When Robin Macy first stumbled onto the then-closed Bartlett Arboretum in Belle Plaine while traveling from Dallas to Wichita in August 1997, one of the two things that struck her out of the midst of the overgrown vegetation and towering trees was a steamer trunk sitting on a porch with a Big Red One on the top.
Inside were doughboy pants and other World War I military regalia belonging to someone who had served in the Army’s 1st Infantry Division. They were things that were being cleared out as arboretum owner Mary Bartlett Gourlay prepared to sell the family place.
Macy ended up buying the arboretum, and this Sunday, in the midst of its renaissance, a victory garden honoring veterans will be dedicated. The memory of her first discoveries will be part of it: The doughboy pants had belonged to Glenn Bartlett, son of arboretum founder Walter Bartlett and the father of Mary Bartlett Gourlay. Glenn had served in the 1st Infantry Division in France during World War I, where he was exposed to gardens that led to him putting the formal stamp that is still on the arboretum today.
Now blackberries, strawberries, three kinds of peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, lettuce, potatoes and herbs are among the edibles growing inside the gates of an iron arbor emblazoned with the word VICTORY.
“We didn't have an edible garden,” Macy said of the 15 acres affectionately known as “the arb” that contain flower and shrub borders, a wildflower pasture, a great zoysia lawn, and still those formal gardens and towering trees. “So we're excited. It's a great nod to the past, and it honors those who tend and defend our great American soil.”
The dedication will feature a concert of patriotic music by the Winfield Municipal Band at 4 p.m., followed by a few speeches and a talk by arboretum volunteer, master gardener and veteran Jack Hezlep of Derby about planting edibles and flowers together. Gates open at 3 p.m., and food will be available for sale. Picnics are also welcome. Admission is $5.
One of the people who will speak at the dedication is Madeline Norland of Winfield. A memorial in honor of her late husband, Ken, who was a Marine veteran, provided seed money for the garden.
“Isn’t it just beautiful?” Norland said of the arboretum, heavily covered in colorful flowers with the arrival of summer weather this week. “I would say it’s a special time of year, but it’s a special time of year each season. It’s kind of a nice spot away from the rest of the world.”
Norland and her husband had spent a lot of time visiting that spot in the few years before his death in March 2013.
“It was a very sudden illness,” Madeline Norland said, “but it was evident that we needed to prepare, and he asked for a memorial to be set up for ... the arb, because he loved that place, and he knew the good it does for people to be in a space like that. ...
“Our son was a Marine also, and he died in 2010, so the garden is also a memorial to him as well.”
Even before Macy and Norland brainstormed ideas for Ken Norland’s memorial, Madeline said, “Robin had been talking around an idea of doing a victory garden, because it can be such an educational place for so many areas of study.” Victory gardens of produce were planted in the United States during World Wars I and II to take pressure off the national food supply and to boost morale of Americans. So Macy and Norland decided “we need to honor these men and women who have done so much for our country and so many of those of our friends are such good stewards of the land, and it’s so good to have those two come together,” Norland said.
Macy gets choked up talking about the garden. A plaque containing 15 or so names of veterans who also have given of themselves to the arboretum will be hung on the outside wall of the old Oxford depot that was moved to the arboretum two years ago at the bequest of Bill VanderWall, who served in Vietnam. The Veterans’ Victory Garden is on the south side of the depot.
“They’re people who have helped develop, restore or contribute to the renaissance of Barlett Arboretum who were also veterans,” Macy said of the names on the plaque. “My dad’s name is on it. And then Bob Gourlay, Mary’s husband. And Sean McKee. He was the Air Force officer who lived here for a year. He helped so much.” The veteran-arboretum connections spill on.
“Some are gone but not forgotten,” Macy said. “Some of them will be there physically” for the dedication.
Madeline Norland helped lay the Winfield stone for the four raised beds of the garden last summer, along with Macy and other volunteers. A small crop went into the beds last fall, and the beds are full of edibles now. Crape myrtle branches tied teepee-style with twine provide pretty natural cages for the tomatoes. Norland has painted and lettered aluminum plant tags from when the arboretum hosted an international iris festival in 1971 to mark each type of plant in the victory garden beds.
Jack Hezlep has gotten a small orchard growing opposite the victory garden as well, with trees from Hillside Nursery planted as bare roots in April, their heads now full of leaves.
Cooking classes will be held in the depot kitchen with the produce that is growing, and Macy hopes that if enough food is eventually grown, it can be donated to a local food bank and perhaps go from farm to table at Luciano’s restaurant in Mulvane.
“I’m anxious to see where it goes from here as far as teaching about sustainable living and making the most of this little spot we have on this earth,” Norland said of the victory garden. “There’s a lot of good that can come from it. It’s like the birth of a new baby over there. We’ll see how it grows. Robin has so many ideas. And it really is a gift for this area. I’m glad to see so many people gaining interest in visiting.”
If You Go
Veterans Victory Garden dedication
When: 4 p.m. Sunday, starting with a concert by the Winfield Municipal Band; gates open at 3 p.m.
Where: Bartlett Arboretum in Belle Plaine
How much: $5; children free