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A Garden at the Garrison

A Garden at the Garrison

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“The walls were almost hidden by a wealth of vines and foliage, and an enclosed space was as green as nature and care could make it.”

This was how Mary Eloise Rutherford Cravens remembered Fort Smith, not the town we know today but the Second Garrison of Fort Smith during the 1850s.

A photograph of a charming garden labeled “frontier garden,” taken by my friends Khoi Nguyen and Michael Prall, intrigued me. As it turns out it is on the grounds of the Fort Smith National Historic Site. I had to visit! Vernon Atterberry and I often walk their beautiful tree-shaded trails down by the Arkansas River. It didn’t take long to find the white picket fenced garden.

The next day I showed up with my camera and notepad to speak with park ranger and historian Loren McClain. As we walked he explained that this was a re-creation garden and that originally there were at least two Officers Gardens meant for the pleasure of the officers’ wives.

“These gardens provided the wives of the officers a place to grow plants and offered a very important social opportunity,” he explained.

Loren and I found a shady spot next to the white picket fence surrounding the garden and mused on what these officers’ wives may have grown. By the way a white picket fence was quite a status symbol in a garden of this era. 

 “Unlike the original fort down by the river, life was easier at the second fort,” he said.

Laughing, he pointed out that even though the re-created garden has corn, it would not have been grown in abundance. “Corn, like the whiskey it was used to make, was everywhere.  Some say that whiskey and the problems caused by it were one of the major reasons for the second fort.”

The more Loren and I talked the more I realized how little I actually knew about the military garrison. I thanked him for his time and with the theme song to History Detectives playing in my head drove to the Fort Smith Public Library to talk with Scott Woodland. Scott and all our librarians are treasures for researchers like myself. Hey they even did research for the movie True Grit.

With Scott, I explained my lack of knowledge of the fort’s different incarnations and my desire to find any information I could about the gardens. Within minutes I had two stacks of precious reference material compiled over the years stacked in front of me.

I was in heaven with old documents, some on tissue-thin paper yellowed with time, unraveling for me the history of the two forts.  

Soon, via email from Loren, I received the best materials imaginable.

 “I have enclosed a couple of documents that may add context to your story. One is a sketch of early Fort Smith. Take note of the gardens, saloons, and hotels in the picture. The next is a narrative draft one of the rangers compiled by Mary Louise Rutherford Cravens and her firsthand account of the Fort during the time she was living here,” he wrote.

I was transported as I read her accounts of the grounds of the garrison and the elegant lives of the people who lived there in the 1850s.

A second trip to the historic site led me to park rangers Pat Schmidt, Jeremy Lynch and Cody Faber. Among other exciting information I found out that the area from today's Frisco Station parking lot to approximately Pendergraft Park was planted as gardens for the troops. Some of the corn grown there was no doubt used to make whiskey which was included in the troop’s rations until 1865, according to Cody.

He shared the recipe for a popular concoction known as Cherry Bounce. 

These rangers make the history come alive with their accounts of the sometimes wild goings-on of life at the fort.

In 2009, the Officers Garden was re-created by a grant from the National  Parks Foundation. With an additional grant from First Bloom, Keri Powers of the parks service teamed with Tena Coker of Girls Inc. to begin what would be an incredible summer for some local girls.

Keri continues to work for the parks service but now lives in Colorado. We spoke by phone.

“At first I was not so sure how these modern young ladies would take to gardening in the Arkansas summer in full period dress. They loved it!,” she recalled. “We used nothing that would not have been available during the mid-19th century. We did extensive research to plant only varieties of vegetables, herbs and flowers that an officer’s family would have had available. The girls had to carry water to keep the garden thriving.”

Their work paid off as the project won a National Recognition Award in 2010.

If you could go back in time for an afternoon visit with one of the officers wives it would probably have included a stroll through the gardens. We would recognize the plants growing there as we know they grew the three sisters – corn, beans and squash. However we might not recognize the variety.

I was delighted to find that seed catalogs of the mid-19th century contained hundreds of varieties. Imagine being far from your home and receiving The Joseph Breck Seed Catalog that was a whooping 84 pages of seeds. These catalogs vied for the attention of gardeners with names such as Dragon Tongue Beans, Yellow Eckendorf , Mangle Wurtzle beets and Queen Anne or “pocket melons.” The fragrant, small “pocket melons” were often tucked into a lady’s pocket as a natural perfume.

Seed catalogs would also often carry information about garden-related activities such as pressing or sketching flowers. The so-called language of flowers, in which each bloom is given significance, would be included so the ladies could make a bouquet that held a special message.

These pursuits were quite fashionable. Many of these officers and their families traveled here from cities such as Saint Louis or Boston. A chance to bring civility and beauty into their homes would be most welcome.

Medicinal herbs probably grown as well as flowers, vegetables and fruits. Echinacea, which would have been used as an antibiotic, Joe Pye Weed for fevers, and Elderberry for colds would have been grown and made into tinctures or syrups.

The herbs were also used for hygiene. Considering that toothbrushes were not patented until 1857, we are told mint leaves were chewed and swished with vinegars. Sage is said to have been used as a deodorant. This was probably greatly appreciated as the ladies of the fort would be gardening in the long dress of the day with large bonnets. The elderberry plant provided much in the way of cosmetic uses such as Elderflower water, which was used for sunburns, freckles and blemishes.  

Keri Powers, Scott Woodland and I were not able to find any diaries of the wives of the officers that spoke of the gardens. Perhaps it was due to the transitory nature of their lives being transferred from one garrison to the other; perhaps they took their dairies with them when they returned to their homes in Saint Louis or Boston. History detective and research librarian Scott Woodward did find this from the Fort Smith New Era concerning the unfortunate fate of the gardens during the Civil War:

July 22, 1865

The Garrison and the city of Fort Smith have been greatly injured by the harsh severities of the war. Yard and garden fences have disappeared; fruit trees and shrubbery have been destroyed. Previous to the rebellion the Garrison grounds and buildings were said to have been kept in fine order and constituted an attractive resort of leisure and fashion.

Cody Faber, coordinator of volunteers at the park, welcomes interested gardeners to volunteer to continue developing the Officers Garden.

 “We would love for individuals or groups to take an interest in the garden and volunteer. Just call me and I will be happy to speak with you or your group about the possibilities,” he said.

What a fun way to learn about heirloom gardening practices and early Fort Smith history at the same time.

Contact Cody Faber about volunteering by phoning 479-783-3961.

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