The History of New Horizons Garden

By Joan Gerig, long time member

 I'm standing here for many faithful First Church gardeners, past and present. We worked hard and had some wonderful days in the garden over the thirty years.

To set the scene, let me go back to the mid 1980's when New Horizons Youth Club met weekly here in the church where activities included woodworking, cooking, crocheting, choir, and yoga. Gloria Williams, an active leader in the club, had a passion for children of the neighborhood. After one meeting, I mentioned that Becky from Chicago Botanic Garden was assisting me with a garden at a school in Pilsen where I was teaching. 

I wanted a garden and Gloria wanted activities for children--and that was the conception for New Horizons Community Garden. 

But for a garden to be born we needed a plot of land. Yes, there were many empty lots, but could we just take one over? Someone thought Bethany Hospital owned the lots next to the church so Annie Crump, who was working at Bethany, led the way for us to receive a legal looking letter stating that we could use the plot on the corner of Congress Parkway and Van Buren for a garden. 

To continue the birthing metaphor-- numerous midwives appeared. We have photos of Erma Purnell and her two muscular sons, Bob Allen, Orlando, and numerous neighborhood children digging out bricks and limestone from the apartment building that had inhabited that corner. The   Botanic Garden supplied timbers and soil for the raised beds. 

That was just the first year. One doesn't get to be 30 on only a robust birth. There were several growth spurts along the way when we were encouraged through workshops and even an international landscaping/architecture competition that culminated in the new walkway, meeting area, and rain collection system. Most recently we have been pleased to connect with Chicago Cares and Open Lands via Ellen Newcomer. And who could count the hundreds of wheelbarrows of wood chips that have been scattered in the garden over these 30 years by gardeners and a variety of youth groups coming to work with us? 

I recall our First Church gardeners who have gone ahead of us: Dorothy Dennison: donated rhubarb and mint starts that still flourish. Charlie Crump: planted a peach tree and watched for his sage plant to appear every spring.  Mary Scott: raised a lush vegetable plot which she enjoyed visiting on Sundays after worship. Bernice Clay: advocated for a new fence at every garden worship we attended. Finally, one day a crew showed up to tear down the raggedy fence and install a new sturdy one. It remains a mystery as to who paid for that fence which continues to encircle our garden. 

Other gardeners have moved away. Lois Snyder, Carol Rose, and Gloria Williams all spent hours upon hours in the garden. And new gardeners emerged. First Church and Chicago Community Mennonite Church joined in a weekly youth tutoring which then led to a joint garden project. When I moved from East Garfield Park I was pleased that Celeste Groff joined Erma Purnell in coordinating garden activities. Within the past year young people from the two congregations have worked on a plot together. 

We have all collectively kept this garden alive for 30 years and we look forward to continued growth here in East Garfield Park.  Thanks be to God. 

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