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Guestwords: A Benchmark Garden Speech

Wed, 04/17/2024 - 17:22
Eloise Payne Luquer in her garden hat circa 1940s.
Courtesy of the Frick Collection / Frick Art Reference Library

On July 7, 1942, an important event in New York State’s garden club history was celebrated — the opening to the public of the extended nature trail at David’s Lane in East Hampton. “At four o’clock everyone assembled in the Laboratory Theatre for a delightful talk on wild flowers by Miss Eloise Luquer of Bedford, New York,” read the minutes of the occasion.

In opening remarks, Mrs. William A. Lockwood, chairwoman of the Nature Trail Committee, described “the many gifts” of the first president of the Garden Club of East Hampton, Mrs. Lorenzo E. Woodhouse. Indeed, Mary Kennedy Woodhouse was chiefly responsible for the addition to the trail and also implemented the Laboratory Theatre, a practice space for actors and directors where Luquer’s presentation took place. Woodhouse and Luquer were among the early members of the Garden Club of America, and they were associates in the New York chapters of Zone 3 of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s guide to planting.

Eloise Payne Luquer, a 79-year-old artist and conservationist, had finagled gas coupons from the Works Progress Administration to drive the 130 miles from Bedford to East Hampton. Nature trails were close to her heart. She and a lifelong friend, Delia Marble, had laid out the first one in New York State, and Eloise’s thousands of presentations across 36 states inspired trails and wildflower sanctuaries across the nation. She was nicknamed the Audubon of Wildflowers.

East Hampton itself was also quite dear to Eloise. Her great-grandfather William Payne was the first principal of Clinton Academy, and her great-grandmother Sarah Isaacs Payne taught at the school and gave birth to five of her nine children while in town. Among the East Hampton-born progeny of William and Sarah Payne was the “female genius” Eloise Richardson Payne, for whom Eloise Payne Luquer was named. A great-uncle, the playwright, actor, and composer John Howard Payne, though perhaps not born in East Hampton, considered it the most significant family residence and his refuge. He is honored at the Home, Sweet Home Museum on James Lane.

Eloise Payne Luquer and all her family were scholars and lovers of history. Members of genealogical societies that traced their American heritage as far back as the Mayflower, they knew, for example, that great-great-grandmother Mary Hedges Isaacs was a descendant of the East Hampton (Maidstone) founding families Hedges, Talmage, and Mulford. They were deeply rooted in the shining seaside town.

The Payne-Luquers did not let go of the past, nor its relics, no matter how huge — three generations stored a 10-foot sled — or how tiny. Thus, it was no surprise when Eloise displayed to the audience a souvenir of her childhood visits to East Hampton in the 1860s: her 75-year-old bathing suit. It was certainly an ice-breaker and good for a laugh.

She then put frivolity aside and delivered one of her most poignant speeches. It was also one of her last. It’s lucky for posterity that the Bedford Garden Club and the Garden Club of East Hampton took notes back then. As a background to her words, slides were shown of some of her 200 watercolors. The paintings are now housed at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

In her remarks on July 7, she referred to putting seeds in cotton batting. An excerpt from a similar presentation provides more detail of her actual words:

“I brought down my baby pea to show you because I thought you would be interested to see. There is a little shoot coming up and there is the little root going down. And it is just six days old. I put it in the cotton garden, and the second day it began to grow, and there you see the leaves are starting, the two leaves which will feed the plant. Last time I tried this experiment, my plant lived seven months in cotton wool and water just as well as if I had used soil. And it grew and grew. It grew up over the trellis and then it blossomed.”

“And so these plants teach us all the time the wonders of creation, and I think that we must just think of that. Think of beautiful things and not of sadness and horrors.”

The very day of her East Hampton speech, the Army Air Forces sank a German submarine hunkering down off America’s East Coast. Eloise, born during the Civil War and having lived through World War I, knew well of sadness and horrors, and would know of even more terrible events during World War II before her death in 1947. But she never surrendered her belief in the restorative power of nature, which she honored that day in East Hampton.

Judy Culbreth, a former editor at Redbook and Working Mother magazines, is the author of “Bedford Garden Club Originals: New York’s Eloise Luquer and Delia Marble,” from the History Press. She lives near Mobile Bay, Alabama.

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