Beyond just beautifying the community to start the holiday season, the mailbox decorations raise thousands of dollars that are donated to the Lookout Mountain Elementary and Fairyland Elementary schools. These funds are used for maintenance and enhancements of school grounds at both locations, and knowing that outcome, club members are happy to put in the tremendous effort it takes to make this event happen each year.
Sparked by the changes to this tradition that were necessary in 2020, current LGC president Christy Smalley was curious to know more about the origins of the fundraiser. Emails, calls, and texts began circulating across town as daughters asked mothers for information, sisters asked in-laws what they knew, and friends asked neighbors if they had any idea when exactly the mailbox decorations had come to be. Generations of ladies got involved in the search, and the anecdotes of people’s experience with the LGC were a joy to collect. Many responded with the feeling that the holiday mailbox decorations had “always just been there,” as the visual of the decorations is so engrained in everyone’s memories. Julie Fisher, who served as LGC president in the late 1990s, said that she remembered installing decorations while battling morning sickness as she was pregnant with her now-grown child. Many members recall climbing tree branches to retrieve a particular piece of greenery, and several laughed over memories of installing decorations in snow flurries one year, in sweltering heat the next, and sometimes even by flashlight! But despite all these recollections, the origin search was still a mystery.
However, as a bonus from all this digging, some anecdotes about the history of the club itself were unearthed along the way. Laurelwood Garden Club was founded in 1964 by Nancy Caulkins. Nancy was a universally adored woman who was described during these conversations as a “great encourager” and a “godly cheerleader” who loved our community and wanted to connect a broad group of women to help beautify it. The LGC planted a tree in her memory at the Commons, and Natalie Jackson, who helped lead this project, recalled how when her own family moved here and her young daughter was really struggling to find her place, Nancy made it her mission to help her feel like home; that was just the kind of loving person she was. Many others remembered Nancy fondly, and the current club is lucky to have such a strong matriarch as the core of its founding.
So as the search for the mailbox decoration origins continued, we determined that the 1990s were too late, and the 1970s were too early; it looked like the mid-1980s were our target. We struck gold when Gwin Tugman, who served as LGC president from 1984-85, confirmed that she had been in on the start of the fundraiser. Gwin put her head together with former LGC leaders Zane Brown and Natalie Huffaker and determined that Christmas of ’84 must have been the start of the fundraiser. Actually, these ladies had all been involved at Lookout Mountain School, and during a school meeting, a parent was discussing a recent trip where she had seen lovely mailbox decorations as part of a local fundraiser, so the idea was proposed as way to raise money for LMS. When the logistics didn’t work out for the school to take on the fundraiser, the ladies of Laurelwood decided to make it their own and donate the money they raised to the elementary schools.
Gwin recalls gathering the ladies of the club in the basement of Our Lady of the Mount Catholic Church and figuring out how to assemble the greenery into the decorations. She laughs that her sister, Hutcheson Brooks, volunteered to teach everyone how to make the bows that top the arrangements, but after the ladies of the club gave it their best efforts, Hutcheson said she would just make all the bows herself! That first year, Gwin said they made between 75-100 arrangements that were priced at $15 each, and the ladies were thrilled with the success.
Each year since, the fundraiser has grown and grown, but since its inception, it has never faced the challenges it did this past year. Melissa Lusk was chair of the mailbox decoration fundraiser for 2020, and rather than be deterred by COVID-19 considerations, Melissa enacted new processes that allowed for a record-setting amount of decorations to be created and sold this year. Melissa knew that members would not be able to gather in large groups to pool their greenery in the LMS skating rink as usual to assemble decorations, so she gave members the independence to gather materials and create arrangements on their own; she provided online resources for instruction, and she organized small, spaced-out groupings for new members to learn to assemble and install the decorations. This new approach led to less waste and less cost in materials, and it allowed members to schedule their involvement around their unique professional and family roles. In fact, many 2020-procedures were so successful that they will shape the fundraiser moving forward. Melissa also addressed some environmental changes to the decorations this year, including removing boxwood from the arrangement to prevent possible boxwood blight from spreading locally and removing the greenery aerosol spray to improve the environmental footprint of the decorations.
Despite all of this careful planning, there was an unexpected hurdle that surprised everyone this holiday season: the limited availability of large Christmas trees! Fiona Johnson, the greenery chair on this year’s fundraiser committee, arranged for locations like the Barn Nursery to supply their leftover tree cuttings, but within a week after Thanksgiving, people were already struggling to find the large Christmas trees that are usually so easy to buy, and even the large Christmas tree providers were running out of inventory. The smaller “Charlie Brown trees” weren’t just an issue in Chattanooga; articles from news outlets around the world documented some 8-foot trees selling for over $2,000! Melissa and Fiona worked to secure clippings from additional locations like the Green Thumb Nursery in Hixson, whose owner said that in 44 years of business, they had never sold out of trees so early.
When all was said and done, the ladies of the LGC rallied to the challenge, and the fundraiser came together beautifully in every way. Melissa says she is “so proud of our team and the flexibility they showed throughout this entire process … although we couldn’t be all together, we really did well as a team and learned a lot this year.”
At a time when so much about the holiday season looked very different for so many people, it was comforting to see the familiar greenery of the Laurelwood Garden Club mailbox decorations firmly in place around the mountain, right where they are supposed to be. Thank you to Gwin Tugman and to all the ladies who helped track down this history, and thank you to the current club leadership and club members whose hard work continues to benefit our community.
by Meredith Brown