Crumbling scrapbook pages yield historical insights.
By Kate A. Hallock
Jacksonville Historical Society
During the first semester of the 1963-64 school year Jean Pope (also known as Mrs. Edgar Pope), first grade teacher at Central Riverside Elementary School, approached fellow members of the Garden Club of Jacksonville with a challenge. Would the club take on the project of designing a garden specifically as a learning tool for the blind and visually impaired students at the school?
Chairman of the Garden Club’s HANDS Beautification Committee in the early 1960s, Hilda (aka Mrs. LeRoy) Gardner embraced the project with vigor. “Someone must take a special interest in teaching botany, horticulture, landscape design, urban renewal and conservation [to the blind],” Gardner later wrote in a summary of the ambitious undertaking. “In fact, let him ‘see’ what comes from the good earth.”
She created a scrapbook detailing the process of creating the garden masterplan and pushing it through to completion. From this scrapbook, donated to the Jacksonville Historical Society’s archives by the Garden Club of Jacksonville, the story of gardening as education and therapy unfolded.
Gardner began promoting the garden project in December 1963. “Armed with the masterplan, I had a selling job to do. I had no problem securing donations and help in labor from businessmen, all 130 Garden Circles, friends, Mayor [Haydon] Burns, the [Duval] County Committee of Highway, Parks, Electricity, Police, the Duval County School Board, and the County Commission,” she noted with confidence. “I had a worthwhile project and a complete knowledge of how I wanted it done and the end results to be obtained.”
The Barnett National Bank’s officers held a luncheon at the bank for Gardner’s committee on January 24, 1964, at which she gratefully received a $750 check from W. Clyde Greenway, the head of public relations for Sears, Roebuck & Co. Southeast Territory, as well as a check for $250 from Robert Lurie, president of the Dale Carnegie Alumni Civic Club. With promise of coverage from the Florida Times-Union, Gardner stated “I and my committee dared to dream.”
Gardner originally envisioned a 12-by-12-foot plot, but it grew to a 100-by-64-foot garden which “contained every variety of plant in this area so a blind child may learn by touch all the plants that surround him,” including thorny plants and poison ivy to show harmful plants.
Despite a cautionary note from R.L. Hartwig, owner of the North Florida Landscape company and pro bono creator of the masterplan, who declared it would take three and a half years to complete, the Garden Club accomplished the feat in just three and a half months, holding the dedication on April 14, 1964.
“For 3-1/2 months, the teachers of the school, this chairman, the horticulture chairman and her husband, and several friends worked most of each day,” wrote Gardner. “I would say at least 60 people gave many hours each day, as it was necessary to secure material, labor for the construction of the walkways, sprinkler systems, pipe trellis, painting, clearing and plain grubbing.”