By Dr. F. Todd Lasseigne Executive Director To me, one of the joys of visitors…
By Tom McGehee, Museum Director of the Bellingrath Home
Eighty-four years ago, Walter and Bessie Bellingrath took out an advertisement in the Mobile Press Register to invite the public to come and see their gardens along the Fowl River. That invitation led to the biggest traffic jam in south Mobile County on April 7, 1932, when 4,700 people navigated the rustic journey to “Belle Camp.”
The Bellingraths had been landscaping and making improvements at the former Lisloy fishing camp since 1919, when Walter Bellingrath purchased the property as a weekend retreat. At the time, neither of the Bellingraths envisioned Belle Camp as a garden. “I built my camp because I wanted a place to lie down with my feet on the sofa,” Walter Bellingrath said, according to Howard Barney, author of “Mister Bell: A Life Story of Walter D. Bellingrath.”
Bessie Bellingrath had become an avid gardener since 1911, when the couple purchased their new, three-story home in Mobile on South Ann Street (the current location of the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church of Mobile). She created beautiful landscapes and flower beds on the spacious grounds, and visitors were welcome to walk or drive through these gardens to see her azaleas and camellias. When her husband began spending weekends at Belle Camp, Miss Bessie bought plants and shrubs to improve the look of the rustic property.
In 1927, the couple took a trip to Europe and were inspired by the lavish gardens there. Soon after their return, they hired renowned architect George B. Rogers to design the landscape at Belle Camp. Rogers’ innovations included creating a cascading fountain from an artesian well, and converting a water-eroded ravine next to Mirror Lake into “The Rockery,” interspersed with ferns, mossy plants and fountains.
“He refined Mrs. Bellingrath’s rough ideas, added many of his own, and major sections of forestland were magically transformed within a few years into both formal and natural garden areas,” Barney wrote.
In the 1930s, Barney noted, Mobilians had begun to use and appreciate one of the area’s richest natural resources: acid soil, an essential component for the abundant growth of azaleas and camellias. “The community became increasingly conscious of the multi-colored flowers and their ornamental value. And the formation, a few years earlier, of the Azalea Trail organization also stimulated widespread planting of the shrubs to help develop the city’s tourist industry,” Barney wrote in “Mister Bell.”
“While the gardens on Fowl River were beyond the reach of the Trail, Mr. and Mrs. Bellingrath were ardent supporters of the project and its sponsors, the Mobile Junior Chamber of Commerce. Because of this general interest in floral beauty, the introduction of Belle Camp gardens to the public was well-timed,” Barney wrote.
Word spread of the Gardens’ beauty and size, and more and more visitors made the lengthy journey over the unpaved roads down to Belle Camp to see for themselves. The increasing interest led the Bellingraths to extend a general invitation to the public to come and view the spring blooms on April 7, 1932.
They were stunned by the overwhelming response. Thousands of visitors strolled along the shaded paths and took in the views along the river. Sheriffs’ deputies were called in to assist with traffic flow for hundreds of Packards, Lincolns, Model A’s and Chevies, Barney wrote. Life at the Bellingraths’ quiet retreat would never be the same.
The excitement of that “open house” led the couple to their decision in 1934 to keep the Gardens open year-round, charging a small entrance fee. A 1949 Mobile Press Register article noted that the Gardens had attracted more than 100,000 visitors a year for the past 10 years.
In 2016, Gulf Coast residents and visitors alike continue to enjoy the legacy of Walter and Bessie Bellingrath, who generously shared their beautiful Gardens with the world.
Sources: “Mister Bell: A Life Story of Walter D. Bellingrath,” by Howard Barney
Mobile Press Register article on Walter Bellingrath’s 80th birthday, Aug. 7, 1949