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Sunday Talk: Lake Charles Garden Club working to beautify the city

Last Modified: Saturday, August 31, 2013 9:09 PM

By Bobby Dower / American Press

For the past 80 years, the Lake Charles Garden Club has been beautifying the city and raising public awareness about litter and recycling.

Club members Nan Himel and Camille States talked with the American Press about the club’s past and current projects.

American Press: What is the purpose of the Garden Club?

Nan Himel: The whole purpose is to beautify our city as it was stated when it first started — to beautify our city in order that we can attract tourists and businesses.

And people probably don’t realize how far back the Garden Club goes?

Himel: In 1932, it was kind of an offshoot of the Enterprise Club. It was a Mrs. (W.H.) Haskell and Mrs. (Emma) Michiefrom the Majestic Hotel. And they got together and they decided that Lake Charles needed to do something to update its presentation to visitors. So, it was a city-wide effort. It was divided into seven zones and each zone had a chairman. At that time, there were probably close to a hundred women in the club. It was open to anyone who was interested in gardening and in beautifying the city. That’s how it started.

Camille Stakes: But we were formally organized in 1933. So 2013 is our 80th year as a formal garden club. And then we became a federated garden club in 1935 and we are affiliated with the National Garden Club Incorporated. It’s one of the largest volunteer organizations of its type in the world. We belong to the Deep South Region and that’s clubs in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee.

And then we belong to the Louisiana Garden Club Federation and we have eight districts. We are District 7. Each district has a director over it and yhr the clubs in each district are under the director. The Louisiana Garden Club Federation is the one that sponsors the Cleanest City Contest which started in 1958.

Himel: And we were one of the first cities to join. And I think it continued up until Hurricane Rita and then for seven years, because the city was not in any shape to host anything like that, there was no Cleanest City Contest and then finally. ...

Stakes: We started in 2012 and we won it in 2012 and 2013 and if we win it in 2014, that’s three years in a row, we get a special award. And also the Louisiana Garden Club Federation is, as far as we know, the only state that sponsors a Clean City Contest.

What are some of the projects that the Garden Club started back in the 1930s?

Himel: Their first project was to plant 800 trees throughout the city. Those were redbuds, oleanders and crape myrtles. Now the crape myrtles are probably still around because they can withstand all the storms. The redbuds and oleanders are probably gone that were originally planted. That was one of their first projects.

Also, what they did at first was to help everybody in the city that had a yard and I think their motto was ‘‘A Garden Lot in Every Plot’’. So they encouraged homeowners just to beautify their front yards and to do that, they would furnish plants and cuttings of plants from their own yards. Then they would publish little bulletins and brochures telling these are the types of plants that do well in this climate and here’s how you plant them and here’s how you maintain them. So they were really concentrating on the whole city.

And they were a resource for giving advice?

Himel: And at that time they also had the agriculture center. The agriculture center at McNeese was not there at that time, but they did have state officials come down and give them advice and I think some of the bulletins were published by the state and then shipped here and then Garden Club members would hand them out to the homeowners here to encourage everybody. In later years, they dedicated for the World War II veterans a large water fountain that stood on Enterprise Boulevard. That was planted and maintained.

When the city was doing work, they had to move the fountain so they moved it to Lake Charles Memorial Hospital. And then when the hospital expanded and took up all the block, then they moved it out to the Civic Center. Today, it is still behind the amphitheater. We have looked into the cost of having it repaired. They say that concrete that old it is not going to be easy to remove and repair. That’s kind of up in the air as to what is going to be done.

The Garden Club was instrumental during World War II in helping grow victory gardens?

Himel: Yes. Initially after the Spanish American War, the women in Lake Charles wanted to do something for the soldiers. They had this organization where they wrapped bandages or sent presents or gifts. When that was over, that left the women free to start thinking about their city and so they shifted their efforts toward beautifying the city and attracting tourists and conventions.

The city had a big rose garden. Three hundred rose bushes.

Stakes: The Garden Club planted it and took care of it.

Himel: The first bouquet from that, there was a medical convention in the city in 1936. The first bouquet from the community garden went to the registration desk of the convention of the State Medical Society that was held at the Majestic Hotel. They furnished flowers for that and then all of the rest of the flowers was sent to St. Pats — it was the only hospital in town at the time — to use in their wards on Sunday mornings so the patients could have a nice bouquet on their bed trays. So that was one of the first projects.

Also, the beautification of the lakefront was started in 1935. During those early years, they had many Christmas programs. They would encourage everybody to light their gardens. And the Bel home had been given to the city as a club center and I think at that time it was on one of those streets that is behind Sears (the former location on Ryan Street).

