July 2017
Homeplace & Community

The Romance of the Unusual

Step inside the enchanting beauty of Jasmine Hill Gardens and Fitzpatrick Cottage.

 

Delightful statues and flowers appeal to visitors of all ages at Jasmine Hill Gardens.

The mesmerizing lull of Ernest Hemingway’s quote, "Live a full life of the mind, exhilarated by new ideas, intoxicated by the romance of the unusual," aptly depicts the noble lives led by Southern visionaries Benjamin and Mary Fitzpatrick, whose vivid world teemed with impeccable charm and grace, friendship, culture, world travels, Grecian and Roman art, horticulture and an insatiable intellectual curiosity, as well as the cornerstones of their profound legacy, Jasmine Hill Gardens and the Fitzpatrick Cottage.

The aforementioned Hemingway quote also correlates with the essence of a Sunday in the South. I believe Sundays in the South are filled with more magic, possibility, wonder and adventure than most dare to dream.

On Sunday, March 28, the type of day perfect for an afternoon stroll or a drive in the country, I ventured along a picturesque route to Jasmine Hill Gardens, a Southern mecca that has captivated minds worldwide with its wonders, for a highly anticipated and rare event – a tour of the Fitzpatrick Cottage.

On a typical visit to Jasmine Hill Gardens, visitors transcend time through a Grecian- and Roman-inspired portal bursting with enchanted beauty tenderly cultivated by diligent and loving green thumbs and witness such architectural feats as the world’s only full-scale reproduction of the ruins of the Temple of Hera.

It is not unusual for intrigued visitors to peek into the windows of the normally closed 1830s-era resident cottage with the nostalgic hope of catching a glimpse of the life Ben and Mary once lived.

Jim Inscoe, who owns Jasmine Hill Gardens with his wife Elmore, sits at a vintage table in the Fitzpatrick Cottage.

 

 

 

 

 

Little did I know that, on the day I took the Fitzpatrick Cottage tour, I would stumble upon one of the greatest love stories I have personally encountered; a love so seemingly simple and pure, yet as stirring as the sweet scent of the iconic jasmines adored by the Fitzpatricks.

Enclosed in a frame, smack-dab on the right side of the wall in the inviting cottage foyer entrance scrawled in old-fashioned pretty cursive on stationery inscribed with Ben Fitzpatrick’s signature logo of a huntsman surrounded by his two loyal hounds under two trees, gently rests the best love letter I have ever read.

Dated Nov. 12, 1965, the letter reads:

"To my sweetheart of 80 years:

You see, I remember when you were born across the street cause I was 2 years old and you just a little old girl baby. There was a lot of commotion and excitement about your entry into our neighborhood. Then I watched you grow tall, and most divinely fair and we married.

Since then, you have been My Guiding Star for Fifty-Eight Blessed Years.

Love, Ben"

Once inside the cottage, my curious sense of wonder and desire to learn more whisked me literally off my feet onto a seat at a comfortingly familiar, understated, round, vintage table on flooring purposely painted the blue of the Aegean Sea, where I drank coke kindly poured on top of just the right amount of ice in a humble plastic cup provided by my new acquaintance, Jim Inscoe, who owns Jasmine Hill Gardens and the Fitzpatrick Cottage with his lovely wife Elmore. Eagerly, I picked up fascinating tidbits of information about Greek history, art and anecdotes about Ben and Mary.

"They loved the Aegean Sea," Inscoe explained. "They always thought the Aegean Sea was a pretty blue, so they painted the floors blue to remind them of it. They painted the walls white because all the houses are whitewashed on the coastline of the Aegean Islands."

Ben married his childhood sweetheart, the former Mary Johnson Mapes, a schoolteacher, in 1907 after graduating from Yale, where he studied Greek Mythology and History.

 

When visitors gaze upon the interior of the Fitzpatrick Cottage, they imagine the charm-filled lives the Fitzpatricks enjoyed.

The couple sold their line of mercantile stores in 1927 before making the land they developed into Jasmine Hill Gardens their home. Many of their relatives came to live with them during the Great Depression.

