The Elizabethan Gardens: 70 Years of Beautiful Inspiration
(MANTEO, NC March 19, 2020) – The adventurous spirit of the Elizabethans stretched wide across the mighty Atlantic and inspired expeditions to a small island called Roanoke nestled among the barrier islands. The details and mystery of this history was memorialized in an outdoor production called THE LOST COLONY in 1937. After seeing a 1950 performance of the drama, several women, all members of the North Carolina Garden Club, were inspired to petition their organization to answer the question “What if the colony had stayed and thrived here?” The women thought for certain the colonists would have built estates and fashioned gardens much like the ones they left behind in Queen Elizabeth’s England.
It was an adventurous project to undertake but 17,000 women in the club were ready for the challenge.
History details the tremendous odds facing the brave explorers and colonists who ventured across the Atlantic. Likewise, history tells us of the obstacles faced by the Garden Club of North Carolina as they began to create their historic garden.
For it’s not just ideas that create a garden. It also takes capital, just like any business. But the world was different in the 1950s. Women did not run Fortune 500 companies. And until the 1970s they couldn’t sign up to have credit cards. Applying for loans was often not possible either, yet the Garden Club was undeterred. They acquired the site for the gardens, collected private funds, hired an architect and moved forward with ambition and determination.
Paul Green, Pulitzer prize-winning playwright of The Lost Colony and dear friend of The Elizabethan Gardens, remarked in a letter to Mildred Howard, then board chair: “The whole of North Carolina is proud of The Elizabethan Gardens and prouder still of the lovely and imaginative women who gave it birth. All of us have a bounden duty in the future to measure up to you and it.”
Over six decades later, the garden they created has blossomed into a living memorial that continues to inspire and delight those who seek to “explore” the shores and beaches of the Outer Banks. And The Gardens has indeed lived up to its remarkable beginnings. “Ours is a history of inspired beauty, led entirely by the women of the Garden Club of North Carolina,” remarked Linda Davenport, current president of The Elizabethan Gardens board.
She added, “On the brink of our 70th anniversary, we reflect how growth, change and community has always been a part of our story.”
“Although ours is not a perilous journey, we have labored to complete several projects that have spanned the years, and the community has always joined together with us in our endeavors,” explained Davenport.
What was the compass that has steered this ship? A strategic plan instituted decades ago – a torch, passed from board to board as each group took control of the helm.
“We have truly seen the fruition of our planning these past years,” remarked Davenport. A new children’s educational play area and a house for butterflies are recent projects in The Gardens she added. “It’s been a journey that really says a lot about how the community has walked with us along the way.”
“Several years ago, we met with families and listened to their ideas and suggestions. We took notes from this meeting and then invited help from university students in landscape design classes at NC State. Students from the class were tasked with taking these ideas and creating blueprints for new garden areas. These designs allowed us to see what was possible and strengthened our community vision. And just like the founders of our gardens, we took these bold ideas and worked on a plan to bring them to life.”
With financial gifts from community partners like the Gaddy Foundation, Percy W. and Elizabeth Meekins Charitable Trust, Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, Outer Banks Community Foundation, Dominion Foundation and various individuals, clubs, and businesses from across the east coast, these plans became a reality.
What The Gardens and community created has truly blossomed.
“We saw record increases in visitors this spring when our John White Butterfly Center and Discovery Cottage opened,” shared Carl Curnutte, executive director. “It has been an exciting time, indeed. The energy and joy that the butterflies and education and play area have brought to our spring season is unprecedented. We like to think that our founders are smiling down on us with pride.”
The Elizabethan Gardens are open year-round (except the month of February). Hours vary according to the season. The Gardens are closed for certain holidays. Visitation is by paid admission. Events, workshops and educational programs highlight each season. For more information visit elizabethangardens.org or contact them at 252.473.3234.
PHOTO 1: State and local Garden Club members proudly posing at the official opening of The Elizabethan Gardens August 18, 1955. The idea to build the gardens was first discussed 70 years ago in 1950. Incredible that in just five years it came to fruition.
PHOTO 2: Out of the wilderness, the women of the Garden Club of North Carolina created a living memorial. In this archival photo taken a few months before their official 1955 opening, they review construction plans alongside the Sunken Garden.
PHOTO 3: The 2019 Butterfly Festival saw record crowds in The Elizabethan Gardens. This project was the fruition of years of planning, guided by local and state-wide support.