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Alabama gardens started by ‘Castleberry’s most honored son’

The grounds of Bellingrath Gardens are awash in color. Courtesy photo

Last week’s column was devoted to the life and successes of Walter Duncan Bellingrath. Walter was born in 1869 in Atlanta and died in 1955 in Mobile, two days after his 86th birthday. His most noble achievement and contribution to his community was the creation of the world-famous Bellingrath Gardens in Mobile.

Walter eventually settled permanently in Mobile, where he built several successful businesses. With this growing prosperity he began to purchase acreage along the Fowl River, which was only 21 miles out of town. The sites including a few small houses were in a neglected state of condition and repair. Walter decided he would develop some type fishing camp, which he decided to call “Bell’s Camp.”

The land was basically a vine-entangled wilderness, and the process of reclaiming it was a never-ending project. The water system was very poor, and frequent flooding was common. He was able to correct the problems as well as transform the marshy millpond into an attractive small lake. He had the property prepared enough that he could invite visitors for the first time by Jan. 1, 1919. Walter was 50 years old at this time.

When his mother died in 1922, Walter was 53 years old. To honor his mother he donated funds for a Christian education scholarship in the name of his father. About this time he was able to start a new newspaper, The Mobile Press. He also became more interested in “Bell’s Camp.”

He and his wife, Bess, traveled widely to locate and purchase large camellia and azalea specimens for their emerging garden at the campsite. They also toured throughout the United States to observe and study various gardens to gain ideas for their own.

Beginn-ing in 1927, Walter and Bess began to travel abroad to Europe to add to their collections of porcelain, furniture, silver, etc. They also engaged a professional gardener and developed an overall plan for the beautification of their private estate. With an interest in someday preparing a residential showcase for their prized possessions, they retained the services of a notable architect to refine their ideas as well as add his own style.

When the financial market crashed in 1929, Walter’s businesses were hit hard. He had to close the tile company, but he was able to rebound by using the building for storing cotton. This endeavor became the Mobile Warehousing Co. and Walter’s fourth successful business adventure.

On April 7, 1932, the Bellingraths invited the public to share in the beauty of their Bell Camp Gardens. About a year later in February 1933, Walter posted an advertisement inviting visitors to the new Bellingrath Gardens for a 50 cents charge. He used all his business skills in promoting that everyone “see” the Gardens. At this point there was an evident need for a residential building of comparable beauty.

For designing this house, Architect George Rogers was once again retained. With a goal of keeping a strong Gulf Coast flavor in the gardens and in the house, Rogers subtly blended the cultures of several countries. Work on the resulting 15-room mansion was begun in 1935. The brick used were salvaged from a Mobile motel, which was built before the War Between the States.

After about a year of construction work, the first meal served in the house was in July 1936. After another six months, Walton and Bess finally moved completely to the new house. From the very beginning, Bess had the house including the meals and all services maintained impeccably.

In 1940, the successful Walter Bellingrath was named a director of the state’s oldest bank, The First National. He also expanded his Coca-Cola business in Mobile and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. He became a dominant figure in Community Chest (United Fund) and Young Men’s Christian Association work. He was often recognized as “One of the community’s most influential and respected citizens.”

In 1942, Bess began to develop health issues, which required she undergo surgery in New Orleans.

Walter took her to Hot Springs, Ark., along with her sister, so she could benefit from the hot baths. Unfortunately she died a short time later on Feb. 15, 1943, at the age of 64 years. As she had requested, she was buried beside her parents and other relatives. Her death left Walter alone at the age of 74 years.

On Aug. 6, 1945, a grand celebration was staged to honor Walter on his 80th birthday.

There was open house at the gardens with free admission for everyone. Walter was especially delighted to see a Conecuh County School bus loaded with students pull into the parking area. He knew they had traveled at least 100 miles to remember and honor him. He could be regarded as “Castleberry’s most honored son.”

Walter was also known as a “No. 1 Mobilian” and was top of the list in the field of public service. A columnist of the day acclaimed him with: “Mobile is proud of your accomplishments, Mr. Bellingrath. She is proud, too, of your outstanding record in civic affairs. And she is proud to be the site of the world-famous Bellingrath Gardens, which have spread Mobile’s name to the four and farthest corners of the earth.”

A letter from an associate, Dorothy Dix, a popular columnist, was a particular pleasure. Miss Dix who had visited the gardens on several occasions, wrote in her own handwriting: “I consider Mr. Bellingrath a prince among men and nothing would give me more pleasure than to lay my tribute at this feet on his birthday, but unfortunately for me I am in such poor health that I am not able to make the long, hot trip to even his beautiful garden, which is the greatest approach to heaven that any mortal man has ever devised.”

During the celebration free refreshments, including Coca-Cola of course, attracted about as much interest as the beautiful summer foliage and blossoms.

A joyous mood was expressed by the estimated 18,000 who attended the occasion. Walter was most pleased to have his sister, Kate who was only three years his junior, standing by his side.

One of those speaking publicly was his long-time friend, Judge Ben Turner, who later assisted him in crating the Bellingrath-Morse Foundation to assure the operation of the gardens in perpetuity.

A few years later in 1951, Southeastern College, Memphis, Tennessee, awarded Walter with an honorary L.M.D. degree. He continued involvement in his many business and community interests, especially the gardens, until his death on Aug. 8, 1955, just two days after his 86th birthday. He died peacefully shortly after having asked for the attendance figures of that year’s birthday Open House at the gardens.

His death occurred in the Mobile Infirmary to which he had awarded $25,000 toward its construction. This seemed to be such a fitting close to a most successful life.

The book, Mister Bell — A Life Story of Walter D. Bellingrath by Howard Barney was the source for today’s writing. Anyone who might have additional information on this family is requested to contact Curtis Thomasson at 20357 Blake Pruitt Road, Andalusia, AL 36420; 334-222-6467; or email: cthomasson@centurytel.net.

GENEALOGY SEMINAR: The Alabama Genealogical Society is sponsoring a seminar on Sat., April 16, from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Samford University in Birmingham. “Disappearing Ancestors” will be presented by Dr. Thomas W. Jones, former editor of National Genealogical Society Quarterly. His research covers every state east of Mississippi as well as England, France, Germany, Italy, Ireland and Wales. He specializes in Georgia and Virginia.

The following topics will be covered: Solving the Mystery of the Disappearing Ancestor; Five Ways to Prove Who Your Ancestors Were, Going Beyond the Bare Bones: Reconstructing Your Ancestors’ Lives, and Finding Unfindable Ancestors. Fees are $40 for non-members and $35 for members. Lunch on your own.

HISTORICAL MEETING: The Covington Historical Society will be meeting at 7 p.m. on Thurs., March 28, in the Dixon Memorial Room of the Andalusia Public Library. Guests and those interested in becoming members are cordially invited to attend.