Seven years ago, Judy Olson convinced three of her friends in Gray, Iowa, (pop. 78) that they should do something to beautify their hometown. It took some doing, but now the rose garden they planted is thriving and has become a showpiece of community pride.
Olson, Sheri Fogelman, Penny Schmidt, and Vickie Steffes—who call themselves the Gray Garden Girls—share a youthful enthusiasm for their western Iowa town and the Heritage Rose Garden they started in 1994 when they planted 30 rose bushes on a bare grass lot in the town park.
“Everybody wants their surroundings to look pretty,” says Olson, a long-haul truck driver and town council member. “Why not Gray?”
Unfortunately, the hybrid rose bushes they planted didn’t survive their first rugged Iowa winter.
Undaunted, the garden girls decided to replant with a hardier variety of roses. Cuttings from such roses often arrived with women in covered wagons when the West was settled, and with the determination of those pioneers, these women set out to transform the bare lot into a place of beauty.
After laying out the new flower beds and taking up sod, they planted 208 rose bushes and landscaped the garden. They built brick paths, installed arbors, arches, benches, and a water fountain, and refurbished the garden’s centerpiece, a 15-foot-tall steeple salvaged from the former United Brethren Church in Gray.
“You don’t have to be dead to have a rose in the garden, even though I felt like I was dead lots of times after working there,” quips Schmidt, who sells insurance in nearby Carroll (pop. 10,388). “Believe me, we went through our share of Ben-Gay!”
It wasn’t long before the Gray Garden Girls realized they could use some help, so they added fund raising to their gardening tasks. Letters to alumni of the Gray Community School, closed since 1981, brought donations from across the United States for roses in honor of classmates, families, and loved ones.
Soup suppers in the fire hall, a quilt raffle, and handcrafted items the women sold also helped support what they decided to call the Heritage Rose Garden.
The garden got a big boost in 1996 with a $25,000 grant from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Gray was the smallest community to receive such a grant that year. The money was used to renovate the salvaged church steeple and to bring electricity and water to the garden.
As the garden took shape, so did community pride. Residents fixed and painted their houses. The unused ball diamond was groomed, and games were played there once again. Both the town water tower and a highway billboard pointing to Gray were painted with a large magenta rose.
“We’ve been pushed to clean up the town since we’re on display now,” says Larry Kendall, owner of the gas station in Gray.
Visitors regularly travel to Gray to see the rose garden, whose guest book contains some 3,500 signatures from 15 states. The last two summers, 300 people came to Gray for Rose Fest.
This year the Gray Garden Girls will host the event, which includes a walking tour and talk, on June 9. Visitors can tour five local gardens, the Heritage Rose Garden, and hear a gardening expert speak.
“The garden is great,” Kendall adds. “It’s put us on the map. You have to give the girls lots of credit.”
New roses still must be planted periodically, and the garden needs regular mulching, weeding, and watering, but at the end of the day, the garden girls take pride in all they’ve accomplished.
“We look back now,” says Steffes, Gray’s postmaster and town clerk, “and wonder how we ever did it all.”