Cool days, long walks, and local history: these are a few of my favorite things.
When I was contacted recently regarding photos of Memorial Park (one of my favorite places to stroll) by an Augusta-based publication for an article dedicated to the late Julia Lester Dillon, it immediately reminded me of a story told by a delightful gentleman who came in before the holidays to rent one of the city’s meeting facilities. He told me where Mrs. Dillon had lived (the house, privately owned, still stands) and how, as a small child, he found it amazing that because she could not hear, a light went on when someone rang the doorbell.
Although hers isn’t really a household name, garden lovers remember Mrs. Dillon for much more than her unique doorbell. Described as “strong, independent and persevering,” she became one of the first recognized authorities on Southern landscape architecture. Born in 1871 in Warren County, Georgia, Julia Lester was far from a typical woman of her time. After graduating from Peabody College in 1890, she became a teacher—then one of the few career choices available to a woman of her social standing. In 1892, she married William B. Dillon, but the marriage, said to be less than ideal, lasted less than two years. During those years, Mrs. Dillon lost her hearing to diphtheria. Shortly thereafter, she lost her husband when he died at age 35.
Widowed, deaf and unhappy in love, many women of the late Victorian era would have returned home to their parents and lived out their days as the neighborhood spinster—cherished by family and friends, but never quite finding a place to belong. But Mrs. Dillon was made of sterner stuff. She went back to work, and eventually, to school. At age 40, she earned a degree in landscape architecture, something that stemmed from her lifelong love of gardens. “I was four years old,” she once said of her first garden experience, “[and] the beauty of the moss and tea roses made a lasting impression.” Having studied in Northern colleges, she returned to Augusta, where wealthy Northerners had begun to establish winter homes in the community known for its mild climate and golf. Mrs. Dillon made her name among these individuals, as her knowledge of native landscapes made her a standout among the gardeners who had traveled south with their employers and really didn’t have a clue what to do with this new terrain.
Her reputation was established with Twin Gables, home of the Hardy family, and now home to the President of the Medical School of Georgia. She went on to accept commissions for courthouses, parks and school grounds throughout Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas. It was Mrs. Dillon who dubbed Augusta “The Garden City of the South.” From 1911 to 1917, she also worked extensively with House and Garden magazine.
In 1921, Mrs. Dillon, then 49 years old, arrived in Sumter at the request of city officials. The city had acquired the grounds of the old Blanding home on West Hampton Avenue, and planned to turn it into a memorial to the fallen soldiers of World War I. The six-and-a-half acres were turned over to the care of Mrs. Dillon, and she rose to the task admirably. She became the first female City Landscape Architect in the US and made her permanent home here, building a home (the one with the remarkable doorbell, no doubt) that she called “Roscommon Cottage,” within walking distance of the park.
Memorial Park was described at the time as containing beautiful oak trees, pines and magnolias, with open areas (formerly a vegetable garden) that provided space for a playground and plantings. Assisted by two male workers, Mrs. Dillon planted pyracanthas, nandinas, dogwoods, daffodils, forsythia, jessamine, crape myrtle, azaleas, ferns, and many other trees, shrubs and flowers. One feature of the park that has been lost to the years is the pergola on Hampton, where Sumter’s May Queen was crowned each year. The first city playground opened (and is still there, with updated equipment), along with a small wading pool (no longer in existence). Eventually, a bandstand (at the location of the present gazebo) and the city’s first tennis courts (also still there, and recently refurbished) were added.
For her services, Mrs. Dillon was named Superindent of Parks and Trees. In the meantime, she had completed a book, The Blossom Circle, and had beautified Anne Park, Loring Place, Warren Park, and Eastwood Park. She also lent her talents to the landscaping of Trinity United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church of the Holy Comforter, First Presbyterian Church, Temple Sinai, Tuomey Hospital, Carnegie Library (now the Genealogical & Historical Research Center) and a number of area schools. She wrote for numerous publications and helped to establish Sumter’s first Garden Club. Before her death in 1950 at age 79, Julia Lester Dillon was credited with planting more than 2,000 crape myrtles, chestnut oaks, white oaks, pecans, dogwoods and redbuds along city streets, and not a single tree could be removed without her personal permission. Eventually, a county park (located off US 378) was named for her.
This “Georgia Woman of Achievement” was returned to Georgia and laid to rest in the town where she grew up, but her influence on Sumter was a strong one. A woman alone, disabled and with little chance of a successful career, she was driven to become one of the forces that left a lasting imprint on the landscapes of cities all over the South. The next time you take a walk through Memorial Park, please pause for a moment among the ancient trees and the brand-new flower plantings to remember the remarkable accomplishments of Mrs. Julia Lester Dillon.
by Colette Daniels
NOTE: Some of the information in this post was taken from the Georgia Women of Achievement website and Magnolia: Bulletin of the Southern Gardens History Society.