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AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala.— While Santa’s elves are busy working at the North Pole, Montgomery, Alabama has elves of its own working to decorate the Farley-Hill House next door to the Governor’s Mansion. Okay….they aren’t actually elves, but this group of Master Gardeners work extra hard to make sure things are ready for the holidays.

Members of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System Master Gardeners (MG) Association have spent each Monday since October planning displays, making ornaments and decorating the Hill House. Originally built by two sisters, the Governor’s Mansion and the Farley-Hill House sit side-by-side in stately elegance. This time of year, both are decked in red and green and adorned with Christmas lights. To show them off, they offer Annual Governor’s Mansion Christmas Candlelight tours the first three Mondays in December.

Mallory Kelley, the MG program coordinator for Autauga, Elmore and Montgomery counties, said she is always in awe of the work the MG group does at Christmas.

“This hard-working group of ladies does an outstanding job decorating each year,” said Kelley, who is also a home grounds, gardens and pests agent. “The group really challenges you to look for the beauty in things growing around you. Their creativity encourages you to see everyday things in a new way, such as flower petals for angel wings or a magnolia seed pod as the body of an owl.”

Master Gardeners from the tri-county area have been decorating a portion of either the Governor’s Mansion or the Hill House since 2016. The areas the group decorates changes from year to year. This year, the group was in charge of adding Christmas magic to the entire lower floor of the Hill House.

A woman wrapping a holiday package.


Deck the Halls with Cotton, Okra, Peanuts and Turkey Feathers

Jane McCarthy, a central Alabama MG, is the coordinator of the decoration efforts.

“Because we are a gardening group, we have a self-imposed rule,” McCarthy said. “We only decorate with natural materials. We save yard trimmings and look for things that may add beauty to our displays inside the Hill House.”

McCarthy said she and her team were asked to decorate the entire Hill House in February of 2019. She was later diagnosed with breast cancer and was unsure if they would be able to decorate the entire house. However, with a lot of teamwork and determination, the first floor is now tour-ready.

Ornaments made from dried fruits and vegetables, peanuts, cotton, pecans, seed pods, feathers, sea shells, hydrangeas, twigs and even gourds—adorn two magnificent trees in the living room of the Hill House.

“Most of these ornaments are made with things we found in our yards,” McCarthy said. “We are always on the lookout for projects that use fresh, natural decorations.”

A Good Team

While some Master Gardeners work specifically with the Christmas decorations, others work on the governor’s grounds year-round. The group, known as the Monday Morning Mansion Garden Group, is also lead by McCarthy—affectionately known as the fearless leader.

Nicole Owens, director of tours with the Alabama Department of Tourism, said she loves working closely with the Master Gardeners throughout the year, but especially at Christmas.

“They all came together this year to show their true talent in our Hill House,” Owens said. “The beauty and creativity they have put forward this Christmas is truly magical. They have spent many hours working on it and I couldn’t do it without them. I hope all of Alabama is able to see the unique home this holiday season.”

“We all enjoy working to make the governor’s grounds beautiful during the Christmas season,” said Peggy Funk, one of the MG decorators. “We learn from each other and we have fun doing it.”

Another MG volunteer, Anne Carr, was a home economics Extension agent in South Carolina and is familiar with the importance of Extension involvement in communities.

“We all work really well together,” Carr said. “We all have unique talents and abilities, so we each bring something different to the table. It makes what we get to do here special—both to us and those who come in on the tours.”

Become a Master Gardener

To learn more about the Alabama Master Gardeners Association or to inquire about membership, visit www.aces.edu.County Extension offices will also have information about Master Gardener programs and events.

Visit the Governor’s Mansion

Tours are available the first three Mondays in December. While the Dec. 2 tour date has already passed, there are tours Dec. 9 and Dec. 16 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. The tours are free, but interested parties must contact the Governor’s Mansion Gift Shop to reserve tickets.

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