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The Heavy Mettle Behind a GCA Medal


June 24, 2021

Mrs. Oakleigh Thorne

Each year The Garden Club of America (GCA) awards up to ten national medals a year to nationally or internationally recognized leaders in their fields of study or achievement. From floral design to garden restoration, from rose culture to conservation education, these awards are as varied and prestigious as their recipients. Additionally, the GCA recognizes one plant that epitomizes a century-plus focus on gardens, conservation, and advocacy. These beautifully designed and cast medals often bear the name of past GCA club members, who inspired others by their knowledge, passion, and leadership.

One such club member is Helen Thorne (Mrs. Oakleigh Thorne), who was a force of nature in her own right. The Mrs. Oakleigh Thorne Medal was endowed by the Millbrook Garden Club in her memory and is awarded for outstanding achievement in garden design. As a founder of The Garden Club of America, she played a pivotal role in every major achievement during its first thirty nine years.

Raised in New Orleans, she married New Yorker Oakleigh Thorne and poured her passion for gardens and garden design into the gardens of the homes she shared with her husband in Millbrook, New York, and Santa Barbara, California. Thorndale, their home in Millbrook, is still owned by the family. Helen Thorne was a gifted garden designer, who was passionate about designing and creating public gardens in the communities where she lived.  

In 1931, the GCA forged a working partnership with Save The Redwoods League (STRL) to purchase and permanently protect the 2,552-acre Garden Club of America Grove. Now covering more than 5,100 acres, the GCA Grove is the third-largest dedicated grove in the entire California state park system. In William Seale’s book The Garden Club of America, 100 Years of a Growing Legacy, Helen Thorne was credited as being a great promoter of the redwoods and was honored for her efforts in 1934 at the dedication of The Garden Club of America Grove. She was awarded the Frances K. Hutchinson Medal in 1940 in recognition of her assistance in the preservation of the Redwoods. 

Mrs. Thorne served as a GCA honorary vice president from 1923-1953 (and is the only club member to have been given this designation), served as chairman of Visiting Gardens for nearly twenty years, and was known for her dedication to landscaping memorials that honored war veterans.

She was also one of the seven women behind moving The Garden Club of America’s headquarters from Philadelphia to New York. This strategic move is credited with helping the GCA become an organization with national reach and influence.


Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, The Garden Club of America

Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, The Garden Club of America Collection


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