On a coastline without people or houses, tidal creeks and marshes reach from the sea into the Coastal Plain just east of present-day Wilmington. Branches rustle, water slushes against the banks, and gulls call — those are the only sounds. In the fall of 1545, on an empty coastline, an acorn falls to the ground. Come spring, roots sprout. And soon, a small sapling stands.

The years pass, and the tree flourishes.

In 1835, Dr. Thomas Henry Wright builds Mt. Lebanon Chapel on a rise of land above what will become Bradley Creek. The six-and-a-half acre site brushes close to the oak tree — now almost 290 years old. The tree grows and provides shelter and refuge to many creatures.

Airlie Gardens is still something for the future.

Taking shape

Skip ahead to 1884. Sarah Green and Pembroke Jones are to be married, and life in Wilmington is about to change. Sarah’s family lives at Tokay, a large scuppernong vineyard north of Fayetteville, and Pembroke, son of Capt. John Pembroke, grew up in Wilmington. Just before the wedding, “Sarah Green of Cumberland County, North Carolina, purchases the 52-acre Seaside Park Improvement Company, once known as Mount Lebanon Wrightsville Sound for $5,000.”

Sarah Green Jones later purchases adjoining land, extending the holdings to 155 acres. Airlie Gardens is a blip in her imagination. Pembroke Jones names the place Airlie in honor of his family home in Scotland, and Sarah calls it Airlie-on-the-Sound.

Their new mansion at Airlie has hardwood floors, arched ceilings, and lots of windows. It includes a covered tennis court, ballroom, banquet hall, and 38 guest apartments. An elaborate dollhouse with “miniature shrubs, trailing rosebushes, and small gravel walks” provides hours of fun for the granddaughters.

The gardens surround the house. In the early days, Will Rehder begins work on an “old-fashioned flower garden.” But Sarah turns to the German kaiser’s gardener and landscape architect, Rudolph Topel, to provide the expertise needed to transform the grounds and bring her vision to reality. Many of the plants — including the first 12 camellias — come from Fruitland, a nursery in Augusta, Georgia.

Both Sarah and Pembroke live to entertain.

In 1901, the first extravaganza: the Lenten holiday. From February 24 through March 15, guests travel from up North to experience the beauty of Airlie-on-the-Sound and luxuriate in the Jones’s Southern hospitality. On another occasion, guests arrive on a special train of trolley cars. Chefs come from the North, and the Hollowbush Orchestra entertains. The Joneses share party favors: gold watches for the men, diamond jewelry for the women.

The parties tumble one after another. Some guests arrive to find spiraling steps leading to picnic platforms erected in the branches of the Airlie Oak where white linen covers tables set with sterling silver. Others take part in elaborate hunts, where even some of the squirrels are dressed for the occasion in tiny, red jackets. During the holidays, barrels of tar burn brightly and Japanese lanterns glow along the drive. Laughter and song echo down the paths and roadways as carriages arrive and depart. This whirlwind of lavish parties and extravagant party favors may have led to the familiar saying, “keeping up with the Joneses.”

While the Joneses love to entertain, the gardens captivate Sarah. She imagines them following the natural pattern of the land and takes advantage of the materials available. While out walking one day, she spies a clump of native, pink azalea in the woods and asks a servant to transplant the shrub to a leafy, moist spot by the house. She decides the mainstay for the garden will be magnolia, azalea, camellia, and wisteria, those plants best suited to the creeks and woods.

She creates a border of magnolia, camellia, and japonica along the mile-long, winding driveway. Sarah and her team of gardeners plant 500 live oaks; 1,200 longleaf pines; 5,000 camellias; and a quarter of a million azaleas.

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Entranced by the developing gardens, Sarah reclaims a salt lagoon for a lake. A wide, earthen dam holds back the tidal flow, and freshwater streams fill and maintain it.

Of the Joneses’ large staff, none are more beloved than Julius and Minnie Evans. Minnie met Julius in 1908 — she was just 15, and he was one of 20 coachmen working at Pembroke Park. For most of their adult lives, Minnie and Julius Evans live at Pembroke Park and keep watch over the lodge.

When the Joneses are away, Minnie observes the gardens — and perhaps she loves them as much as Sarah.

“There are 2,000 shades of green in God’s palette,” Minnie says. Some days, one finds Minnie busy with her art, a child nestled on her lap as she paints.