"If any neighbor couldn’t make it (during the Great Depression), he would buy their house or their land if it adjoined his; so he was able to assemble a nice farm," Inscoe said.

The Fitzpatricks traveled to Greece 22 times to select the perfect pieces of art and statues for Jasmine Hill Gardens. They studied at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens and participated in archaeological digs.

"People always said they were not fancy people at all. They were very down-to-earth in the way they dressed, in the way they were friendly with people and didn’t put on any of the airs," he relayed. "They were not fancy people at all. They just liked to mingle and be friendly with everybody. They always invited people to come in and see the garden as it was being built."

When it came to the rich botanical aspect of their property, Mary cultivated what she called a "grandmother’s garden."

"In a grandmother’s garden, people feel free to touch the plants and other things there," Inscoe explained. "Most public gardens in the country are more of a display garden. They’ve got flowers blooming and put them on display.

"She wanted the grandmother’s feel, more of an informal look, and you feel comfortable touching the plants and everything."

While still at the table, Inscoe pointed to some of the vegetation outside.

"You see the longleaf pines on that walk?" he asked. "Ben planted those pines for a purpose. In Olympia, when there’s the slightest breeze blowing, you hear a ‘whoooosh,’ a whoosh sort of sound running through the area. Mediterranean pines are shorter and their needles are short. It doesn’t take much breeze to make that whooshing sound. He planted the longleaf pines thinking he would get that same sound here with the temple of ruins and create the same atmosphere. As big as they are now, it takes a pretty strong breeze. There’s enough breeze today to be able to hear it."

Inscoe reminisced on meeting Mary.

"The way I met her was going through the garden," he recalled. "She came out and introduced herself and we started talking. On a later visit, she invited us in to have a Coca Cola with her."

Inscoe served as caretaker for Jasmine Hill Gardens before becoming the owner.

"I grew up on a farm, so I knew something about growing plants," he said. "When I was a teenager, I made my spending money by growing plants. I sold them to nurseries on a wholesale basis for them to sell. That was in the days before we had plastic pots for plants. We grew them in the ground; then had to dig them and put them in burlap to take to the nursery. There was a lot of work involved."

Among the stories Inscoe imparted was an anecdote concerning Mary and a grape arbor.

Jim Inscoe imparts knowledge about a flower of the snapdragon variety. He demonstrates how snapdragons reveal a tiny dragon face upon closer inspection.

 

"There was a very overgrown grape arbor and it needed attention. She asked, ‘What do you think we should do with our grape arbor?’ I replied, ‘I know nothing about grapes. I’ll contact the Horticulture School at Auburn and see what they recommend.’"

An Auburn University professor offered to take on the grape arbor as a classroom project to teach his students how to properly prune grapes.

Inscoe informed Mary of the Auburn professor’s offer, yet for weeks she continued to ask his opinion on what they should do with the grape arbor.

Until one day, she finally said, "I know you think I’m crazy because I’ve asked you over and over what we should do with the grape arbor, but you haven’t given me the right answer yet."

Long story short, Mary firmly believed they should remove the grape arbor.

"She said, ‘We came here the first time in February and all the Carolina jessamine was blooming up in the trees. It was so pretty that we named it Jasmine Hill and it needs to become a Carolina jessamine garden,’" Inscoe relayed. "So that afternoon, those grapes were pulled up with a tractor. We found Carolina jasmine to put in there. It covered the hill pretty well. The weird thing about it is that, the winter before she died, we had really cold weather and it didn’t bloom in February the way it was supposed to. In October, it went into full bloom when she died, and we were able to cover her casket with Carolina jessamine from the farm."

Jasmine Hill Gardens is located on U.S. Route 231 near Wetumpka, north of Montgomery. Their address is 3001 Jasmine Hill Rd, Wetumpka, AL 36093. They are open to the public Fridays and Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays, noon to 5 p.m.; an admission fee is charged. For more information, you can contact them at 334-567-6463 or visit their website, www.jasminehill.org.

 

Jade Currid is a freelance writer from Auburn.