For 85 years, Garden Circle seeks to beautify San Marco

For 85 years, Garden Circle seeks to beautify San Marco
San Marco Garden Circle Members Cynthia Murray, Suzanne Perritt, Jan Bebeau, Terry Boulos, Nancy Maguire, Lynda Erwin, Paula Joyner, Mary Toomey, Cathy Watkiss and Shelly Boynton.

For the past 85 years, the San Marco Garden Circle, a small group of women, bonded by a mutual love of gardening, has taken it upon themselves to beautify their neighborhood.

Balis Park’s sparkling Christmas tree, Kings Road Park’s festive holiday decorations, Landon Park’s rose garden, and the routine mulching and maintenance of landscaping in other parks in San Marco come under the purview of the San Marco circle, the fourth oldest remaining garden circle in Jacksonville.

Founded on Feb. 15, 1932, the San Marco Garden Circle is incorporated with the Garden Club of Jacksonville as well as the National Federation of Garden Clubs. With the requirement that members live in San Marco proper and have an active interest in gardening, the newborn circle began with 17 charter members and was first headed by Catherine Ellis Ives, who was famous for having started Keystone Camp for Girls in North Carolina.

Bonnie Henry, the late Alene Scott, Elaina Moran, Cathy Watkiss, Mary Green, Janet Hogshead, Georgia Dahl, Sharon Cahoon, Judy Blumberg and Sherrill Mullens on a Garden Circle field trip to the Okefenokee Swamp in the 1990s.

Bonnie Henry, the late Alene Scott, Elaina Moran, Cathy Watkiss, Mary Green, Janet Hogshead, Georgia Dahl, Sharon Cahoon, Judy Blumberg and Sherrill Mullens on a Garden Circle field trip to the Okefenokee Swamp in the 1990s.

Today membership is capped at 35 members so the women can maintain close ties. “We are a group of women who are residents of our immediate neighborhood and share an interest in flowers and gardening as well as maintaining and improving San Marco,” said Janis Bebeau, adding the purposeful small size of the group allows members to facilitate small luncheon meetings in their homes. “We want to keep it manageable so we can establish meaningful friendships by working together on a variety of projects,” she said, noting that most members have been in the circle for many years, sometimes decades.

“We’re almost like a family,” added Cathy Watkiss, a past president. “We’re people who like to get our fingers dirty and dig in the dirt.”

Over the past 85 years, the circle has sought to maintain its traditions. It seeks to beautify the community, raising funds to support its endeavors through greenery sales, flower sales, and canning food under its own label at the Duval County Extension Service canning kitchen. Their Brunswick stews, pickles, and cranberry relish, among other items, are sold to raise funds for the community projects.

Best known for its role in setting up the Christmas tree under the gazebo, along with other festive decorations in Balis Park each year since 1985, Circle members also have shown their gardening prowess with other projects in the San Marco neighborhood.

In 1991, the group adopted and developed historic Kings Road Park, located at the intersection of Atlantic Boulevard and Kings Road. Several hundred citizens were in attendance for the dedication, including celebrity guest Martha Stewart, who assisted Councilwoman Ginny Myrick in the ribbon cutting. Kings Road Park is the site of the original Spanish Trade Route and the first road for vehicular traffic, which ran along the Henry Flagler Railroad down the East coast of Florida.

For its efforts, the Circle has received numerous awards including the Deep South Traveling Trophy, the Historic Preservation Restoration Award, the May Duff Walters Trophy for Preservation of Beauty, the Civic Beautification Project Award, a City of Jacksonville Certificate of Appreciation and the Florida Federation Commercial Plant Award. 

In 1993, San Marco Preservation Society honored the Circle with the Beautification Award “recognizing outstanding contributions to the development and rehabilitation of San Marco neighborhood.” Two years later, after it officially adopted the rose garden at Landon Park from the city, it received a Civic Beautification Award and the Eva Noble Award, which recognizes the Outstanding Garden Circle of the Year.

Canning strawberry preserves in the Duval County Extension Service canning kitchen were Suzanne Perritt, Pat Barnes and Janet Hogshead. Photo circa 2000.

Canning strawberry preserves in the Duval County Extension Service canning kitchen were Suzanne Perritt, Pat Barnes and Janet Hogshead. Photo circa 2000.

Other projects the Circle has worked on include the creation of the Live Nativity at the home of Susan Fields on Arbor Lane, along with Judy Blumberg and Muriel Parks in 1985; the development and maintenance of a butterfly garden at Hendricks Avenue Elementary School in 2007, a program for which the students now take responsibility; Puckett’s Patch, a vegetable garden donated to Riverside Presbyterian Day School in 2010 in honor of Circle member Barbara Denmark Puckett; care packages to local servicemen serving in the Middle East and providing funds so the Seabees could purchase gloves and other needed supplies; Christmas trees for the Jacksonville Naval Air Station; a neighborhood party called the Dahl Dude Ranch at the home of Georgia Dahl, which raised $15,000 for the American Cancer Society; and food, books and supplies to philanthropic organizations such as The Salvation Army, Clara White Mission, Hubbard House, Ronald McDonald House, Catholic Charities’ Food Pantry, St. Francis Animal Hospital and the San Marco Fire Station.

The Circle also joined with the city and San Marco Preservation Society in helping to relocate the Carpenter Gothic Church from its original home near the Museum of Science and History on the Southbank to its current location in Fletcher Park. The Circle helped landscape the area around what has become Preservation Hall and provided a celebratory reception as well as funds for the park’s beautification.

To raise funds for its beautification efforts, the Circle sells Easter flowers, Christmas greenery and has, in the past, hosted a Mother’s Day Luncheon at Preservation Hall. In 1993 and in 1995, the Circle held two Noel House fundraisers. The first was a Southern Hospitality dinner with entertainment for 140 at the River Road home of Judge Donald and Elaina Moran, raising $5,000. The second was an Old English Dickens Christmas-themed dinner at the Brookwood home of Deborah Barnes, which raised $3,400. The funds were donated to the Preservation society to help beautify San Marco, said Watkiss. 

Also in 1995, the Circle hosted a reception for General Norman Schwarzkopf at Dahl’s riverfront home, where members created an air of Southern hospitality through floral arrangements and dessert.

“We’ve had an amazing 85 years, jammed-packed full, and we are still going strong,” Watkiss said.


By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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