Making the South Better
Azaleas, daffodils, magnolias, camellias, dogwoods, and tall pines swaying in the wind. It doesn't get any better in the South in the spring. It got better when Prosper Julius Alfonse Berckmans showed up. The young Belgian gathered every seedling, sprig, bulb, root and seed that he could get his hands on and planted them in the sandy clay soil of his farm outside of Augusta. He studied the plants and nurtured them, trying to find the right ones which would thrive in the temperate climates of Georgia and the South. What he achieved was nothing short of amazing.
For those of you who watch golf and for those of you who watched the Master's golf tournament this past Sunday, how many of you looked beyond Phil Mickelson as he played the last few rounds and saw the magnificent gardens which surround the eighteen holes of the Augusta National golf course? Who among you know that after winning the Masters Mickelson donned his third green jacket, all of which were made at J.P. Stevens in East Dublin? Who among you noticed any similarity between Augusta National and a place in Dublin? Nobody? I know it's a stretch, but did anyone say Stubbs' Park? Now, I will tell you why I say so.
Prosper Julius Berckmans was born in Belgium in 1830. He came to the United States in 1850. Seven years later, Berckmans settled in Augusta, Georgia, where he established the Fruitland Nursery. Berckmans dedicated all of his life to study and promote horticulture in the Southeast. Berckmans' love of plants came from his father, Dr. Louis Berckmans, a leading horticulturist from Brussels.
It was in 1876 when P.J. Berckmans was elected as the first and only president of the Georgia Horticultural Society until his death in 1910. Among the founding members of the society was none other than Col. John M. Stubbs of Dublin. The young Dublin lawyer, in addition to his aversion for the law, journalism, transportation and politics, was fascinated with horticulture and all things which grew from the earth. Berckmans and Stubbs became life long friends.
Meanwhile, Berckmans continued his horticultural work. He was elected president of the American Pomological Society in 1887 after twenty-seven years of service to the organization. Berckmans represented the United States at worlds' fairs and expositions around the world.
When Prosper Berckmans came to Georgia in the years before the beginning of the Civil War, it was estimated that there were some 100,000 peach trees, primarily located on family farms throughout the state. After fifty years of seeking the perfect peach tree, Berckmans' research led the planting of more than three million trees, a feat which led to Berckmans being dubbed "the father of the peach tree culture in the South."
When Col. Stubbs began to develop the lands around his home, which he named Liberty Hall, he asked Berckmans to help him design his gardens and orchards which stretched along Bellevue Avenue from the Baptist Church westward to Duncan Street and northward to Moore Street.
Berckmans and Stubbs studied which plants would be suited for the young Dublin lawyer's suburban farm. Dozens of the finest fruit bearing trees and aromatic shrubs graced the finest lands in the city. All the while, Stubbs planned to leave a portion of his lands after his death to the City of Dublin.
Stubbs, also an active leader of the society for more than two decades, expanded his operations to include vast acreages of peach trees in western Laurens County in the Montrose area. The Honorable Dudley M. Hughes, of Danville, worked with Stubbs in planting fruit trees wherever they grew best in small patches or very large orchards.
Following the death of Col. Stubbs in 1907, his widow and children deemed it only proper and fitting that they donate a particularly beautiful section of the family farm to the City of Dublin, dedicating it as a park in memory of the late phytophiliac.
The area chosen for the park was located along the banks of Stubbs Mill Branch between North Church Street and North Calhoun Street. The stream provided the water for a grist mill located at the far eastern end of the park. J.T. Pope, a pioneer miller in the Dublin area, built the first combined grist mill and cotton ginnery for Col. John M. Stubbs on the property in 1901, following a fire which destroyed the old mill. The new mill contained two sets of grist rocks, three seventy-saw cotton gins, and a planing mill.
Despite the failure of a bond issue, city fathers moved ahead with the plans for a park on the Stubbs's property. The Stubbs family signed the deed giving the park to the city on October 10, 1908. M.J. Guyton, the first city engineer, surveyed the area in October 1908.
The P.J. Berckmans firm, of course, was hired to design the park. P.J. Berckmans, then officially retired, sent his son Robert to work with local officials and the Stubbs family. Robert Berckmans' initial plan called for the draining and filling in of the lake with seats and fountains placed throughout the park. The city of Dublin agreed to accept the donation of the land for the park in April of 1909. The council appropriated three thousand of the five thousand dollars needed to complete the ten-acre park in May of 1909. One of the first improvements would be a small pavilion located just north of the Catholic Church in the area now known as the Grady Wright section of the park.
In the 1930s, golfing icon Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts wanted to build one of the world's finest golf courses. They bought Berckmans's old Fruitland Company lands and his home and set out to improve the home and the grounds. Louis Alphonse Berckmans, a son of Prosper, was solicited to help with the design. Over the last eighty years, the course has grown into one of the most beautiful sports venues in the world. The Berckmans' home was remodeled into the club house of the Augusta National Golf Course.
Signs of Berckmans's work still remain; the large oak tree behind the clubhouse, the privet hedge around the club house, which was imported by Berckmans from France, and the wisteria vine, generally accepted as the largest vine of its kind in the country.
So the next time you watch the Master's golf course or if you are one of the lucky ones who get to see the tournament up close and in person, think about our little piece of Berckmans's work and the generous gift of Col. John M. Stubbs and his family to the people of the city they loved so dearly.