Athens Facility Offers Gardens, Botanical Classes And Farmhouse Museum
By BETTY WATERS
ATHENS -- Down a narrow country road and almost out of sight is a place of beauty that Bobby Hill describes as "a hidden jewel in East Texas."
Hill is amazed that many people do not know that the East Texas Arboretum sits inside the loop around northwest Athens, and so many say they've been meaning to go but haven't made it.
"This is one of the best attractions we've got in East Texas," said Hill, a board member and volunteer worker.
Sprawling more than 100 acres, the arboretum beckons with lush botanical gardens, rolling hills, a grove and a forest. Its historical side is reflected in a restored farmhouse museum, corn crib, two-stall milking barn and working windmill, all dating to the 1800s.
Adding to the historical aspect are displays of antique farm implements and a replica of an 1800s one-room little red schoolhouse that fronts on a children's play area, butterfly gardens, sand play area and a slide built into a hill. The school house has no air conditioning. In a corner is a pot-bellied stove for heating.
Three footbridges span a creek running through the woods. A 115-foot suspension foot bridge, designed by an engineer and modeled after the Golden Gate Bridge, connects about two miles of trails for hiking, nature study and casual walking through a forest where wildlife roam and birds flit among the trees. An overlook along the trails gives a view of a wet bog.
In another section, an East Texas Beekeepers Association exhibit allows the curious to see thousands of busy bees inside an enclosed hive. There are bat houses nearby.
Modern buildings, a pavilion and courtyard accommodate weddings, receptions, parties, reunions, concerts, club and other organizational meetings and events.
Sculptures adorn flower beds and the landscaped, well-manicured grounds, which also are dotted with picnic tables and benches, a gazebo, arbor, a meandering decorative pond and winding sidewalks.
Teresa Glasgow, director, said, "The arboretum is very unique in that we combine horticulture with history, education and entertainment. There's nothing that can turn you off at the arboretum."
Education is an arboretum mission. The opportunity to study nature attracts school-age groups and some preschool age children. College classes also come, some for biology research, sometimes for art student projects or for photography students to snap images of the picturesque scene.
Public and private area schools often make educational field trips to the arboretum. In a year's time, a couple of thousand students come from across Henderson County and a half dozen or so other counties, including Anderson and Smith. In addition, home schooled children, day care center youngsters and Scouts come, some from Dallas.
Retired educators present about two hours of instruction on a variety of educational topics for visiting groups on a field trip to the arboretum and conduct summer week-long day camps for kindergarten through fifth-grade youngsters. There's a charge for the camps but no charge for the field trips, which must be scheduled in advance.
"We talk about the different trees we have and point them out ... evergreens and deciduous trees. We talk about patterns on the trees," Linda Kenneaster, education director. said. "We talk about different flowers and wildlife and how bees and bugs interact with the flowers. We talk about Smoky Bear and foresters. There's plenty with can do with them."
For younger students, she starts with a puppet show about things in nature. For sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade science classes, the lessons focus on ecology and environment. For example, as youngsters pass a beaver's dam along a trail, the educators talk about how beavers change the environment.
They put live ladybugs in a container that has magnifying glass, read ladybug stories and have a ladybug release.
"We don't do all these with everyone. I design (the lessons) for what teachers want when they call (to schedule a field trip)," Ms. Kenneaster said.
Workshops conducted by master gardeners and the director draw adults. The master gardeners also have a separate garden that is like an experimental garden.
The arboretum periodically stages entertainment for visitors. Up-and-coming Austin musicians and singers often perform at "First Friday Concerts" in September, October and November. Crowds gather on the lawn with their own folding chairs or blankets. The arboretum's motto is: "Athens, where Austin comes to play."
In a cultural exchange, New Zealand singer, songwriter and adventurer Kimball Brisco Johnson brought a nine-piece band, and the arboretum hosted an exhibit of Shona stone artists from Zimbabwe.
The arboretum sponsors a black-eyed pea chili cook-off reminiscent of the days when Athens claimed to be the black-eyed pea capital of the world. It also hosts two typical East Texas festivals -- the spring gala on the first Saturday of May and a fall festival on the second Saturday in October.
The arboretum's many features make it an attraction worth visiting year-round, but a variety of colorful flowers are at their peak in spring, summer or fall.
Newcomers who moved to East Texas come to the arboretum to see what flora flourishes in East Texas in order to know what to plant in their yard.
