Rx: Learn To Play

Posted March 13, 2017

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“Create your own spa. Get out into the country more often. Reduce business activities. Learn how to play with greater regularity and beyond the pressures of urban life” – Dr. P. D. McGhee MD, to his patient, Walter Bellingrath, in Mobile Alabama circa 1917

Mama loved this place. The last holiday she spent away from home was to visit Bellingrath Gardens. These grounds were often mentioned in Mama’s stories about her childhood in Mobile, Alabama. Maybe these gardens were Mama’s first inspiration to create her own 40 acre southern charm garden.

All four of Mama’s children caught the gardening bug. Each, in our own way – cultivate ornamentals, herbs, fruit and vegetables for pleasure and recreation. While living in the city, my little potted garden kept me sane.

So, with Mama in mind, we towed Beauty to the RV & Bus parking lot at Bellingrath Gardens (about 20 miles south of beautiful Mobile) for our first tour of the 65-acre park.

Parked outside Bellingrath Gardens

The estate is named for it’s founders, Walter Duncan – a prosperous Coca-Cola bottler in Mobile – and his wife, Bessie Mae Morse Bellingrath who worked in the Coca-Cola office as a stenographer. They married in 1906 and resided in Mobile.

It all began when Walter got sick. After a thorough victorian examination, Doctor McGhee delivered Walter the wonderful news that he would live a long life if only he would learn to “relax and play.” Evidently, the youngish, high-energy businessman and investor, had just about worked himself to a frazzle. For the sake of Walter’s health and well-being, change was prescriptive. So, in 1917 the Bellingraths bought a rustic fishing camp on the Fowl River and moved out of their home on Ann Street to live in the country.

Bessie, already well-known in Mobile for having the largest collection of azalea, would often invite her servants and their families to enjoy the grounds for picnics in the Spring.

(Throughout The Great Depression, Mrs. Bellingrath helped out many impoverished families by purchasing antiques, knickknacks, furniture, and plants from people who lived in and around the Mobile area.)

On trips back to her old home, Bessie would dig up her azaleas, camellias and begonia, and haul them to the remote fishing post and transplant them along the riverside. Bessie and Walter named their thick swampy, snaky retreat on the muddy Fowl, “Belle Camp” – perhaps because Bessie saw unlimited potential there. Conditions proved ideal. Each Spring Bessie’s collection grew larger and more spectacular than the previous blooming season.

(Bellingrath Gardens was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1982)

In 1927, Walter and Bessie went abroad for a grand European pleasure trip to view the finest public and private gardens in England, France and Italy. For Bessie, their cruise back to the states must have felt like forever because this time she was hauling home a dream – a dream that would transform their lives.

(There are many quiet peaceful places to enjoy the beauty and contemplate)

They hired the prominent Mobile architect George Bigelow Rogers to design “Belle Camp” into a fantasy garden, surrounding a romantic, rustic home complete with water features to channel the natural spring.

(We skipped the house tour, but I hear it’s well worth the visit, especially during the Christmas holiday. The 15-room, 10,000-square-foot home is open for touring and still contains the original decor and personal effects of the couple.)

About that time, the great depression was in full-swing, but that didn’t make no never-mind to Miss Bessie. She had the gardening bug worse than ever and that was that. But in this agricultural area, nurseries to supply flowering shrubs, bulbs and seeds were rare. My dad grew up in Alabama during the depression and he remembers that folks in his part of the country didn’t starve because nearly everyone was a farmer who co-oped with other farmers. Still, it took money to buy farm equipment and necessities. So, once the reality of those hard times set in, it didn’t take long for word to spread far and wide that Bessie’s substantial wallet was wide open. In no time, growers and sellers and locals with vintage, heirloom florals found their way to the Bellingrath garden gate.

Over the years, as the economy recovered, Mobilians caught Bessie’s gardening bug too, and adorned their lawns and edged their ponds with azaleas. It’s a tough job to think of ways to make Alabama look better, but on Sunday drives I still break for gigantic, eye-popping azaleas and wisteria – especially during peak season.

Bessie and Walter first opened Bellingrath Gardens to the public for a walk-through in 1932. Then, in 1934, the gates opened year-round with an entrance fee of 50 cents.

The garden pathways are paved with flagstone from the old city sidewalks in Mobile, where they had been assigned after providing ballast in sailing vessels which delivered loads of cotton to mills in Manchester, England.

In 1943 – only seven years after she moved into the new mansion – Bessie Morse Bellingrath died, unexpectedly. The Bellingraths had no children, and after her death Walter dedicated himself to the gardens of his beloved. In Bessie’s honor, Walter – or “Mr. Bell” as his employees called him – formed a nonprofit trust for the continued operation and maintenance of the house and grounds in 1950. And the year before – in the summer of 1949 – Mr. Bell, placed an open invitation in the Mobile Press, inviting his fellow Gulf Coast residents to come to the gardens to help him celebrate his 80th birthday …

You are cordially invited…

It is an enjoyable and sincere privilege for me to invite the people of Mobile and adjacent communities to be my guests at Bellingrath Gardens this Sunday in observance of my 80th birthday. 

Those few of you who have felt the satisfaction of celebrating an 80th birthday with friends and neighbors will understand the gratification which I shall enjoy in having you visit the Gardens and join in observing the occasion with me.

The Gardens now provide a cool, shady haven of natural beauty and their general Summer loveliness will provide a pleasant setting for the party. I sincerely hope that you and your family will honor me with your presence.

Naturally, Mr. Bell’s birthday party was a stunning success and, before the red velvet cake could be served, Aug. 6, 1949 was declared, “Walter Bellingrath Day” in Mobile.

Walter died in 1955 and left the bulk of his estate to the Foundation.

(The gardens feature live oaks, camellias, azaleas, roses, and chrysanthemums. We toured in early spring and many of the azaleas were recovering from frost damage, so the garden was mostly down to the bones, but still lovely)

Some say Bellingrath is a tribute to Coca-Cola and thus, The American Dream…

of hard work, ingenuity …

and legacy.

But to me, it’s a love story …

… and a gathering place for southerners to reclaim a sense of history, home, and all is right in the world.

It’s a place for lovers …

… dreamers

and memories

(This will always be her place. Releasing flowers for Mama)

… and a subtle but real and enduring tribute to a darn good doc who gave some tough medical advice to a hard-core American entrepreneur: Stop working so hard and learn again how to relax and play in the beauty and gentleness of nature.

Ok! Now we continue our southern crawl into the Louisiana bayou and the Natchez Trace!

6 thoughts on “Rx: Learn To Play

  1. Bravo, wonderful piece. This Yankee had never even heard of Bellingrath Gardens. If you’re heading back north towards St. Louis, I know you’ll enjoy the Missouri Botanical Gardens.

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