On January 10, 1938, a group of 25 women met together to form the Kingsport Garden Club for the purpose of learning about the art of gardening and city beautification. The first meeting took place at 1228 Watauga Street, known as the Mead-Thickens House. Constructed as a residence for the general manager of Kingsport’s Mead paper plant, the dwelling is named for the company and one of Mead’s first Kingsport general managers, J. H. Thickens, who lived there in the early 1920s. At the time, the young city of Kingsport was experiencing substantial growth in several areas, including commerce and industry, demographics, architecture and landscaping, and transportation.
Most Kingsport residents are familiar with Kingsport’s “founding fathers,” as they have come to be known over the years, but there are those that would also classify these women as Kingsport’s “founding mothers.”
The president of the Tennessee Federation of Garden Clubs came to the first meeting, and for many years, Kingsport’s club was a federated club. Members participated in monthly meeting programs, such as flower arranging, annual flower shows, speakers from the Kingsport area as well as out of town, flower walks, Church Circle planting work, and placing floral arrangements in the lobby of Holston Valley Hospital with other garden clubs.
Club spokesman Marilyn Smith and Mrs. Charles B. Meade organized the first meeting, inviting “ladies interested in gardening and beautification” to her Watauga Street home. The iris, the club flower, grew in profusion at the Mead-Thickens house, currently the home of Mr. and Mrs. David Oaks. “Iris bulbs from Mead-Thickens House were distributed to each garden club member so that they too could have a piece of history from the garden where it all began,” Smith said.
The club is limited to 25 members. In later years, the club also participated in planting flowers, shrubbery and trees around the Girls’ Club building, and dogwood plantings, which began in the early days of World War II, served to memorialize the community’s dead soldiers. Dogwoods were planted and notes were sent to the respective families. This was how Memorial Boulevard was named. The tradition continued from 1942 until around 1988; many active and deceased members of the club were also memorialized with dogwoods. The custom was discontinued after many of the dogwoods had died or become diseased in the intervening years, many succumbing to blight.
The Kingsport Garden Club’s initial work “grew” and after several years, more garden clubs began and a Kingsport federation was formed. Kingsport’s Garden Club worked with Big Stone Gap’s and Knoxville’s garden clubs in judging and visiting flower shows. The Kingsport Garden Club’s first flower show was held at the old Kingsport Inn at Church Circle, now the site of First American Bank.
Many of the club’s members became expert gardeners. They researched and wrote papers on pruning shrubs, dividing bulbs, drying and arranging flowers, lawn care, wildflower walks, and the growing and care of herbs and legends surrounding the holly and dogwood trees. The group also has helped to provide Christmas wreaths for the Kingsport Public Library doors, and decorations for Bays Mountain Planetarium and Allandale Mansion.
The Kingsport Garden Club planted more than 1,036 dogwood trees from the mid 1940s to 1970. More recently, they provided additional dogwood trees in November 2015 for the Veterans Memorial Park. They continue providing both time and money towards beautification projects planting trees at the entrance of Bays Mountain Park, planting and weeding of the Watauga Street roundabout, participating in funding the artwork for the Carousel, contributing to Dobyns-Bennett Horticulture Department, and the list continues.
The Kingsport Garden Club celebrates its 80th year in 2018. Based on the many contributions that began with the establishment of the Kingsport Garden Club by the original 25 ladies and the 80 years of commitment to enhancing the beauty and environment standards in the community, we want to express our gratitude and heartfelt appreciation.