Ellen Shortess Garden rededicated with recollections at Erie Station Museum

Chester. Ellen Shortess Garden at Erie Station Museum was rededicated with a presentation by her daughter, Micki Shortess Smith, recalling the history of her mother’s work with the garden and people who collaborated. Ellen died in 2003.

| 09 Nov 2022 | 05:40

Family and friends gathered for the rededication of the Ellen Shortess Garden at the Erie Station Museum on a recent suitably sunny day. In a post on the Chester Historical Society’s Facebook page, member Leslie Smith described the event: “Micki Smith, daughter of Ellen and Stephen Shortess, gave a touching, heartfelt narrative of the garden and Ellen herself. Ellen and Micki worked untold hours weeding and planting on the knoll and along the trail, creating a garden to enhance the museum. Dave Roach later joined in the work. The rededicated garden has a sundial, given in Ellen’s memory by the Chester Historical Society, and a donated garden bench with a plaque honoring Ellen.”

In a later conversation with The Chronicle, Micki Shortess Smith expanded on her mother’s story.

“Ellen” Shortess, born Alma Rose Edwardsen, grew up in Brooklyn, the daughter of an Italian mom and Norwegian father. Ellen was raised by Italians and was a wonderful cook, said Smith, noting that, on holidays, “You never knew who would be there. Mom made everyone welcome.”

Stephen Shortess was living in Brooklyn and working at a bank on Wall Street in Manhattan- his roommate had grown up in Brooklyn with Ellen and introduced them in 1962. The couple married and the family, including daughter Christine, moved to Ossining in Westchester, where Micki (Michele) and her sister Jennifer were born. They relocated to Sugar Loaf in 1977, where Ellen and her husband Steve had a bookkeeping business in the post office building.

In 1990, Ellen and Steve moved their bookkeeping and tax preparation business to downtown Chester, at 12 Main Street. Then Ellen started to beautify the area, not just transforming a trash-strewn area at the station, but planting flowers at the “Welcome to Chester” sign and starting a trend by putting up a flower box outside the family business.

Today, Steve still works there, along with son-in-law Terrence Smith and daughter Micki, who works part-time now. Steve Shortess previously served the community of Chester as Supervisor (‘94-’97) and as town councilman (‘85-’93).

Ellen Shortess was also an artist who made sewn and stuffed satin items, including rainbows and unicorns and lots of other animals under the name Almanals—a play on her name, as well as potpourri strawberries, clowns, cat draft dodgers, Christmas ornaments and special order gifts, according to Micki. She had a small business from 1979-1984.

Micki said she and her sister grew up doing the craft show circuit with her.

“She had so many talents,” said Micki. “Mom was very funny and fun and loved to laugh.”

Ellen was an enthusiastic grandmother and an active Chester Historical Society member. She restored the Sugar Loaf house diorama, handmade by Don Barrell, which graced the walls of the old Sugar Loaf fire and ambulance building for decades, before the Fire Department donated them to the Chester Historical Society. They will be on display in 2023 for the Society exhibit on historic Sugar Loaf.

Ellen Shortess passed away in 2003 from brain cancer. Volunteers, including Micki and other members of the Society, including Georgina Robillard and E.J. Szulwach and employees of Steris, a Chester technology company, have been maintaining and enhancing the gardens. Steris donated a garden bench which has a plaque with Ellen Shortess’ name on it.

A selection of Micki Shortess Smith’s remarks about her mother, delivered at the rededication.
“For my mother, Ellen Shortess:
“...although she kept a vegetable garden all her life, it was after we had grown that she could finally focus on ornamentals- growing for the beauty and fun of it.
“At some point in the early to mid- 90’s, she would come down here to walk around, and almost immediately her gardeners hands couldn’t resist pulling weeds, picking up trash, all the while surveying the area with the eye of an artist. ...On the hill she cleared weeds and planted groundcovers - Vinca (periwinkle) in the shady areas to control erosion, Stachys (lambs ears) along the low wall where the sun would shine through the trees, and lined the sun-drenched top of the wall with Yucca and Sedums, all of which are still there today. When she turned her attention to the trailside, Tommy Bell and the Village crew came in, again as a favor, donating their time, their equipment, and muscle--loading old mattresses, appliances, and debris that littered the trailside at that time.
“She started clearing the garden area, uncovering or bringing in stones to make walkways, and transplanting daylilies, coneflowers, bee balm, and more from her home gardens...
“The soil here was not the easiest to work with, and the first few years were a challenge to keep things alive. Then in stepped Linda Fairweather, who worked locally at the time, and for many years she donated an annual truck load of beautiful potting soil- that was such an important gift. Eventually that thin, dusty soil started to change and produce worms that grew so big they looked like baby snakes!
“As the years went by and the hill and gardens filled in, we started to expand further out, laying down stone walkways and planting in the shadier areas. This was when Dave Roach came in, creating another beautiful garden plot, bringing his camaraderie, and his connections--he was able to get a truck load of annuals donated, which Norma Stoddard and I put in together...brightening up the dark shade.
“Then a Girl Scout troop came in and planted next to Dave’s section. We can still see a hosta or two that have survived from that time, mixed in with the hardier weeds that have reclaimed the area.
In her remarks, Micki also recognized Ellen’s friend “Jim Jones, a local tree trimmer, who removed brush and thorn-filled branches, making the area look more attractive, and making it much safer and a lot easier to navigate,” and Loretta Winkler, who shared plants and enthusiasm.
“That seed that was planted in her long ago took root, and has lasted, and has spread to all of you that have taken over the garden, and you are creating friendships, and community, and your seeds are taking root, growing strong relationships, and spreading joy and beauty to our world. And my family and I thank you all, from the bottom of our hearts.”
Micki Smith, 10/27/2022