Hilger’s roadside rest stop turns 60

By: 
JENNY GESSAMAN
Reporter

Three benefactors of the Hilger Garden enjoy some shade on a hot summer’s day. From left to right, Alan Shammel, Duane Phillips and Stephanie Shammel.

Photo by Jenny Gessaman

It may be a brief flash of green that greets highway motorists as they pass Hilger, but that flash is still an invitation, all the same. Created as a social enterprise, a park and a rest stop, the Hilger Garden still offers a shady place for travelers to stretch their legs 60 years after its founding.


A social endeavor
The end of 1956 started something new in Hilger: the Hilger Garden Club. Of course, it wasn’t until the next spring that the organization began its biggest project, one that would outlive the Club itself. When the weather warmed, two donated plots of land were plowed and cultivated into the Hilger Garden.

Tulips and irises were the first bits of greenery, later joined by a lilac hedge, perennials, annuals, trees and even vegetables. The early years were the learning years for the Hilger Garden Club, however. Some plants didn’t sprout, while weeds and a lack of water stunted others. Animals were problematic, too: 1972 Club notes reveal a mole problem drastic enough to warrant traps.

The organization was determined, however. A well was dug in 1962, and the Hilger Garden Club planned each year ‘s plantings with the hope of continuous blooms from spring until fall.

The women of the Hilger Garden Club were close. The garden occupied much of the club’s time and discussions, but each gathering was also a social event. The group brought community members together at a time where phones plugged into the wall, snail mail was just plain mail and the absence of the internet made social interactions in-person affairs.

Meetings sorted out club business, but also connected the women. Each month’s roll call, for example, required members to mark their presence with an answer to a question. Those answers had members sharing a bit of themselves, from the recitation of Valentine’s Day poems to naming improvements each wanted for their own garden.


Looking for growth
Today’s incarnation of the Hilger Garden is simpler one, looking more like a park than a garden. Cut green grass is fenced by lilacs and dotted with trees. Underneath the young canopy sits a picnic table for visitors.

The finished look, from color to cut, is thanks to Duane Phillips. While he acts as caretaker, Phillips has another title for himself.

“I’m an antique,” he said. “I’ve lived here in Hilger for 66 years.”

Phillips keeps the grass mowed and the flag flying, volunteering his time in honor of his mother Helen. She was one of the Hilger Garden Club’s founding members.

The club, however, no longer owns the Hilger Garden. Stephanie Shammel explained legal technicalities led to a change of hands 2007.

“Technically, the Garden Club couldn’t own the garden, so we had to do it through the Home Demonstration Club,” she said.

Shammel is a member of the Demonstration Club, and said the group wants the garden to grow again.

“It’s part of the community,” she said. “People worked hard to build it.”

Shammel should know. Before enrolling in the Home Demonstration Club, she was a member of the Garden Club.

“The ladies invited me to come, so I joined in 76,” she said. “They’d already been at it for 20 years.”

The rural Montana experience, including the Hilger Garden, was novel for the Chicago-native.

“I was a city girl,” she said. “I thought it was a lark.”

Shammel is still excited about the garden, but now she’s also invested.

“We kept the Demonstration Club going so we can keep the garden going,” she said.

The club now aims to revitalize its membership and the Hilger Garden. Shammel hopes to see younger faces helping to put more trees, a playground and possibly even a bathroom on the land.

“The community’s coming back,” she said. “We’re trying to get things going again. I was hoping that we could get the young people involved with that.”

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