Do you have a special place to picnic? Beman Dawes and his family did.
The Dawes family packed their picnic basket for excursions to a favorite wooded spot near Newark, Ohio. When they noticed lumbermen preparing to cut down some large trees there one day in 1917, Mr. Dawes approached the Brumback family, owners of the land, to purchase 140 acres of their “Woodland.”
Born and raised in Marietta, Ohio in 1870, Dawes served two terms in Congress, then returned to Ohio to become a leader in the gas and petroleum industry. He presided over Pure Oil Company, known for its blue-and-white English-cottage gas stations. He, his wife, Bertie, and their five children lived on East Broad Street in Columbus, but also spent time at their homes on Jupiter Island, Florida and in Canada. “Daweswood” was their family retreat where they pursued their horticultural interests.
In the years that followed, the Dawes family planted over 50,000 trees on the grounds that they christened “Daweswood” and acquired additional neighboring farmland. In 1929, they established an arboretum for public pleasure and education that would preserve trees native to central Ohio, collect and study trees from all over the world, and inspire people to plant trees.
Today, Dawes Arboretum is the place to go to admire conifers, beeches, oaks, buckeyes, redwoods, magnolias and more. Its collection includes nearly 5,000 different kinds of woody plants. It keeps records on more than 30,000 individual plants, occasionally selecting, naming and introducing new cultivars of plants like “Dawes Emerald Tiger,” an ornamental tree with green-and-white-striped bark and yellow flowers, and “Silver Ghost,” an evergreen conifer. It works with the United States Department of Agriculture and the Ohio State University on tree trials and identifying tree species and diseases. Its attractions include a Japanese garden, woodlands, a 12-acre freshwater lake, a cypress swamp, a log cabin where maple syrup is made in the spring, and an heirloom apple orchard planted on the spot where Mrs. Dawes planted her orchard in 1926. Its most noteworthy feature is a 2,660-foot-long planting of American arborvitae spelling out “DAWES ARBORETUM.” Designed by Mr. Dawes, each individual letter measures up to 147 feet wide and 186 feet high.
I’ve been visiting Dawes Arboretum for decades, but by far my best visit there was for “100 Years in Bertie’s Garden,” a recent program honoring the 100th anniversary of the garden Mrs. Dawes planted at Daweswood House.
When the Dawes family purchased the farm, they also acquired its circa-1867 Italianate-style brick farmhouse.
In 1928, they added a Colonial Revival-style porch and a first-floor bedroom and studio for Mrs. Dawes.
The home’s most unique feature may be the “Rathskeller.” Its ceiling bears the initials or signatures of over 100 notable people who have planted trees honoring them at the arboretum. The tradition began in 1927 with Ohio Governor James M. Cox; others include Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens (1973), John Glenn (1968), The Columbus Dispatch cartoonist Billy Ireland (1928) and explorer-author Osa Johnson (1940).
But everywhere else, the home is a showplace for the interests of Mrs. Dawes, a self-taught naturalist who collected shells, peacock representations and butterfly specimens. A hummingbird nest she found on the Daweswood grounds is displayed under a glass cloche. Bedspreads she crocheted cover the beds. Pink and blue, her favorite colors, are featured in the home’s decor.
Gardening was another favorite hobby. In 1917, Mrs. Dawes designed a garden northwest of the house, featuring her favorite annual and perennial flowers. Other features of the garden include a decorative well and retaining wall, both made of stone.
Mrs. Dawes documented in journals what she planted in her garden, how much it cost, how well the plants did, and other anecdotes about their progress. She described planting roses in circular patterns, tulips by the stone retaining wall, and hollyhocks by the Brumbaughs’ smokehouse that she used as a gardening shed. She also recorded some of her gardening rules, such as letting things grow where they want to, not where you want them to, and that you should be able to enjoy your garden from every room in your house.
Those journals, together with archival photographs of the garden, informed landscape architect Laura Burchfield’s renovation of the “Bertie-inspired” garden in 2014. Burchfield’s creation includes tulips, roses, hyacinths, peonies, daisies and lilies.
There are even an herb garden and a Victory Garden, which provided fresh produce for families during wartime, when the majority of commercially grown fruits and vegetables were shipped overseas to troops. Signage gives the plants’ common and scientific names.
Bertie’s Garden is reminiscent of a “grandmother’s garden,” a Victorian-era garden in which plants cherished for their fragrance and beauty — such as peonies, lilies and roses — were selected for their picturesque effect and sentimental associations.
After Leslie Wagner, the arboretum’s historian, shared archival photographs and journal entries about the garden, we snacked on floral-decorated cupcakes and lemonade, then toured the garden with Dawes granddaughters Mary Jane Dawes Bolon and Debby Dawes Fortkamp.
If you’d like to create your own version of a Bertie-inspired garden, check out American Home Landscapes: A Design Guide to Creating Period Garden Styles, by Denise Wiles Adams and Laura L.S. Burchfield. From architecture styles and landscape design to case studies and plant lists, it describes how to plan an authentic landscape for a house of any age.
Special events like weddings and teas are proving to be popular at Bertie’s Garden, but you can also stop by during regular visits to Dawes Arboretum. Guided tours of Daweswood House and its adjacent museum, are available on weekends from 12:00-1:00 p.m. and 2:00-3:00 p.m., March through October, for a nominal fee. Take a tour of the house on Saturday, July 29 and my fellow gym-goer Brian Gregory will be your guide.