Or, for anyone looking for a serene and relaxing get-away, the arboretum is the place to go. One of its themes is "get into the great outdoors."
"What I like most about it is its beauty, its peacefulness and happiness," Adele Basye of Athens said as she watched over her granddaughter playing at the arboretum.
"We both love it here and come periodically. We have picnics here. We enjoy the flowers, and we meet people here. It's a real nice, family place to come," Ms. Basye added.
On a sunny day, Whitney Warren brought her son, Kaison Walker, the first boy in the family in 55 years, to pose the child against the arboretum's scenic backdrop for his 1-year-old picture.
"A lot of people are under the assumption we are a city or state park and we are not," Ms. Glasgow said.
The East Texas Arboretum and Botanical Society is a nonprofit organization incorporated in 1991.
Operations and development costs are footed mainly with funds from rentals, donations, grants, fundraising events and memberships.
The only government funds spent at the park is federal grants channeled through the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for trails and a stipend from a local hotel-motel tax earmarked primarily for marketing and advertising.
The arboretum was the dream of a few visionaries, a history states, but in the beginning the organization had no funds, no assets and few members.
Founding board members were Doug Tanner, Jeff Huggstutler, Margie Ditmar, Lois Magness, Theo Daniel and Sam Hurley. As the first board president, Tanner accepted the challenge of leading the effort.
They considered several pieces of land before purchasing a tract on Patterson Road for $91,840, Tanner said. For ease of accessibility, that site was selected partly because of its proximity to U.S. Highway 175 and Loop 7 around Athens, he recalled.
Most of the funds were lent by two major banks in Athens at that time, First National Bank and First State Bank. Several years later, the banks wrote off the notes, remembers Bob McDonald, a board member.
In the early years and continuing today, much of the donated funding that helps support the arboretum has come from banks, the Cain Foundation and the Murchison Foundation.
After it was acquired, the land sat idle for a few years, except for a general cleanup that was the only sign of what was in the offing, McDonald said. Initially, the drive to turn the site into an arboretum struggled. Board members would take money out of their pocket to buy stamps.
"Fortunately, we had some very good board members and people that wanted something good to happen in the City of Athens to enhance the surroundings and to blossom and to be beautiful," Tanner said.
Some businesses got involved and were "very generous and supported it handsomely," he added.
"One thing led to another," Tanner said. "One person would suggest this and another would suggest that. It mushroomed. This would never have happened if it hadn't been for the love and generosity and the desire of the people here to make it happen for the families in this whole area and people who come to visit here."
Among the first structures built was a homemade footbridge constructed in the woods in December 1996 and named Two Doug Bridge after the two guys who built it, both named Doug. Two more bridges followed along trails through the woods and work started on the hill or front of the arboretum property.
A magnolia tree near the entrance was the first thing planted, and nearby is a decorative pond bordered by gardens.
A large pavilion was built next, followed by an office and education building in 2000.
In 2001, the Bushrod W.J. Wofford home, reputedly the oldest house left standing in Henderson County, was moved from its original site in Thincastle about 20 miles east of Athens to the arboretum and restored. It is furnished with 1850s-era furniture and pieces. In back are a garden and an outhouse.
In about 2002 or 2003, an extension doubled the trail system from one to two miles, and the suspension foot bridge was built over a creek channel.
In 2006, the newly constructed 4,000-square-foot Woman's Building was dedicated, culminating a four-way agreement reached by Henderson County Woman's Club, the Cain Foundation, First Presbyterian Church where the club had previously been located, and the arboretum. A breezeway connects the Woman's Building to the Office/Education Building.
The Woman's Building can be rented for weddings, receptions, parties and events.
Last year, volunteers overhauled an 1800s windmill given to the arboretum, drilled a shallow water well close by and dug a decorative pond for the water to be pumped into.
"The purpose is for kids to be able to look at a working windmill and see how it works. The pond also is a mini wetland for nature classes," Tanner said.
More projects are in the making. Funds are being raised for a kiosk to display information about plants, animals and insects native to East Texas.
On the drawing board is development this year of a 3½-acre tract acquired on the corner of Patterson Road and U.S. Highway 175 adjacent to the arboretum. That will give the arboretum highway frontage, making it more visible.
Through a partnership with Keep Athens Beautiful and other aid, the new tract is scheduled to be beautified and developed. Improvements will include wrought-iron fencing, a monument sign, courtyard, benches, a resting area and a new paved, landscaped trail about 900 feet long and accessible to the handicapped and young children.