Volunteers at the Veterans Administration Old Soldiers Home facility on Gettysburg Road in Dayton are digging up the bones of a garden that was first designed and installed in 1868 by dedicated landscapers and a small army of recovering Civil War soldiers.
The gardening and restoration of The Grotto and gardens by The Ohio State University Montgomery County Extension Service Master Gardeners is a collaboration with VA officials and The American Veterans Heritage Center [AVHC], a Dayton nonprofit dedicated to honoring, preserving and restoring historic structures at Old Soldiers Home.
“Ten years ago we nominated this site as a National Historic Site,” said Robert Kincses, a trustee of the AVHC and the instigator of the Master Gardener collaboration who also served in the U.S. Marine Corps. “We worked together with Tessa Kalman, the archives manager at the VA Medical Center.”
VA officials and Kalman began digging up their own bones in the form of historical photos and articles of bygone eras as they sifted through historical data useful for the nomination. In 2012, the National Park Service designated the Soldiers Home, which had nurtured, cared for and retrained returning injured and disabled Civil War soldiers, a National Historic Site. With 388 acres, a large pond and extensive formal gardens, The Dayton Soldiers Home was one of the largest facilities in the nation and the first integrated facility serving the needs of all injured soldiers regardless of race.
“It was a tourist attraction in the late 1800s and early 1900s with thousands of visitors coming to see it,” Kalman said. “The people who built it wanted it to be as homelike as possible for the veterans. It was their reward for serving their country.”
Part of the soldier’s rehabilitation included retraining in areas like woodworking, stone masonry and bricklaying, the results of which can be seen currently in the renovated garden area. Following the instructions of landscape architects like Frank Mundt, a native German Civil War veteran, the retraining veterans built the extensive walkways, formal gardens and grottos that now make up the skeleton of the VA facility.
“This is one of three mineral springs on the property that veterans actually drank from,” said Master Gardener Bob Neff, of the restored Grotto that was recently highlighted in a July 3 ribbon-cutting ceremony. “We’re laying out gardens like the therapy garden, the perennial garden and the butterfly garden, so that veterans and visitors today can find peace here like the Civil War veterans. We want them to work in the gardens and maintain them as a type of therapy.”
Neff and 16 other Master Gardeners, under the supervision of Extension Educator Suzanne Mills-Waszniak, have worked with VA officials identifying invasive species like honeysuckle trees that need to be removed. As the weeds and invasives were removed long-lost stone walls seemed to appear out of nowhere and a brick sidewalk dating back to the original park was uncovered.
VA officials hope to connect again with the community, so that the grounds will once again be a restful, enjoyable destination for veterans, their families and the public.