When they gave that to the city for the club meetings, that became the entertainment place for the whole city. That was the place to go have your meetings. At Christmas, they encouraged everybody to light their homes and light their gardens and they would have a Christmas tour of the city, starting at the Bel home. They would go around and tour all the lit homes and gardens. It sounds like such a community thing to do, such an old-fashioned Dickens kind of Christmas.

Stakes: Another project was that they started an azalea trail in the city because they had so many azaleas that people came from Texas and all over to see.

Himel: They planted 400 azaleas. Clubs from Texas came to admire then.

And Louisiana was very shady and that’s what tourists loved about Lake Charles. It was very shady, very green and the gardens were beautifully maintained. And that was advertised. We read somewhere that in those early years, Lake Charles was the most advertised city in the United States. There was one businessman who was determined to advertise Lake Charles and he paid for advertising. Many, many people came from Texas.

They had the state convention here. They had 5,000 club members from around the state that came to Lake Charles for the state convention here. And again the Majestic Hotel was the center for them to stay and that’s where the lunches were held. And they would go out to the homes that were around Prien Lake and they would tour those. They would come back and go through Miss Matilda Gray’s home and see all the beautiful flowers. And Lake Charles had a name as being a beautiful little city with planted gardens, beautiful homes, azalea trials and it was known for that. ...

I remember moving here in the 1950s and Lake Charles was a beautiful city. It was still green because we had not lost a lot of trees because of the storms.

There was a big flood one year. After that big flood, the Garden Club either bought plants or got them from somewhere to help people replant all their yards that had been destroyed during the flood. They were determined to keep that beautiful city going. That was one of their projects after the flood.

Stakes: The rose garden that we started was in 1936 and it was on the corner of Pujo and Hodges.

Himel: Different people bought the rose bushes. There were 300 planted and anybody that wanted to donate could come buy a rose bush and help plant and maintain the garden. Again that was a citywide effort and their emphasis has always been on this is a city for everybody can participate in, everybody helps to beautify, everybody helps to keep it clean. I think that has been one of the projects of the Garden Club, to keep the city officials and the public informed that this is their city. They have to keep it beautiful, they have to keep it clean.

And even in those early years, they had litter bug programs. They started that early on. They started going to all the schools and starting recycling programs, doing anti-litter programs. They started a Junior Garden Club way back in 1940. That still continues today.

Stakes: We have it now at Oak Park Elementary.

Himel: They had a special needs class I think at Barbe Elementary School. They had a garden for the special needs class. Every student had his own garden plot.

Stakes: We have a project now where we work with the Evergreen Ministries and disabled adults and mentally impaired.

Himel: They have four boxes at Tuten Park. We buy the plants for them and show them how to plant them and help them maintain them.

We try to continue the same things that were started all those years ago. For us, you feel like you can’t let the past down. You have an obligation to try to continue the same projects because they were good projects.

Stakes: We do have one problem. And that is getting young people to work because nowadays they work. In those days, you didn’t hear of many wives working.

Himel: Back then it wasn’t a problem to find workers. Now you have to wait for someone to retire from their job so they can be a Garden Club member because the emphasis is on your family after your work, as what it should be. But it leaves little time for activities that require a lot of work.

What are some of the more current projects that the Garden Club has been involved with?

Himel: There’s the Evergreen project at Tuten Park. At the old Tuten Park, we had a butterfly garden exhibit there for years. It was in the very front of Tuten Park. And we maintained and planted that and kept that up.

When that was destroyed and Tuten Park was reopened they asked all the clubs to submit a demonstration and the Garden Club had a plant and bird display.

Stakes: And also we taught on litter and recycling.

Himel: Right. We had pamphlets and books that we passed out that we used to try to show the kids that they could recycle and how it was important for them. And at that time, we were working McNeese.

I don’t think there’s one organization in this town that the Garden Club has not worked with. We’ve had flower shows at all the downtown businesses. In Muller’s it was like a twice a year event. People could come to Muller’s and they could exhibit their flowers. And then there was a table setting contest that the Lake Charles Garden Club sponsored and was held at Muller’s.

At Wilson’s (Cadillac and Oldsmobile dealership), on Ryan Street, one year they had a big flower show.

We have planted trees, roses and lillies around Moss Regional and we have planted at Boys Village and furnished Christmas gifts. We started the garden and still plant and maintain the garden behind the Central Public Library. That is one of our projects.

We still maintain the wildflower exhibit. This year one of our projects was to do a garden therapy at The Gardens on Country Club Road. It’s a center for seniors and we have a garden inside in the building so that the ones that can do the work, can come out and dig a little bit in the dirt and plant a few flowers. It helps. It makes them feel like they have something to do in their day. So, that’s been one of our current projects.

