Four Flags Garden Club gives spring cleaning to historic depot grounds

Published 9:13 am Thursday, April 18, 2019

NILES — Just outside the Niles Amtrak Station this week it appeared that spring had sprung.

Yellow daffodils and pink and purple hyacinth perfumed the air, and bright green stalks burst from the thawed ground, treating passengers to early sights and smells of spring. 

Thanks to the dedication of Four Flags Garden Club members, the grounds surrounding the station continue their legacy of brightening passengers’ day.

On Tuesday, the club weeded, pruned and swept up piles of leaves and trash for an annual spring cleaning that volunteers refer to as “waking up the garden beds.”

Longtime volunteer Mary Jane Thomas said the process clears out winter debris, giving the new plants a chance to flourish.

“This is the beginning of a new season,” Thomas said. “For people who are going to come and go from the depot, they love this garden. We want to make it look nice for them.”

Through the process, garden members also re-plant flowers to sell for the annual Mother’s Day plant sale from 8:30 a.m. to noon Saturday, May 11 at the amphitheater in Riverfront Park. The sale helps to support the club’s effort to preserve the grounds.

The garden beds surrounding the Niles Amtrak Depot are as historic as the train station itself. In 1892, head gardener John Gipner sought to inspire wonder with elaborate garden beds that surrounded the train station. Gipner was hired in 1892, back when the train station belonged to the Michigan Central Railroad. He was known for caring for the grounds and for giving flowers, fresh from the garden to women passengers.

Elaine Metzger, a volunteer for the Four Flags Garden Club, said those that visit the station can still see some of Gipner’s original work. Gipner had grafted two weeping mulberry trees, one of which remains. The second tree was taken out early this year after it tipped over and was struggling to survive.

This year, volunteers hope to use the space to install a garden bed in tribute to Anita Heemer, the past president of the club, who passed away recently. Donations made in Heemer’s memory will also help to fund some other upgrades to the space, including replacing the worn wood on the benches at the station.

For Metzger, caring for the gardens is an important part of maintaining the depot’s roots.

“To me, the big significance is that it is a small rendition of what John Gipner’s gardens used to be when the station was first built,” Metzger said. “He turned a 9-acre cow pasture into 9 acres of gardens.”

The gardens were so well-known that the trains that traveled during Gipner’s time period made only two stops: one at Niagara Falls and the other at the Niles train depot, according to Metzger.

Thanks to club members’ care, passengers will see an assortment of colorful flowers throughout the warmer seasons, including black-eyed Susans, roses, begonias, daylilies, daffodils and more.

Others have taken note of garden members efforts. On Tuesday, garden club members surprised Metzger with an award from the Michigan Garden Clubs. Metzger was recognized for her gardening skills and aim to better the community.

For Metzger, the reward is helping people appreciate a little piece of Niles history. 

“Even now the station masters and the passengers tell us that it is one of the most beautiful spots that they see and it gives them joy,” Metzger said.