of the spectrum of this life’s journey, we supply bird seed and feeders and plant flowers for the pleasure of the residents at the cottages in Legacy Village.”
As the weather warms, the members of the Bentonville Garden Club look forward to spring and two of the most important events held each year.
The club’s annual Arbor Day celebration will happen on Tuesday at the Church of Christ in The Lodge in Bentonville. The Aviator Choir from Bright Field Middle School will perform for the group. Club members will present a history lesson including “what the trees saw” since 1800, said Almeda Elliot, the chairwoman of the Arbor Day committee.
The club will also host its annual public plant sale on May 2, and for the first time will hold the event on the Bentonville square. Seedlings and young plants will be provided from the members’ own gardens, and proceeds will go to fund community outreach programs.
Although this sale is a money-maker for the group, for members like McCoy it’s really just a great time.
“For me it’s a social event for like-minded people who are about the same things and the beauty of Bentonville,” she said. “We’re a great group of friends. And every town has a garden club, but some are more active than others. We have always been so active since we were here.”
The Bentonville Garden Club hopes to continue a tradition of service and sisterhood, members agreed, carrying on a legacy that started with Audrey Robbins and a small group of Bentonville women after the coldest winter on record.
“My mom was so sunshiny and warm, and even in her 90s she was still growing herbs and lots of flowers,” Caldwell said. “She loved Bentonville, and she loved the garden club — she loved it, loved it! I think it was just because she always thought it was important to her that everything was beautiful.”
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