We still have the feed-the-birds in the winter. We go to some schools, usually one of the elementary schools, and we show them how to stuff the pine cones. We made bird houses out of milk cartons and showed students how to hang them in trees. We try to keep our current projects ongoing and every year we have a new project. What it is this year, we don’t know yet.

Stakes: We also have Adopt-a-Spot. We pick up litter.

Himel: We still do that. We still pick up litter on Ernest Street from Sale Road the Prien Lake Road twice a year.

Stakes: We had a Junior Garden Club at College Oaks Elementary. We gave a program on recycling and litter and we told them things that people litter that you can pick up and recycle. And what can be made out of things that they pick up.

We have a program once a month with the Junior Garden Club at College Oaks. We’ve done all sorts of programs with them.

Himel: Taking care of the birds in winter. Or giving them starter plants and how to plant seedlings and how do you take care of them.

Stakes: We had St. Margaret students help with the Clean City Contest.

Himel: Camille has been very good about getting student groups to come and help with the pickup for the Clean City contest like the Barbe Student Council.

Stakes: And also the S.J. Welsh Student Council. They were involved in the spring of this year in the Clean City Contest, going out and picking up litter.

The Lake Charles Garden Club takes part of the route that has to be shown to the judges — schools, churches, cemeteries, libraries, residences, businesses — you have to show all of those thing, including city offices. If you’ll notice around the old City Hall, there’s beautiful plantings out there. The city hired a landscape person. She was working for Coushatta in Kinder doing their landscaping and all and the city has her now. She works with Public Works. She’s made beautiful planting which the judges were very impressed with down Enterprise Boulevard and around the different downtown areas.

They are trying to make it more maintenance-free. What we try to tell people is that they need to plant plants that are native to the area and plants that will take the dry weather so that you don’t have to have so much upkeep. And there’s different ways you can go about keeping weeds out. You can take your old cardboard boxes and plant your flowers and put the cardboard around and then put some mulch on top of that. We try to give them hints that they can do so it don’t have to have so much maintenance on them.

The Clean City is one of the big things we get involved in. But what we wanted to do is have a year-round program because it’s not just during the spring, we want people to be aware and that’s the reason why we try to go into the schools.

I think it was in 2011 we went into LaGrange High School and we met with the student council there and we got them involved that year and the next year they became troopers to go out and clean up litter for us. But also they started a recycling program there and I got the City to bring bins over and they knew they had to roll them out to pick up. So we got that started over there. I don’t think it’s still going because teachers and sponsors and students change so you’ve got to have a group that really wants to do something like that.

Himel: Another one of our recent projects was the Bluebird trail. The Eastern Bluebird has been an endangered species for years because it is such a tiny little bird and the sparrow is its natural enemy. So we started a Bluebird trail at a school and the kids planted bluebird houses around the school. It has to be a particular house because you’ve got to have a tiny hole for the bird. That was one of our recent projects.

So, a lot of what you are trying to do is teach and encourage the younger generation?

Himel: It has to start with the children. The children have to learn to keep their city clean and to not litter. Adults form bad habits and it’s so very hard to break those bad habits. If you can start with the young children and make them understand they cannot throw a gum wrapper or a candy wrapper down on the street somewhere without it being ugly for everybody else. So we try to encourage.

That was one of the aims of the original Garden Club — conservation and to keep their city litter free. We do devote a lot of time to Clean City. We think it’s important and we think if the city wins, that it’s a talking point. When you invite someone to your city, you can say we are one of the cleanest cities in the state of Louisiana and you have proof of that. You’re not just saying that.

We feel like that’s really important to continue that and to have that honor.

Stakes: A lot of improvement has been made. We’ve seen that going to different parts of the city. Also, we ride with the city inspectors for the beautification committee and we have score sheets. Nan and I have both ridden with them and we do that twice a year. We score and when we see things that go against a city ordinance, we make notes on. There’s been a lot of improvement in north Lake Charles and in other parts of the city. The City can only go mow or pick up because of rules and laws and everything. That’s one reason we do spend a lot of time on litter control and recycling. Litter will take away from whatever beautiful plants or shrubs that you have.

And our club also has a program where we tell our members to get from their family and friends empty ink cartridges or old cell phones. We send them to different organizations. We send the cell phones, they recondition them and give them to a serviceman. Another one is a place where you can send your old ink cartridges and they recycle them and we get the money and we do some of our projects with that because our dues are only 20 dollars a year.

So you can see that we wouldn’t have a lot of money to do a lot of project.

How do you raise money for your projects?

Stakes: We have raffles. Also, what we do at the Southwest Louisiana Garden Festival, we take our raffle items out there and we sell tickets and we give our members ticket to sell and we do recycling like the window. This year, in the spring, we did a conservatory out of old windows.

