Historic VA Grotto Gardens blooming through collaboration

Uncovering secret gardens

Historic VA Grotto Gardens blooming through collaboration

When Judge Walter Rice was a 10-year-old child growing up in Pittsburgh, he had a prized picture postcard collection.

One of his special postcards, dated Dayton, Ohio, 1910, depicted a lush grotto garden created by Union Civil War veterans on the grounds of the Veterans Administration. It was the first time he’d ever heard of Dayton.

Judge Rice could never have predicted that more than a half-century later, as the president of The American Veterans Heritage Center’s board of trustees, he would be involved in a collaborative effort seeking to re-create the historic garden paradise that once drew thousands of visitors each weekend.

A formal Grotto Garden and Tree Dedication, open to the public, will take place tomorrow at 2 p.m. The dozens of volunteers involved with the mammoth undertaking are confident that the work of their hands and hearts will offer beauty, education and solace to all who walk the garden paths.

Mistress of ceremonies for the event will be Cindy Lapointe-Dafler, widow of Joseph “Guy” LaPointe, a Dayton native who was killed in action in Vietnam in 1968. A combat medic, LaPointe was the recipient of the Medal of Honor, the Silver Star, Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. A Purple Heart Garden honors him.

“We bring people out here and they want to know how they can get involved,” says Susan Pearson, one of the master gardeners working on the gardens. “It’s addictive.”

A Bit of History

“The year was 1868 shortly after the Civil War, when Frank Mundt became the florist and gardener of the Dayton Soldiers Home,” writes Robert Kincses, trustee of the AVHC, in his 2013 report tracing the history of the gardens and the current project. ” A veteran who was originally from Germany, he along with the Home architect Mr. Davis and Mrs. Elizabeth Rohrer of Germantown, began the development of the Grotto and gardens in what was then the limestone quarry area.” A grotto is any type of natural or artificial cave.

Charles Beck, a professional landscaper, supervised the 75 Civil War veterans who worked full time planning and laying out decorative areas on the grounds including patriotic floral mounds in red, white and blue as well as a floral butterfly, an eagle with outstretched wings, a Union mound.

According to the official “Brief History of the V.A. Medical Center,” in the garden’s heyday visitors were encouraged to come to the Soldiers Home to honor the Civil War Veterans and grand picnic excursions by railroad were organized in the 1870’s.

“The intricate flower garden, lovely grotto, beautiful lakes, splendid groves, and cultivated lawns were nationally recognized in Harper’s Weekly as “not equaled by anything in our Central Park,” states the document. ” The Soldiers Home was advertised in promotional leaflets as “the most popular travelers’ resort west of the Allegheny mountains” and the number of visitors swelled to over 660,000 annually in 1910, six times the population of Dayton at that time.”

Laying dormant

Local V.A. historian Tessa Kalman, who edited and updated the official history, says it was after the VA population started dwindling following World War II that the gardens and grotto were scaled back.

As decades passed and the site lay dormant, invasive plants began taking over the landscape and covering up the beauty that was once there.

New life

The current maintenance and landscape reclamation effort got its start in 2012 when the Dayton VA Medical Center directors and the AVHC hired a contractor to do some structural reworking and some landscaping of the property.

Dozens of talented and enthusiastic volunteer gardeners got into the act after the Ohio State Extension Office of Montgomery County — sponsors of the Master Gardener program — was asked for assistance.

Members of the class of 2011 were especially excited to sign up for the project.

“We have uncovered a historical gem,” says Jane Falck of Oakwood, one of the 40 master volunteers and eight non-master gardener volunteers who devote their Tuesday and Wednesday mornings to the project from early spring until mid November. Approximately 100 hours are being volunteered each week.

Falck says as she and other volunteers began the restoration — removing overgrown honeysuckle, grapevines and poison ivy — they uncovered beautiful stone garden walls, giant boulders, original brick walkways and more.

“Just look at these hand-laid stones, they are so exquisite!” says an excited Falck who is standing by the original grotto and its bubbling springs, dated 1869.

“We began to realize the potential of this historic garden and our gardening dreams began to evolve,” she explains. “As visitors walk through the gardens they’ll observe the different personalities and different micro- climates of each of the gardens —each has been redesigned and the plantings have been researched to provide the best possible plants for each garden.” A wheelchair walk has also been added.

Falck and her colleagues are now working to document the plants that are present in each of the gardens and the care they will need. She says the hopes in restoring the gardens are threefold:

  • To provide a peaceful and welcoming place for veterans visiting or being treated at the Dayton VA Campus, including those with PTSD.
  • To provide a destination garden for the people of Dayton and beyond to rediscover and enjoy.
  • To provide an educational venue for gardeners: there is something in bloom from spring through fall.

Volunteer master gardener Sue Howorth of Kettering is primarily interested in native plants and says that as invasive plants such as honeysuckle and buckthorn were removed, a selection of native plants began to replace them: sumac, chokeberry, wild stonecrop and prairie drop seed that have been planted on the hillside in order to keep the hill stable.

“In the butterfly garden, we have planted host plants for the caterpillars and also nectar plants for the pollinators,” Howorth said. Many of the trees planted are also host plants for butterflies and moths.

“It is amazing to see the change from when we started and to get comments from folks who either are coming to the VA themselves or are visiting family members who are there,” says Howorth. “Many have said that it is therapeutic to come out a walk in the gardens now and we also have gotten many nice comments from the staff on how much they appreciate it.”

Collaboration is key

According to head master gardener Bob Neff, collaboration has been critical.

“The VA provides superb logistics support and funding for most landscape changes,” he explains. “The AVHC — which is also very much involved in the restoration of historic buildings on the VA campus and was largely responsible for the VA campus’s National Historic Landmark status — provides oversight of our efforts to ensure that the historical significance of the site is maintained. Master gardeners coordinate almost all landscape design and development.”

Being dedicated

Seven garden areas will be dedicated on Monday, all named in honor of individuals who were initially involved. Also included is a contemporary Medal of Honor recipient — the large purple heart garden is in memory of Joseph Guy LaPointe, Jr. Another is a Tranquility garden in memory of Emma Miller, the first matron of the Dayton Soldiers Home funded by a generous grant from the Four Seasons Garden Club.

Project funding

According to the VA’s Ted Froats, primary funding for the project came from the VA’s engineering budget: $865.23 in fiscal year 2013 and $2,368.62 in 2014.

“Engineering oversees all grounds maintenance/beautification projects on campus and funded the initial structural work, removal of the overgrowth, tree and bush removal, and the installation of a drainage system,” Froats explains. “They’ve also provided logistical support in the form of top soil, gravel, mulch, spraying , heavy equipment use, and the purchase of annuals, shrubs, plants, and horticultural products.”

The remainder of the project has been funded through donations and grants to the Master Gardeners’ Association for new trees, shrubs, perennials, a limestone path, limestone benches, signage, planters, and documentation. Donated plants from local nurseries or the master gardeners’ own gardens have added to the project as well.

Volunteer Jane Falck says she feels fortunate to work in the grotto gardens.

“It’s a very peaceful place, almost sacred,” Falck reflects. “I sometimes feel the presence of those men in Union uniforms and ladies with bustled dresses and parasols walking through the gardens with me in my muddy shoes and dirty hands.”

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