This article is adapted from a story by Dr. Gene Atkinson from the March 17, 1996, edition of The Times and Democrat.
“Botanical Gardens Will Some Day Be Famous Beauty Spot.” So read the headlines of an Orangeburg newspaper article by C.C. Berry on Aug. 2,1927, in the early days of the now-famous Edisto Memorial Gardens. Berry’s prediction and the city fathers’ vision were certainly right on target.
Today, hundreds of thousands of visitors enjoy the beauty of Orangeburg’s most prized asset, nestled among the tall, stately cypress trees along the Edisto River. Edisto Memorial Gardens are “owned and maintained by the City of Orangeburg for the spiritual enrichment of its citizens and their guests.” It is open 365 days a year with no admission charges.
How it all began
Edisto Gardens was the brainchild of former City Councilman John M. Sifly, whose responsibility was Orangeburg’s parks and streets. He, former Mayor Robert H. Jennings Sr. and former Councilman A.C. Watson voted at a city council meeting Jan. 16, 1926, to establish the gardens.
The first area developed was the 5 acres where the current azalea garden is located. In the beginning this area was no more than a swampy dumping ground. From 1926 through 1936, the garden operations were directed by Sifly and his successors, Dr. Edison A. Fairey and John McNamara.
For the first five or six years, the gardens were known as the Orangeburg Botanical Gardens. The original plans also called for a zoo to be constructed across Riverside Drive from today’s rose garden area.
In 1926, the Young Men’s Business League — the forerunner of today’s Chamber of Commerce — under the leadership of its president, J. West Summers Sr., was instrumental in the early stages of the Orangeburg Botanical Gardens, as well as developing the bathing beach, as it was called then, where the Orangeburg Arts Center now stands.
The first azalea gardens were constantly being flooded because of the low dike along the river. Early planners were frustrated seeing their beautiful azaleas floating down the Edisto River after being washed out of the gardens by high waters. Several city employees, using a dump cart and a mule named Shug, laboriously hauled dirt to raise a levee. Through the years this dike has been occasionally referred to as “Shug Lane.”
By the mid-1930s, the city fathers realized that the services of a professional horticulturist were needed. So, on June 1, 1937, horticulturist and landscape designer Andrew Dibble was hired by council to plan and direct the destiny of the gardens. His first goal was to draw up a master plan and design for all future endeavors to assure that the gardens would be developed in an orderly fashion.
When Dibble began managing the gardens, the only resources he had were four men, a mule and a dump cart. Shortly thereafter the levee, or dike, along the river was raised to prevent flooding of the gardens. This project was done without the benefit of modern machines. Everything was done by hand by these men hauling dirt on a mule cart.
Dibble referred to Edisto Gardens as “The gift of an unselfish city to her citizens and to all lovers of nature and beauty throughout the nation.”
In his early planning for the future of the gardens, he stated that it would need “the three great principles of landscape gardening — unity, harmony and balance.”
Part of Dibble’s original plan called for a one-way scenic drive to parallel Seaboard Avenue to Waring Street, turn toward the river beside the pavilion area and wind back along the riverbanks, back to Russell Street. However, city council rejected his plan. When the very scenic, curving Garden Drive was opened in 1941, it was a partial concession to Dibble’s original perimeter road plan.
In 1939, the lake area was developed as a WPA project under the guidance of Gillespie Fogle. Dibble, in his master plan, conceived this area as an “iris and water garden.” It had a depth of five feet with an island in the middle to be connected by footbridges. Over 1,600 iris bulbs were installed around this lake and water lilies and lotuses were set in specially prepared beds within the lake.
The next development of this master plan was the “Hillside Garden,” which is now the area of the Garden Drive. Dibble planted this hillside in 1940 and 1941 with azaleas, camellias and wisteria to bring out the splendor of the late winter and early spring blooming season.
In 1941, Dibble was reading a copy of National Geographic magazine and saw a lovely picture of a Chinese waterwheel. He was at home recovering from a bout of the flu and was pondering how he was going to supply water to the new lake in an aesthetic way. The accompanying article told how waterwheels were used to irrigate the rice paddies in China using attached bamboo buckets. The idea fascinated Dibble, who said, “I decided that if the wheel had proven sufficiently useful in China, those principles could be successfully adapted to solve my problem here.”
When added in 1941, the waterwheel had a two-fold purpose: as a peaceful, quaint center of attraction and as a source of fresh water for the new water garden (lake) constructed nearby. The pond also has two artesian wells providing fresh water.
The gardens grow
By 1948, the gardens had grown to encompass more than 55 acres. In October 1948, the footbridge was built, crossing the river next to the swimming area.
This 80-foot steel span was built at a cost of $4,500 and is on the same site as one of the original main bridges that crossed the Edisto back in time.
