Bellingrath son, Walter Duncan, excelled as entrepreneur

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 19, 2011

Today’s column is a continuation of a review of the Bellingrath family. Walter Duncan Bellingrath was the youngest son of Leonard B. and Catherine Jean Bellingrath. Born in 1869 in Atlanta, he was only a few years old when his family moved the remote area of Castleberry, Alabama, during the early 1870s. Although the entire family was somewhat anxious about leaving their orderly lives in Georgia for an unsettled rural area, Walter and the other children soon came to enjoy the benefits of the surrounding woods and streams in the Conecuh County setting.

One of the main attractions in the new area for the family was the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. When the family located in Castleberry, there was only one house large enough to accommodate the family with eight children. They were able to make a trade with the Castleberry family who resided in the house to make it available to them. In 1883, Walter and his younger sister, Catherine Jean “Kate,” attended the “Castleberry Male and Female School,” so the next older brother, Will, must have been in a higher-level school. That year, Walter and Kate achieved a good academic report, but their mischievous nature earned them the lowest marks in deportment.

By age 16, Walter was seeking new adventure with an eye toward independence. Since the railroad seemed to offer the best opportunity, he decided on a career in railroading. His first venture was to get the local station agent to teach him telegraphy. Having a musical ear and a sense of rhythm, he quickly became proficient in operating the brass telegrapher’s key. Then came his first job as night telegraph operator at Brewton, a few miles down the L&N line from his home.

For the next several years he moved about the state in various railroad jobs. In 1889, he was night operator and ticket agent for the old Georgia Pacific Railroad, and then he was at another town as day operator and revising clerk for another railroad. His father’s death in 1892 occurred about the same time as Walter’s proud return to his home in Castleberry to become the agent for the L&N Railroad. He even rented a room in his old family home located near the tracks. He had two productive years in this job during which he worked long, challenging hours.

His next tenure was in rural Georgia, and then he was stationed at Jasper, Florida, later that year in 1894 to be the station agent. He was there three years during which he worked tirelessly and was able to help his mother and repay his father’s outstanding debts. In mid-1897, he moved to Montgomery, Alabama, to become a merchandise broker. He did well in this work until he decided to make a change in 1903 when his brother, Will’s, company in Anniston decided to close. Will came to Montgomery to join his brother, but the business would not support both of them.

Will had witnessed the popularity of the new soft drink, Coca-Cola, so he proposed to Walter that they secure the franchise for a bottling company in Montgomery. By June 1903, they had raised the money necessary to acquire the established business for about $5,000. In September they also acquired the franchise for Mobile for about $10,000. Will managed the one in Montgomery, and Walter moved to Mobile in 1906 to oversee that operation.

Although he did not like Mobile at first due to the weather and potential hurricanes, he worked endlessly to grow the business. He was approaching middle age and had sunk all his savings into this unproven business. He began with one mule, a wagon and a black helper to operate the primitive hand and foot-powered bottling machine. They were able to produce only a few cases each hour.

In 1906, at 35 years of age Walter was married to Bessie Mae Morse, who had been working with him as his stenographer.

The business grew rapidly during the next five years. In late 1911, the couple was able to purchase a new three-story house on South Ann Street, which was surrounded by a garden area and large oak and pecan trees.

Walter also expanded into the naval stores field as his father had. He was even able to create a sheet metal cup to replace the clay ones for collecting the pine rosin.

Unfortunately, a severe storm in 1916 did serious damage to his business and house where the roof was under repair at the time.

They rebounded, and Walter was elected president of the Chamber of Commerce the next year.

In 1919, he acquired financial control of another business, the Mobile Ornamental Tile Company. In the same year, he helped found a steamship line, but he later sold his 33 percent interest in the venture. Bess was enjoying their success and was buying antiques and collectibles for their home.

At the same time, Walter was acquiring acreage along Fowl River about 21 miles from Mobile. He set about creating a “get-a-way” site for much needed relaxation. He began by reconstructing the decaying houses on the property and named his property “Bell’s Camp.”

The clearing was a never-ending process since most of the land was a vine-entangled wilderness. Some of his accomplishments were to correct flooding problems and the poor water system, transforming a marshy millpond into a lake, planting a Satsuma orchard and establishing an appealing fishing camp. No one ever dreamed this camp would eventually become the beautiful gardens that it did.

During the 1920s, Walter’s invigorating work at Bell’s Camp motivated him even further in his business adventures. He advanced his young tile business, helped start a new newspaper, The Mobile Press, and maintained his bottling business. When his mother died in 1922 at the age of 89 years, he donated funds for a Christian education scholarship in memory of his father, which he knew his mother would deeply appreciate. He had faithfully seen to his mother’s well being throughout her years as a widow.

With all his business endeavors prospering, Walter developed an even greater interest in his campsite and its further development. Bess’s interests in their house and Walter’s camp were growing, so the process of their future with what would become Bellingrath Gardens is a remarkable story. That will be the topic of next week’s column.

The source for this writing was Sue Bass Wilson’s personal copy of a rare book, Mister Bell—A Life Story of Walter D. Bellingrath by Howard Barney. Mrs. Wilson purchased the copy at the Bellingrath Gardens Gift Shop and was told it is the only publication devoted to the history of this famous family.

Anyone with questions related to this writing or additional information on the Bellingrath family or Bellingrath Gardens is requested to contact Curtis Thomasson at 20357 Blake Pruitt Road, Andalusia, AL 36420; 334-222-6467; or e-mail: