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Women of The Garden Club of America


November 04, 2021

Wilhelmine “Willie” Kirby Waller, Environmental Pioneer

Wilhelmine “Willie” Kirby Waller, who campaigned against the use of DDTs and chlorinated hydrocarbons five years before the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, served as president of The Garden Club of America (GCA) from 1965-1968. Mrs.Waller testified before Congress against the use of billboards along US highways and served on committees for Governor Nelson Rockefeller and U.S. Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and George H. W. Bush. In 1972, Willie was awarded the GCA’s Frances K. Hutchinson Medal. It was the achievement of which she was most proud. 

As GCA president, Mrs. Waller encouraged member clubs to actively help their communities become more beautiful and “change things in a meaningful way.” She elevated the National Affairs & Legislation (NAL) subcommittee to national committee status and served as its first chairman. Today, 400 GCA club members meet annually with members of Congress in the nation’s capital.

A beloved past-president of the Bedford Garden Club, Willie was a true steward of the earth. As a child growing up in New York City, a love of nature grew from family visits to her grandparents’ 250-acre Tanrackin Farm in Bedford, NY. After Willie married Thomas Mercer Waller, a charming Virignian and fellow horseman, the couple moved to the farm, where she lived out her extraordinary life. The Waller’s managed breeding stables, trained horses and hunter ponies, and ran a dairy farm. An accomplished equestrian, Willie was admitted to the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame. She cared deeply for her horses from birth through the “pensioner” stage where the animals existed in perfect harmony with the land on the farm. Willie enjoyed hands-on vegetable gardening, produced prize-winning giant pumpkins, and maintained an apple orchard. She made sure there was always food provided for visiting wildlife.

In the 1950’s, the Waller’s sensibilities were challenged when traces of DDT were found in their cow’s milk and the bird population began decreasing on Tanrackin. Known as a woman “who meant business,” Willie met with local officials, making a strong case to curtail spraying DDT on her property. Her pleas were not heard. When Rachel Carson was writing Silent Spring, Willie collaborated with her on the threats of DDT and chlorinated hydrocarbons. The Waller's DDT experience was included in the, soon-to-be, national bestseller. The book awakened the world to improper pesticide use and the need for better controls. In 1972, the duo’s efforts were rewarded, when the EPA issued a cancellation order for DDT. Today DDT is classified as a probable human carcinogen by U.S. and international authorities and is banned as an agricultural insecticide. 

Throughout her well-lived ninety years, Willie joined countless boards whose missions matched her passion to fight against pollution, keep American highways beautiful, and discourage the overdevelopment of land. Her presence at local planning and zoning meetings was her day-to-day civic work and not always welcomed by the developers in the audience. Believing she was not a land-owner, but a steward of land, Willie gave twenty acres of Tanrackin to the town of Bedford and another fifty-six acres to the Westchester Land Trust to be preserved for farming and equestrian use.

Following Willie’s leadership, the GCA became a strong participant in the environmental movement, helping to win three important legislative victories – the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, and the 1972 Water Pollution Amendments. In Willie’s words to GCA members, “We must carry-on, looking around us in awareness, joining hands with each other, with business and industry, with local, state, and federal authorities – to lift the quality of the areas in which we live. In this way, we will continue to be true to the heritage handed down to us from the founders of The Garden Club of America.”

From the Wilhelmine Kirby Waller Collection at The Bedford Historical Society

Willie and Tom Waller  Photo courtesy of Marilen Tilt                         


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