Himel: It’s sitting on a porch on a street that runs by St. Patrick Hospital. It’s tall. The guys had to move it for us. It’s made out of six actual windows that are recycled.

Stakes: And it sits on a recycled base.

Himel: So we try to make one big item a year that we can raffle and we can make 500 dollars on that. And then the rest of it comes from plants from our yards. We do cuttings. Sometimes I will buy something like Kroger’s will have something that’s on sale that’s half dead for 99 cents. So, I’ll buy that and then replant it and nurse it and it will be a beautiful plant.

Stakes: We call it rescue (laughter).

Himel: So that’s how we make the bulk of our money.

Stakes: We have a plant sale as well. And we sell garden items that we make. We make items out of recycled dishes and vases.

Himel: And then we dry flowers and we make note cards with dried flowers. Those are very popular. Those sell a lot.

That’s how we make our money and then we spend it on the projects. I know people always ask when they buy a raffle ticket, ‘‘Now, what are you going to do with this money?’’. I’m always ready. We have the Junior Garden Club and we furnish everything for that. We have the boxes at Tuten Park and we furnish everything for that. We have the therapy garden at The Gardens retirement and we furnish everything for that. So you have to have a ready answer when people buy a raffle ticket. They want to know where the money is going.

Stakes: And also, we help the Live Oaks Society in finding trees that meet their specifications and have those registered in the Live Oaks Society.

If people either want to donate or they’d like to join the Garden Club, how do they go about doing it?

Himel: All they need to do is contact a member. You can use our names and they can call us (Himel’s home phone is 477-5113, Stakes can be contacted via email at We will be glad to talk with them and explain what it is we do and when we meet. They can come and visit one of our meetings and see if they would like to join. If they would like to join, then one of the Garden Club members will sponsor them.

Do you meet on a regular basis?

Stakes: Yes, the second Tuesday of the month, September through May. We take off for the summer. We do projects during the summer, we just don’t have a formal meeting. But that is the meeting date, the second Tuesday, since the very first.

Himel: We meet at the Ag Center now. They used to meet in people’s homes, but now we meet in the Ag Center.

How many members do you have in the club?

Himel: We have about 35 members. ... We have some young members that are joining, hopefully. We’ve tried to outreach to newcomers in town. We’ve heard that Lake Charles is not really a place that it is easy to get in socially. I’ve heard this complaint from wives who moved here when their husbands went to work at PPG. So we’ve tried to reach out to any young women ... .

Stakes: Let me tell you have we’ve met some. Working at Tuten Park and when we are down there watering or weeding, there are a lot of young mothers who come and children there because they love that atmosphere and setting. That’s where we’ve met some. And also the little children want to see what we’re doing and they want to plant. So we let them plant and water.

Himel: That’s the way you meet young members and try to include them. ...

A sense of civic pride is so important. We have to cultivate that sense of civic pride, even that it filters down to young children where they care about the city. It’s not that they have to get out and work (on cleanup crews). But if you’re not going to work, don’t litter it, don’t destroy what other people have worked to create here. We need that lesson just drummed in.

I think of when people used to chew tobacco and spit all the time. Well, you don’t see that much any more. Actually, we will get to where it’s the same with litter.

You can’t have an isolationist attitude of, ‘My yard looks good, so what does it (littering) matter?’ Well, it does matter. Your whole environment matters and the impression that you get when people visit you, you just can’t have one beautiful yard and the one next to it is derelict with litter all over. We have constantly work on that and taking civic pride. ...

Also, look at the financial cost to paying teams to continually clean up your city. I think in neighborhoods, the neighborhood associations should take responsibility for a lot of that. You don’t have to live in the most beautiful neighborhood in town. Get your neighbors together and take pride in your own little area. The least we can do is keep this own little neighborhood clean and pick up the litter and don’t throw litter in the street.

It’s a constant battle but I do think we are making progress. It’s slow and habits are hard to change, but we’re making progress. ...

Stakes: I have been the state chairman for the Louisiana Garden Federation for littering and recycling for the past 12 years. I just decided it was time for somebody else to get a blessing and get involved. We’re older and we don’t mind sharing what we know, but I do want to see younger people get a passion about some project or something they can do to improve the city, to improve our environment, to make it more beautiful. And to me nothing makes anything more beautiful than colorful flowers and shrubs. When you have color, it just adds something.

That’s why we are so interested in working with the Junior Garden Club.

Himel: It’s a funny thing because kids are just drawn to plants and flowers and butterflies and birds. They loved that. There’s almost no program that they are not really excited about, whether its butterflies or planting this or planting herbs, they just get really excited. We wish we could be in more schools. We need younger members so we can get in more schools.

The schools are very receptive to having that. The kids enjoy that.

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