“All Aboard!” bellowed the conductor of the Special waiting at Track 25, Grand Central Station, New York. It was 5:30 pm on April 5, 1926, and bevy of fashionably dressed women followed by red-capped porters staggering under the weight of shiny black hand luggage, rushed through the gateway to the awaiting train.

Mr. Carol Brown, the New York Central’s designated shepherd for the tour of “fastidious, whimsical, and influential” women, managed to herd the last stragglers onto the 12-car Special and the train slowly puffed out of the station. Destination: Santa Barbara, for the 13th Annual Meeting of the Garden Club of America.

When the taillights were only two dim points of light, two more Garden Club members arrived at the concourse, all aflutter. A call was made to Harmon, New York and the Garden Club Special was sidelined until a pursuing train delivered the two tardy ladies to the flock. Now, with their roster nearly complete, the Special could continue its six-day journey to California.

The New York Central had spared no expense in providing a comfortable home for the 99 women of the Garden Club. Besides a baggage car for the shiny luggage, there were six compartment cars, two sleepers, a club car, a diner and an observation car.

At a short stop in Chicago, the Lake Forest Garden Club presented the members with boxes of flowers. Other short stops along the route left that station’s postcard racks depleted and the next station’s post office besieged.

In the wee hours of the morning of April 9, at Williams, Arizona, the Special took the steep spur to the Grand Canyon arriving there at 4:30 in the morning. The more intrepid among the Garden Club Members had determined to watch the sunrise over the rim of the canyon, though their ranks were depleted when thick-falling snow greeted their arrival. By 9:30 that evening, after the ladies had spent the day exploring the Grand Canyon, the Special was ready to continue its journey west.

Hospitality, Santa Barbara Style

At 8 pm on April 12, the Garden Club Special arrived in Santa Barbara and its passengers were deployed to various hostelries and private homes for a four-day stay. With the Arlington Hotel destroyed by the 1925 earthquake and other large State Street hotels undergoing rebuilding, El Mirasol (now Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens) became the headquarters of the Convention. The 99 women from the East were joined by 80 local members and another 170 from around California.

The Morning Press reported, “El Mirasol was a veritable rose garden yesterday morning, abloom with smiling faces of garden queens and vibrant with the hum of voices.”

The Garden Club of Santa Barbara and Montecito, undaunted by outrageous nature that had added insult to injury with storm floods and devastation the previous week, set about to fete and entertain the visitors most lavishly. Mrs. Ervanna Bowen Bissel, owner of Mission Canyon’s Stone Acre estate, presented each guest with a book she had written and compiled for the occasion, “Glimpses of Santa Barbara and Montecito Gardens.” Printed and bound in hand-made paper, the poetic descriptions combined with 33 photographs of local gardens became a treasured souvenir of the Garden Club’s visit.

Luncheons, teas, dinners and entertainments were planned in addition to the annual meeting and many educational slide shows and lectures. The host city’s planning committee included many familiar names: Miss Pearl Chase, Mr. George Steedman (Casa del Herrero), Mrs. Robert Stevens Hyde, and Mr. and Mrs. de Forest, to name a very few. Over the four days, the visitors would tour 56 gardens ranging from small town gardens like the 1925 award-winning garden of Mrs. E. M. Semmelmeyer on the Riviera to the grand estates of Arcady, Piranhurst and El Mirador in Montecito.

At El Mirador, the estate of Mr. and Mrs. J. J. Mitchell (Lolita Armour), the Easterners were treated to a western-style barbecue prepared by chefs in Mexican costume. Hundreds of fillets were grilled over oak embers.

The Easterners were most enthralled, however, with the “Spanish culinary mysteries” of hot tamales, enchiladas, frijoles, spiced rice and chili-sauce.

Still, the highlight of the Spanish experience was dinner at the new El Paseo, the brainchild of Bernard Hoffman. The Garden Club Bulletin reported, “The entrance to El Paseo is through a narrow Spanish street. . . . It was dusk and the lanterns were already lighted. Flowers were everywhere, tumbling out of gay little pots, perched on the iron balconies under the high windows and planted in tubs standing at the bottom of the staircases which ambled up the white walls; vines climbed over walls and roofs, geraniums, grapes and wisterias.”

Inside the restaurant, the gallery was draped with vines and delicate Spanish shawls. Bright, festive colors predominated; “chairs and benches of reds, turquoise blues and strange greens,” the Garden Club wrote. Songstress Alma Real of Los Angeles, a rose tucked in her jet black hair and wrapped in a flowered yellow shawl, sang several old Spanish songs. The Garden Club found the experience quite entrancing.

The Garden Tours

Fifty-six gardens, four elaborate luncheons, six garden teas and three spectacular dinners in four days would leave the most seasoned traveler jaded, but the women of the Garden Club of America never flagged in their enthusiasm. They reported on each garden in appreciative detail.

Charles Frederick Eaton’s second estate, Semiramis, was admired for its terraced gardens and the Almafi arbor covered in wisteria. Mrs. Bothin’s Piranhurst won approval for its outdoor theatre walled by Monterey cypress. The terraced Persian garden at Mr. Gillespie’s El Fureidis, which had been described in every illustrated garden magazine in the nation for years, was noted for its tranquil pools and fountains and water courses. “The water dropping and dripping and flowing from one level to another goes on and on,” the women wrote.

And on and on the tour went. At George Washington Smith’s new home in Montecito, “the inviting doorway in the corner had two tall palms on either side casting deep shadows on the white wall.” At Miraflores, “the stucco house was an enchanting shade of pink and seemed to grow directly out of a five-foot bank of blooming fuchsias.”

By Thursday afternoon, Thor had become jealous of Flora and decided to put on a show of his own. Resounding claps of thunder rocked the city and lightening danced wildly on La Cumbre Peak. The ladies of the Garden Club paid Thor no mind.

When the Garden Club Special departed Santa Barbara Friday evening, it left behind an inspired populace. Under the direction of Pearl Chase, the Plans and Planting Committee of the Community Arts Association initiated a new tradition, local garden tours.

The first tour was a scant seven days after the departure of the Garden Club of America. It cost 50 cents and visited nine gardens. For the next 40 years, breaking only for WWII, local garden tours were offered during April and May in the hope that locals would be inspired and educated to create beauty in their own gardens.

(Sources: Bulletin of The Garden Club of America, May 1926; Stella Haverland Rouse, News-Press, 29 May 1988; contemporary news articles)