Weathering the storm

In 1948, the Corbett family purchases Airlie. The Corbetts’ youngest son, Wilbur, returns wounded from World War II, and Airlie provides a “peaceful place to recover.”

The Evanses stay on. Julius, now known as the “Old Man of Airlie,” guides visitors through the gardens while sharing stories of the early days. Minnie works as the gatekeeper and sells her bright, scrolling artwork to visitors.

Airlie becomes part of the Azalea Festival, and the Corbetts welcome guests to a Sunday luncheon with Mrs. Royce McClelland’s famous scalloped oysters.
Each year, the roots of the Airlie Oak reach a bit deeper; the branches stretch a bit farther. Now more than 50 feet tall, with a canopy spanning 100 feet, the tree connects past to present.

In 1954, Hurricane Hazel strikes Airlie at the peak of the highest lunar tides of the year. Winds of 125 miles per hour sweep across the grounds as the Corbett family hunkers down to ride out the storm. When things quiet down, the devastation abounds — destroyed garden statuary, battered branches and shrubs. The storm rips limbs off the large oak, requiring long-term props to help it recover.

The Corbett family decides the Jones house is too much. In 1955, they dismantle the oversize structure and build their own home. Life at Airlie is quieter now and simpler, too. The family extends the pier and renovates the stables. The lake provides quiet respite and the opportunity to fish.

Then in 1996, hurricanes Bertha and Fran pound the coast in quick succession, and Airlie lies in the path of the worst winds and surge, which topple hundreds of trees. Faced with an expensive cleanup, the Corbett family sells 67 acres of gardens to the New Hanover County Commissioners.

Looking forward

Today, Airlie Gardens offers visitors the opportunity to step back to the wonder of the gilded age — and to look forward as well. Follow the lake road, and take note of the large coquina pillars. Today, a causeway supports the tramway. But look with softer eyes, and the road disappears, making it possible to imagine the old, wooden bridge. In the lake, swans paddle, dipping their heads to the water and bending to preen. Turtles bask on logs, and shore birds wade.

Here in the garden, time seems fluid.

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Beyond the lake, visitors find the camellia garden — once, every known camellia cultivar grew here. The rose arbor makes a graceful arc, stretching 150 feet. The live oaks dip their branches to the ground. Follow the curving walkways to the spring garden, step up through the coquina arch, and enter what would have been the Joneses’ front yard. Imagine that rambling house; listen for the crunch of carriage wheels on the shell drive.

On almost any weekday, visitors hear children laughing. Each year, more than 7,000 students visit. Third-grade students dig in the soil, learning about carnivorous plants and seed dispersal; while eighth-grade students learn about water quality and wetland ecology. The Airlie educational staff ensures that future generations learn to love and care for the tidal creek, forest, and freshwater-lake ecosystems.

Along the creek, 4,000 square feet of oyster-reef habitat and a swath of salt-marsh cordgrass clean the water, provide fish habitat, and limit shoreline erosion. In the woodlands, dead trees remain, providing nesting sites for birds and other creatures. Visitors take bird walks and learn to identify more than 160 species that call Airlie home — egrets, kingfishers, ospreys, indigos, and red-cockaded woodpeckers.

On the first and third Friday nights from May through September, guests unroll blankets and picnic as musical groups entertain. Find a spot under the branches of the live oak, close your eyes, and slip away. If you think you spot lights just out of sight, they’re not Sarah’s Japanese lanterns or burning tar barrels now, but the light might be coming from the Bottle Chapel, a beautiful sculpture of colored bottles that celebrates the spirit of Minnie Evans.

Today, the Airlie Oak, draped in moss and resurrection fern, keeps watch. The trunk measures more than 21 feet in diameter — it takes five or six people joining hands to embrace it. Its bark is deeply brown and furrowed, and for the most part, the tree is silent. Sometimes the wind stirs its branches, and in those moments, if you listen closely, you might hear the echo of days past as the tree’s gnarled arms bend down and embrace the garden.


Airlie Gardens
300 Airlie Road
Wilmington, N.C. 28403
(910) 798-7700
airliegardens.org

 

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Gerard — a poet, essayist, and teacher — enjoys life in Wilmington, finding inspiration in the beauty of the salt marshes and gardens of the Southeast coast.