By Sarah Wibell
For 15 years, the Rutledge Garden Club has made digging in the dirt look fun as their group has grown in both size and purpose for the community. “I laughed, I kind of got tickled,” shared President Ann Pitner. “I looked back at the original charter the other night, and it was saying the purpose was to share gardening ideas and techniques and to organize social activities to promote friendships. I thought, ‘Gosh, we’ve expanded since then.’ We really do a lot of community service type of work.”
The club was founded by Carol Altznauer in January 2004. “I was new to Rutledge, and I wanted to meet people,” Altznauer shared. “I talked to Molly Lesnikowski, and she said, ‘You need to be a member of the Recreation Department, and I said, ‘No, I don’t want to do that.’ So, I decided I would start my own club.” Altznauer made invitations using paper printed with a red rose. “We met over at Michelle Strott’s house, and we had six or seven people come. It just kind of grew from there.”
Although officially the Rutledge Garden Club, the members are fondly known as the Dirt Girls. “In one of the early years,” Pitner explained with a laugh, “the club sponsored the Christmas Tour of Homes in Rutledge, and we set up a PayPal account. We needed a short name for the account and the guy who was helping Carol do it suggested the Dirty Girls, and she said, ‘No, that won’t work.’ So, they settled on the Dirt Girls … that’s how it came about.”
Now at 26 members, the Dirt Girls usually have a waiting list for membership, which is by invitation only. “We try to keep (a limit on numbers) so we can fit people in our homes,” Altznauer explained. “We started planting out there by the gazebo, and we would always have a meal. We would have a hostess and three co-hosts, and they would put the meal together.
“You really don’t have to be a host more than once a year now with the way it is. We have speakers from time to time. We just have a good time. We participate in all of the events that Rutledge has.”
Each year there are a variety of club activities. This year, there are 12 committees that aim to increase their outreach and service in the community. Every member serves on at least one committee.
Pitner explained, “The murals in town are a club project. We’re starting work on a new mural that will be finished next year. Our t-shirt committee will do a t-shirt that goes along with the mural, and those funds are used to support different needs in the community.”
Another committee oversees a twice-yearly raffle basket fundraiser; tickets sell for $1 or six tickets for $5. This year’s prizes are gift card baskets with nearly $400 worth of gift cards. Pitner noted that those proceeds sponsor families at Christmas: “That’s a big thing – to be sure that there’s not a need in the community that no one is looking after. We also have a program committee and a caring committee. If there’s a member, family member, or someone in the community who needs a meal or needs just a kind word or a card, then our caring committee takes care of that.”
The club also sells crosses for veterans for $25 each through a program implemented in 2017 in conjunction with the Boys Scouts of America. The crosses are for deceased Morgan County veterans and are placed in town for both Memorial and Veterans Day. The Boy Scouts build the crosses, and the garden club stores them and takes the orders throughout the year.
“We’re getting ready for Trader Days,” Pitner stated. “In the past, it has been a city-wide yard sale, but we’re trying to revamp the purpose of that. So, it’s being called Trader Days this year – encouraging everyone to come to town and bring the goodies that they want to get rid of and just have fun buying, selling, and trading.” The Dirt Girls will be selling seedlings and plants from the Sunflower Farm in Rutledge during the event held April 13 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in Rutledge Town Park.
In addition to events and community service, the garden club continues to plant flowers around town – like the flower bed in front of the gazebo in Rutledge’s Town Park – and maintains them throughout the summer months. Last year, the club also assumed responsibility for the Christmas Festival, which had been a city activity.
While growing in impact, members still cultivate their own friendships. Pitner pointed out that there is also a fellowship committee: “We try to plan activities so our garden club is not just about business, and we have fun fellowship activities, too. Next week, we’re getting together at the Caboose, and we’re going to watch Fried Green Tomatoes; the following week, we’re going to Juliette (where the movie was filmed) to eat fried green tomatoes. So, in addition to working, we also have time for a little play.
“This year our theme is ‘Through the Looking Glass’. We’re using quotes at our meetings every month that come from the story ‘Alice in Wonderland’, and the quotes are designed to help us look at ourselves and look at the world in different ways to see if we can find different strengths in each other and in our community. That’s been a fun new addition.”
Noting that Rena Holt and Hilda Chilton are Master Gardeners; Elizabeth Rockhill, Rena Holt, Hilda Chilton, and Molly Lesnikowski will be participating in the Steffen Thomas Museum of Art exhibit Arts in Bloom in April; and member Molly Lesnikowski’s painted floor mats were accepted into the prestigious American Craft Council show in Atlanta, Pitner added, “We have a really eclectic group of women who have lots of different kinds of talents; when we come together, we’re pretty powerful … There are about 15 original members in the club, which says a lot about a group of women who will stay together that long.”
Altznauer commented, “It’s just amazing how well 26 people get along, and we really do. We don’t have any problems … We all get along, have a good time … It’s just worked out for us.”
Next time you visit Rutledge, remember to stop and smell the roses and all the other beautiful flowers nurtured by the Dirt Girls.