Miss Fran’s Teaching Garden Tool Elementary School

Tool Elementary students with (l-r) garden club members Susan Hall and Beth Clampitt; school principal Brandi Sutton; namesake ‘Miss Fran’ Sonka; and club member Darlene Peterson.
photography: Terri Taylor

Susie’s Shed, nestled at the edge of Miss Fran’s Teaching Garden at Tool Elementary, is arguably the cutest little garden shed in Northeast Texas. With its gabled porch and wooden benches, its flower boxes and robin’s-egg-blue door, the exterior is farmhouse chic. Inside, a Mason jar with red flowers sits on an antique mahogany desk. Floppy straw hats are scattered about. Denim aprons hang from the coat rack that leans beside the white beadboard walls.

“More like a big girls’ clubhouse,” says Debbie Bozeman-Zook with a laugh as she and fellow Cedar Creek Garden Club members—Susan Hall, Billie Hathaway and Carol Schnatzmeyer—gather inside this decidedly feminine hangout to talk about the school garden that has galvanized their club and their community.

Garden club members (l-r) Billie Hathaway, Carol Schnatzmeyer, Debbie Bozeman-Zook and Susan Hall.

Hanging from a shelf in the back of the room, a dozen pairs of tiny gardening gloves remind visitors like me why the garden was built. Though the students won’t be arriving for another few weeks, seeds have been ordered and the soil prepared for the new planting season. Outside the shed, 28 raised beds await their young gardeners. This fall the children will grow tomatoes, onions, black-eyed peas, carrots, and radishes and plant more milkweed in their Monarch Waystation and Pollinator Garden.

“We planted sweet potato slips at the end of the school year,” says Carol, “and told the kids that we’d pull them up when they return.” Where once was a barren field, there is now a green space full of life, an evolution that took only a year from concept to reality.

The little town of Tool, population 2,200, sits on a flat stretch of Hwy. 274 on the western edge of Cedar Creek Lake, 50 miles southeast of Dallas. To most weekenders, this is a pass-through place on the road to lakeside retreats. The big commercial strips are in Malakoff, Mabank and Gun Barrel City. This is the quieter side of the lake.

The Cedar Creek Garden Club, which draws members from all around the area, was on the brink of folding at the beginning of Covid. With enthusiasm low, their remaining funds were donated to the library. Still holding out hope, members like Billie and Susan convinced Debbie, who had just settled in Tool with her husband, to help them revive the club. Having spent many post-retirement years volunteering at the Dallas Farmers Market, Debbie had watched the local food movement take hold and agreed to take the reins as president on the condition that they change their focus.

“I wasn’t interested in a lunch club where everyone showed grandkid pictures,” she says. “We all agreed that we wanted to be more than a social club. We wanted to be of service.”

A good way to get their hands dirty, they decided, was to build a school garden, so they zeroed in on Tool Elementary, which had a perfectly situated empty lot beside it.

“We were nervous about going to the principal’s office,” Debbie jokes, referring to their first visit to see Brandi Sutton, Tool Elementary’s principal.

They sent Brandi an email, convinced they’d have to sell her on their idea, but the response was pure elation.

“This has been my dream,” Brandi told them. She’d grown up on a farm in nearby Eustace, with chickens and a garden. Growing food had been an integral part of her childhood. “I just kept wondering how I could provide an experience like that for these kids.”

At the Community Food Pantry just down the road, Executive Director Vicki Dumont had also been wishing for a garden and had reached out to Brandi. The pantry serves approximately 400 families and finding reasonably priced healthy food is always a challenge. Food insecurity is also an issue within the school, where 72 percent of the 252 students qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch program. But talk of the garden went on the back burner after the school suffered major damage during the 2021 winter freeze.

The Cedar Creek Garden Club, now with 41 members, was the catalyst that finally made things happen. The groundbreaking of the 3,600-square-foot garden came in July 2021, and the Community Food Pantry was deemed the beneficiary.

“It was kismet,” says Vicki. “The garden is critical to us.” The students planted their first seeds in March and the first season yielded 600 pounds of fresh produce for the pantry.

Eighty-four pounds of cabbage was harvested during the school’s Cabbage Growing Contest. “That’s a lot of coleslaw,” says Debbie. For the big cabbage weigh-in, the entire school assembled in the gym and cheered as Ms. Shaefer’s first grade class won the Golden Trowel Award for their 10.5-pound entry. “They were so supportive of one another,” says Susan.

“Every child who walks into this garden has a big smile on their face,” says Debbie. “Some are seeing seeds for the first time. Learning that food comes from the Earth, not Wal-Mart. This is their happy place.” When it came time to name the garden, the first and only choice was to honor Miss Fran Sonka, without whom there would be no school at all.

“No one has done more for these kids,” says Billie. “And for Tool.”

A 30-year community leader, the 91-year-old retired from her job at Republic National Bank in Dallas in 1992 and, in her words, came to Tool “to finally start living.” She’s been a member of City Council and was Tool’s mayor, but her most enduring legacy is Tool Elementary School. For years, she lobbied to have an elementary school built here, adamant that the children shouldn’t have to be bussed two hours back and forth daily to Malakoff. Her wish was granted in 2007, and every morning since (except for the early days of Covid), she’s been at Tool Elementary giving the students hugs as they enter.

“It might be their only hug that day,” she says, “and mine, too.” As the garden took shape, passers-by on Hwy. 274 began to take notice. The community chipped in with dirt, seeds, and money. People offered farm implements to decorate the grounds. A nearby sawmill donated wood for benches. A decorative metal entry gate studded with garden tools was designed by Carol and made by one of Brandi’s colleagues.

As more and more people heard about Miss Fran’s, more help came their way.

One of the most poignant contributions was made by local resident Rob Rea, who donated Susie’s Shed and the garden’s greenhouse— Rea of Sunshine Nursery—in honor of his wife Susie, who resides in a nearby memory care facility.

“I can’t think of a more fitting way to celebrate Susie and how she felt about kids,” says Rob. “She’d volunteer here if she could.”

At the official dedication on May 6, Miss Fran cut the red ribbon as garden club members, the school’s faculty, community members and students stood nearby. As the Tool Elementary Choir sang “You Are My Sunshine,” supporters, once unknown to each other, mingled and celebrated their community and the little garden that binds them.

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As a kid, TERRI TAYLOR refused to eat her vegetables. Her veggie-phobia was cured in 1977 when she spent eight months working on farms in Norway and France. She studied journalism at UT-Austin and received a master’s degree in liberal arts from SMU. Her short story “Virginia” can be found in Solamente en San Miguel, an anthology celebrating the magical Mexican town of San Miguel de Allende. She has written for Edible DFW since its inaugural issue in 2009. She became the magazine’s editor in 2010 and is the editor of Edible Dallas & Fort Worth: The Cookbook.