In 24 days, Fort Smith will observe its 199th birthday as a western frontier military post established along the Arkansas River on Christmas Day (1817), so a glimpse into the past seems appropriate. And, of course, that glimpse is gardening “back then.”
Even in days on the frontier, soldiers supplemented their rations by growing vegetables and even raising livestock. So, along with tents and later barracks, there were gardens inside the walls of those early forts.
Today, unique heirloom gardens on both sides of the Arkansas River have been recreated and are thriving:
• A vegetable garden called the Officers’ Wives Garden is located at the Fort Smith National Historic Site and;
• A Victorian flower garden at the Drennen-Scott House in Van Buren.
Both are maintained by Master Gardeners and feature the types of plants that would have been grown back then.
At the Fort Smith National Historic Site, a garden that would have been part of the second Fort Smith period showcasing 1860s plants and seeds along with gardening techniques was re-created in 2009. Members of Girls Inc. were the first to plant and maintain the garden, coordinated by Tina Coker, who was also a Master Gardener. They wore period costumes, similar to those of the original wives and children who tended the gardens in the 1860s.
This garden received national recognition and has been part of the historic site since.
Currently, the garden — surrounded by a white picket fence — showcases favorite vegetables, herbs and fruits of that bygone era, but are still popular today. Examples are grapes, tomatoes, green beans, corn, etc.
The online site onlyinyourstate.com lists the Officers’ Wives Garden among 12 elite Arkansas gardens that include Botanical Garden of the Ozarks (Fayetteville), State Capitol Rose Garden (Little Rock), Garvin Gardens (Hot Springs), Compton Gardens (Bentonvile) and Blue Springs Gardens (Eureka Springs).
Ironically, there might not have been a second Fort Smith if President Zachary Taylor had not died unexpectedly. Gen. Taylor, who lived in Fort Smith as commander of the Army’s Western Military Division in the 1840s, had concerns about the need for and the cost of construction of a second fort. During his term as president and immediately prior to his death in 1850, he ordered the deactivation of Fort Smith. This order was delayed and then later reversed.
Although fire destroyed the Taylor home, remains of the chimney are still located near Immaculate Conception Church at the east end of Garrison Avenue. (Interesting details of Taylor’s military service here and other facts can be found in Billy Higgins’ book, “Fort Smith — Vanguard of Western Frontier History,” available at the National Historic Site.)
Closely tied to Taylor’s local history is the Drennen-Scott Home. During his tenure here, Gen. Taylor appointed John Drennen to become the Choctaw agent. Drennen conducted agency business out of a room in his home, which overlooked downtown Van Buren and the Arkansas River.
Incidentally, did you know that Fort Smith was located in Crawford County until 1851? Sebastian County was Arkansas’ 56th county — created from parts of Crawford, Polk and Scott counties. And while the second fort was under construction in Fort Smith, John Drennen was building his home in Van Buren.
The Drennen-Scott historic garden was reproduced with the help of Caroline Bercher, Master Gardener and a fifth generation descendant of John Drennen.
Although she had only a few blurry photos, Caroline worked with the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith staff to recreate a flower garden of that era, complete with Sarah Bernhardt peonies, Easter lilies, iris, jonquils and hollyhocks, plus a climbing rose that is not original to the garden.
Owned and operated by the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, the Drennen-Scott House is a museum and working laboratory for historical interpretation. It is open to the public.
And while Master Gardeners have put both gardens to bed for the winter, expect to see beautiful, historic flowers and vegetables come spring.
Gardening is all about sharing — sharing knowledge, sharing stories, sharing plants. So when I heard from Betty Lou Riley, I knew I had to share her story, which was accompanied by a photo of a beautiful butterfly bush.
She says the plant volunteered in a field at the edge of her property and the highway right-of-way.
“Yellow butterfly plants are rather rare, and since it was so pretty, I petted it along. I tied a plastic bag over it and sprayed around it with Roundup to kill the weeds. It is really a beautiful, wild plant. My neighbor and I watched it grow and bloom and every time we drove past, we looked at it.
“It was in full bloom when a friend invited me and my sister to a special activity at her church. We went. As we drove home, I saw — to my horror — that my beautiful plant was gone. Someone had pulled it up by the roots and taken it with them. I told my neighbor, ‘Those can’t be easily transplanted. It won’t live.’ She replied, ‘Let’s hope not'!”
Let’s hope a bit of root or a seed remained in the soil and that Mother Nature will bring Betty a surprise next spring.
Betty learned years ago about butterfly bushes when her sister had a scrawny plant that had “ugly worms” eating it. “I pulled them off, but others kept coming,” she recalled. “Later, we learned those ugly worms were the caterpillars that turned into beautiful butterflies.”
Removal of wildflowers is illegal and the U.S. Forest Service reminds: “Remember, respect and protect wildflowers and their habitats; leave only footprints, and take only memories and photos so that future generations may enjoy our precious natural heritage.”
Next week, the topic will be bringing living beauty indoors.
Lucy Fry of Fort Smith is a level 4 Master Gardener and writes the area Master Gardener newsletter. Her column, Gardening for the Record, runs weekly in the Times Record. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.