“If you can picture it, this whole area was like a jungle just a few years ago before our crews arrived and began clearing it out,” explained longtime Pinehurst resident Joyce Franke, as she guided a recent visitor through the handsome wooden pavilion marking the entrance to the Clara McLean Magnolia Gardens at the Pinehurst Arboretum.
Spreading out before Franke and her companion near the intersection of Magnolia and McCaskill roads was a charming vest-pocket oasis that could well be the most inviting space in all of Pinehurst — assuming woodland retreats are your thing — a grassy glade framed by over seventeen different varieties of magnolias, shaded by a canopy of towering hardwoods, and scored by graceful stone footpaths that lead to a classical overlook and creek. The garden is one of half a dozen distinctive spots in the 35-acre Arboretum that is nearing completion as its tenth year looms on the horizon.
The idea for the arboretum first took root in Franke’s mind back in 2002 when, serving as president the nonprofit Pinehurst Historic Preservation Foundation — soon to be renamed the Village Heritage Foundation — Franke successfully spearheaded the $2 million renovation of the Fair Barn, accomplished almost entirely with private funds.
“Not long before we completed work on that, which gave us a beautiful indoor gathering spot for the village, I began thinking a lot about Frederick Law Olmsted’s original plan for the village and realized we had a wonderful opportunity to build upon that legacy right here in the heart of the village.”
While attending a Village Council meeting where a discussion arose regarding a plan to expand neighboring Rassie Wicker Park’s athletic fields to include a large unimproved area below the new Village Hall, Franke literally had a better idea.
“When I looked at that area, which included creeks and a very overgrown forest amid the remains of the village’s dumping ground, I thought how wonderful it would be to have a cultivated green space there instead, a place for more passive recreation and learning, a garden for picnics or weddings, for walking or just learning about nature. An arboretum was perfectly in keeping with Olmsted’s original horticultural vision for the village. Fortunately, the idea was warmly received and we were able to get moving fairly quickly on fundraising,” she explained, continuing the guided stroll along a winding path to a handsome wood-sculpted bridge to the expansive 3.5 acre area that was eventually transformed from the village dumping ground into a beautiful grass “Meadow.”
“You wouldn’t believe what we managed to take out of that old site,” Franke added with a laugh. “It was nothing but a mountain of clam and oyster shells and broken hotel pottery, decades of resort waste — even a few old refrigerators. All of that existed until about 1960.”
Upon the council’s unanimous approval in the spring of 2003, she points out, Larry Best of LandDesign Inc. offered his talents as a landscape designer pro bono, and created the master plan for the arboretum’s phased development, and also served as project manager. “Larry had his hands all over this project from the beginning, and his folks were wonderful to work with, really interested in creating a space for generations of people who live in Pinehurst or simply come here to visit.”
When health issues at home forced Franke to step aside in 2003, Bill Smith assumed the key leadership role that to date has privately raised the money to cover at least three additional phases of construction. Among those who came forth with vital early seed money, Smith points out, ClubCorp of America provided a $125,000 grant that enabled work to begin in earnest. “From the beginning this was a story of a lot of generous people from across the community coming forward to create a living legacy that will only improve with age.”
The group’s initial development phase included the Magnolia Garden, boasting the most complete number of magnolia varieties in the region. Following this, the foundation tackled the proposed Meadow and oversaw the moving of something like 15,000 cubic yards of dirt to make the ridge suitable for landscaping. In time, more than 130 native hardwood trees were planted along the southern and western borders of the Meadow. Crews from Forest Creek and the Sandhills Golf Course Superintendents organization were instrumental in finishing the lawn just weeks before an alfresco performance on the Meadow by the North Carolina Symphony in early May of 2006.
“It was a close call, and we had crews working right up to the last minute,” Joyce Franke recalls, “but it came off in the nick of time and really introduced a lot of folks to what a wonderful asset this arboretum is — and will be.” Four years after this event, thousands more got introduced to the natural splendors of the Arboretum when a crowd of more than 6,000 gathered last spring for a live evening concert by country music star Vince Gill.
As of the end of 2010, more than 300 private donors have contributed most of the roughly $1 million spent to date on the Arboretum’s creation, which includes a network of broad footpaths linking four primary areas — the Magnolia Garden, Meadow, a new Woodland Garden recently named in honor of Pinehurst’s late mayor, Steve Smith, and a unique longleaf pine savanna. Highlighted structures include the dramatic Magnolia Garden entrance, three beautiful wooden bridges, The Overlook, Point Pavilion, and a spectacular Pergola Garden funded by the Meyer Family Foundation and members of the Forest Creek Golf Club.
To date, more than 400 yards of brick pathways and 600 yards of gravel walks have been constructed through the Arboretum, connecting it to the Greenway and village proper, with future plans calling for the construction of an Education Pavilion on the west side of the Meadow.
Since work began almost a decade ago, in addition to the hundreds of native trees and shrubs that previously existed on the site, the foundation has planted more than 300 trees, 2,500 longleaf seedlings, 100 large shrubs, 475 medium bulbs, and over 700 small shrubs, perennials, and grasses. To date, volunteers for the Friends of the Pinehurst Arboretum, which recently published a splendid trail map of the 35-acre complex, have identified and labeled dozens of species of trees and shrubs.
“The arboretum is really a tribute to the shared vision of a lot of dedicated and talented people who made it happen,” notes current foundation president Terry Brown, pointing out that only a few smaller projects remain on the drawing board. In the near future, he adds, money has been established for the creation of a new Learning Center on the Meadow, and the foundation’s efforts are now geared to raising an endowment fund that will care for the property into the future.
“If we’ve done our job, and I think we have,” mused the Arboretum’s original visionary as she concluded her guided tour, “this place will be a natural asset to future generations who come to live in the Sandhills — or maybe just find their way here for a day or even an hour. It’s the perfect place to be in nature and appreciate what a remarkable treasure Pinehurst really is.” PS
For information on making a donation to the Pinehurst Arboretum or becoming a member of the “Friends of the Pinehurst Arboretum,” please contact the Pinehurst Heritage Foundation at P.O. Box 398, Pinehurst, NC, 28370 or contact Joyce Franke at (910) 695-0504.