When Ann Dodson invited her new neighbor, Beth Henderson, to join a garden club in 1969, she didn’t expect they would remain actively involved in the same garden club 50 years later. The 25 charter members of the club elected Jean Curry as president, settled the fourth Tuesday for their monthly meetings, and selected the name “Cherokee Rose” from a native plant for its name. Thanks to the hard work of a few dedicated women, Cherokee Rose Garden Club today is celebrating 50 years of developing an appreciation of the natural beauty of Alabama and instilling a desire to enjoy and conserve it.
In its early years, the garden club belonged to Federated Garden Clubs of America, a large organization that legitimized clubs like Cherokee Bend’s. This membership enabled the club to obtain great guest speakers for meetings and entrance into flower shows. Federated Garden Clubs also helped provide the financial backing and manual labor necessary for some of their plantings. Eventually, membership requirements and dues for FGC became a hindrance, and the ladies decided becoming a “social club” would be more favorable.
Though a self-proclaimed “social club,” Cherokee Rose has spent the last 50 years donating valuable time, effort and money to beautifying Cherokee Bend for visitors and residents alike. One of the club’s larger yet lesser known contributions is the development of the Irondale Furnace, a previously hidden creek side trail connecting Stone River Road to Old Leeds Road. The Irondale Furnace trail houses ruins of a Civil War era gun and cannonball factory, and charter members Jean Curry and Janice Anderton thought the beauty of the trail and the unique ruins should be recognized. Thanks to letters written by club members, the Irondale Furnace gained a place on Alabama’s list of historic sites.
Following the recognition, a trail to the site was widened with the help of Boy Scouts, the entrance to the path was cleared and planted with monkey grass and bulbs, and a covered bulletin board displaying the history of the Furnace was put in place. In 1973, The Jefferson County Historic Society dedicated a metal marker at the entrance, and the club shared in the dedication. There’s never a rose without the prick though. In the years following the dedication of the trail, the original bulletin board was burned by vandals, and the metal marker was knocked down and later stolen. Today, the entrance to the Irondale Furnace Ruins is marked by a new metal sign from the Birmingham Jefferson Historical Society, as well as a wooden sign from Mountain Brook Parks and Recreation.
The trail holds significance for Future Projects co-chairs Martha Davis and Becky Rollins. Becky, a 26-year member, says the trail is bursting with beauty year-round. From wildflowers in the spring, to the red berries that pepper the Hawthorne trees throughout winter, the beauty of the trail is something to be enjoyed by all. The Hawthorne trees are tagged with bronze markers donated by the Cherokee Rose Garden Club, the same as those found throughout the Birmingham Botanical Gardens to identify their species. Amongst them sits a bench inscribed with a classic Shakespeare quote, “I like this place and would gladly waste my time in it.” The garden club has since handed over much of the trail maintenance to Mountain Brook Parks and Recreation, but two benches remain in their name.
Another large project was the installation of street lights that illuminated street corners and signs in the neighborhood. In the early years following the neighborhood’s development, garden club members noticed the walkable streets needed extra light in the evenings. The ladies asked the city to install some street lights throughout the neighborhood, but their request was denied. Taking matters into their own hands, the members decided to attach lights directly to the posts that held the street signs. Before they could light up the neighborhood streets, the members needed permission from each street corner property owner to connect to power. Once permission was granted, the charter members personally paid an electrician, purchased fixtures, and finally established connectivity. In the years following, some of the lights were removed to make room for the famed hanging Mountain Brook street signs but several remain, illuminating Cherokee Bend after dark.
The club also initiated the beautification of the three triangles that mark the entrance to the neighborhood. Martha Davis and her husband personally divided and donated Mondo grass from their own yard, and daffodils were purchased and planted to spruce up the triangles. Cherokee Bend Elementary School has also been a lucky recipient of the club’s work. Cherokee Rose has donated many trees and other plantings to the school grounds, as well as the physical labor required to get them planted.
Perhaps one of the Cherokee Rose Garden Club’s most appreciated projects is the annual addition of festive badges on street corners each December. For many, the bright and cheerful decorations are a welcome sign of the holiday season. On the first Tuesday of each December, the garden club members gather at someone’s house and spend hours trimming the greenery, most of which is from their own yards, placing red berries, and tying bows around their ornate street displays. Originally, the greenery was wired together and nailed to street posts. Although it looked nice initially, the cuttings would dry out and not survive the season. That changed when charter member Sue Thomas purchased oasis in cages to house the greenery and keep it fresh throughout the holiday season. Other neighborhoods have since followed Cherokee Bend’s festive decorations, making Mountain Brook a little bit more magical during the holidays.
The garden club isn’t all about getting down in the dirt though. The ladies have had their share of good, clean fun as well. Each year, the members welcome guest speakers, host parties, and even take the occasional field trip. In the past, the garden club hosted annual auctions. Both members and non-members were invited to join the fun and help raise money for projects like the corner lights and the Irondale Furnace.
Weesie Connery served as auctioneer at some of the early events, speaking in the classic auctioneer tongue as items donated from local shops were auctioned off. Ann Dodson recalls winning member Lily Baldone’s famous coconut cake for $30 at auction, and splitting the cake and the cost $55 with Beth Henderson. “That cake was fought over!” says Ann. They also raised funds through fashion shows where local shops would lend items for the members to wear and show off on the “runway.” For themed parties, members and their guests would dawn Western clothing or whatever matched the theme of the evening.
The Cherokee Rose Garden Club has welcomed numerous guest speakers at their monthly meetings. Some of the notable guests include Steve Bender of Southern Living Magazine, Fred Spicer of the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, personal stylist Megan LaRussa, storyteller Dolores Hydock, and local state parks spokespeople. The club has also hosted various field trips for members, including a trip to Aldridge Gardens, The Birmingham Botanical Gardens and King’s House Antiques.
When it comes to the future of the garden club, the outlook is bright. The club is currently capped off at 40 members, with a waiting list. To join the club, an opening must be available, and the potential new member must be recommended with a letter and signatures from two current members, followed by a full club vote. Though the process is formal, the garden club has proudly never turned a potential new member away.
Perhaps it is the balance of hard work and fun that has kept the club alive for 50 years, with friendships blossoming for decades. Beth Henderson and Ann Dodson became fast friends, having had children the same age. “I didn’t have a sister,” says Beth, “Ann is my sister.” When Beth moved just outside of Cherokee Bend, the club changed the bylaws so she could remain a member, although she has since moved back. Charter member Rose Lofton fondly recalls that the members were friends as well as neighbors and that she loved meeting in each other’s homes. Although most of the charter members of the Cherokee Rose Garden Club are no longer with us, to the remaining members, their memories live on in the beauty that surrounds Cherokee Bend.