On the peak azalea-blooming Sunday in March 1950, it was estimated that more than 10,000 people visited the gardens. The lines of automobiles in the traffic jam were backed up so badly that city police had to be called in to direct the cars through the gardens in an orderly fashion.
The river pavilion was built in 1950 to replace a previous two-story, open-air wooden pavilion built in the 1920s.
Dibble’s master plan called for a major rose garden to be established where Albergotti Playground was located. So, in 1949, with the Albergottis’ approval, he set about the task of relocating the playground to its present site, where Riverside, Waring and Seaboard streets converge. A youth baseball field was constructed, as well as tennis courts. A large concrete picnic shelter was built and outlying picnic tables were set up so families could have enjoyable outings.
Today the dedication plaque at this recreation facility thanks Mr. and Mrs. James M. Albergotti Sr. “for their sustaining interest in public recreation for children. Their generous contribution made possible the establishment of the first city playground near this site.” Dated 1922, the plaque further states that “Albergotti Playground is dedicated to the youth of Orangeburg.”
After all this was done, Dibble began constructing the rose garden area as we know it today. This ambitious project took the years 1950 and 1951 to complete. The rose garden was to be in conjunction with the American Rose Society as an experimental site, with a testing area over to the side nearest Russell Street and the larger display garden in the main area.
Some 3,500 roses were planted. Years later this splendid rose garden would be the focal point for the annual Festival of Roses, first held in 1972.
The statue and fountain
About this time, the statue and fountain with the pondering, reflective ladies were installed at the Russell Street entrance to the gardens. It was then decided to rename the gardens Edisto Memorial Gardens, in memory of local soldiers who died in World War II and the Korean War, which was going on at the time. Later, the names of soldiers who died in other wars were included.
The soldiers’ names were inscribed on the walls along the base. Although the statue and fountain were installed around 1950 or 1951, the structure was not officially dedicated until 1959.
The statue was purchased by the city around 1928, when a new courthouse was built on the corner of Amelia and Sunnyside streets and the old courthouse on the town square was razed. Former Councilman Sifly went to New York City to purchase the statue.
When it was erected, it had two goldfish pools — one on each side — and several swan statues. These swans were actually fountains that spewed water from their mouths into these pools. Cannons from the Spanish-American War were brought in to areas flanking this monument. Unfortunately, because the ladies in this statue were only partially clothed, there were many comments about their indecency.
Sifly, a lifelong bachelor, received much teasing to the point where some citizens called this statue “Mr. Sifly’s Ladies.” Around 1948 or so, the statue was removed from the town square and placed in storage. But retirement did not last long, as the city fathers decided to reinstall it with a different base as the focal point for the entrance to Edisto Memorial Gardens. In 1992, it was refurbished into a copper-colored scheme.
On Jan. 1, 1964, Dibble, after designing and cultivating the gardens for more than 26 years, retired as the first director of parks for Orangeburg. Continuity was preserved when his son, Robert B. Dibble, also a graduate horticulturist and landscape designer, was hired to replace him. He made major improvements to drainage for the gardens and nearly doubled the size of the rose garden.
In 1971, a boat landing and two picnic shelters were built along the Edisto River south of Highway 301. This previous low-lying area had been built up through its use as a sanitary landfill through the years.
The rose garden, in January 1973, became affiliated with the All American Rose Selections Inc., in addition to the previous connection with the American Rose Society. Edisto Memorial Gardens became one of only 22 official test gardens in the United States for the AARS, the pre-eminent rose society in our country.
In 1973, Edisto Memorial Gardens received two national awards for its rose gardens. One was the “Best Rose Garden Award” in the Carolinas District by the AARS and the other was the “Jane Righter Rose Medal” for 1973 by the Garden Club of America.
Adding the nature trail
On Sept. 18, 1985, the nature trail was opened after several years of planning. This educational trail is more than three-quarters of a mile long.
Over 90 beautiful Yoshino cherry trees were planted in the gardens in 1990, as well as a few on Memorial Plaza downtown. Mrs. Marshall B. (Margaret) Williams conceived the idea and helped raise the funds, which were matched by the city of Orangeburg. The cherry trees were given in honor of her 70th birthday, as well as in memory of her late daughter, Mary Ashley Williams Gardner..
A beautiful fountain, lighted at night with yellow and red lights of varying patterns, was added to the lake beyond the rose garden in 1991. An anonymous donor, proud of the beauty of the gardens, graciously gave this fine addition to the city.
The Horne Wetlands Park was dedicated Sept. 20, 1992. The mainstay is a 2,700-foot raised boardwalk, which is currently under repair.
Into the future
So much more has been added, repaired, beautified and improved in the years since dedication of the wetlands park. But that is the history witnessed by so many who enjoy the gardens today. They bear witness to just how right C.C. Berry was in 1927 with his newspaper headline, “Botanical Gardens Will Some Day Be Famous Beauty Spot.”
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