History of the Howe Garden

11.04.11

Mrs. Howe's Garden

On sunny, spring Sunday afternoons, after church and Sunday dinner, many a
Nashvillian during the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and even 1960s took a drive over to
1925 East Greenwood Avenue for a look at "Wildings," the splendid garden of
Mr. and Mrs. Harry Howe. The eight acres, filled with dogwoods, redbuds,
azaleas and a half-acre of wildflowers, all under a canopy of venerable oaks,
beeches, maples and hickories, was for almost forty years one of Nashville's
most famous gardens, featured in books and magazines and attracting as many
as 2,000 visitors a day. Mrs. Howe herself warmly welcomed the visitors she
loved so well, offering lemonade and home-made cookies along with a personal
tour of the garden.

Harry and Cora Howe were New England transplants who moved to Nashville in
the early 1920s, buying property in then elegant East Nashville to build their
English-style home and develop a garden around it. Harry Howe later wryly
recalled that one of the original attractions of the property was that it was free of
rocks, but a few short years later, he found himself hauling tons of them home in
his 16-cylinder Cadillac. Each had been carefully selected by his wife, who
graced the garden with dry stone walls, a rock-edged creek, a naturalistic pond
with a stone bridge, a stone garden house and strategically placed boulders, one
of them a natural birdbath. And then there were the wildflowers, finally about 135
species of them, most native to Tennessee. In 1929, the Howes opened the
garden to the public, and its beauty and fame grew with each passing decade.
But gardens, even those that are someone's lifelong passion, are only fleeting
moments in the scroll of time, and so it almost was with "Wildings." When the
Howes died within eighteen months of each other in the mid-60s, there was no
way their heirs--Mr. Howe's devoted former secretary and Mrs. Howe's loyal
former companion--could afford the three gardeners it had taken to keep up
"Wildings." The fortunes of East Nashville had changed, as well, and it was no
longer a desirable address for buyers wealthy enough to maintain the extensive
grounds. It seemed as if the garden were doomed, and so it would have been
except for Mrs. Howe's friends in the Garden Club of Nashville, where she had
been the long-time treasurer.

Two of them approached the Club's president, Elizabeth Craig Proctor, desperate
to rescue Cora Howe's life's work. In 1967, Mrs. Proctor persuaded the Board of
Directors of Cheekwood, where she was a member of the Botanical Committee,
to allow "Wildings" to be moved to Cheekwood if sufficient funds could be raised.
A year later, the amazing operation began. Detailed drawings were made to
ensure that the spirit of "Wildings" would be replicated at Cheekwood, and in a
snowy December dawn the garden began its trek--plant by plant, stone by stone
to a new home ten miles away.

What a scene it must have been. One of Mrs. Howe's elderly gardeners, Elvin
Cantrell, was there, too infirm to dig but able to help direct the others. Charles
Ellis, member of the Cheekwood Botanical Committee, was on hand very early,
but not as early as one of Mrs. Howe's closest friends and fellow Garden Club
member, Mrs. Edward Graham. Though 84 years old, Mrs. Graham stayed all
day directing the movers. The willing crew dug up dogwoods, cut the garden
house in half for transport, loaded boulders, including the one shaped like a
birdbath, and dismantled walls. Then they reinstalled it all where we see it today,
on a sloping, tree-sheltered half-acre in Cheekwood's southeast corner.
On April 29, 1969, Cheekwood's brave new tenant was dedicated as the Howe
Wildflower Garden; lemonade and home-made cookies were served, just as if
Mrs. Howe had been there. The Garden Club of Nashville has continued to
support the Howe Garden, underwriting its maintenance and improvement with
funds raised by the annual Wildflower Fair, Rare Plant Auction and
other activities. Over the past 31 years, the garden has continued to welcome
thousands of visitors each year, its quiet beauty inviting rest and contemplation,
and its charming wildflowers teaching an evocative lesson about nature and
preservation.
Today, the Howes' graceful and unpretentious East Nashville home sits hemmed
in by dozens of apartment buildings that have consumed the eight acres where
"Wildings" once lay. A single stately oak in the front yard is the only ghost of the
garden's former glory. But in the Howe Garden at Cheekwood, the spirit of
"Wildings" remains, and perhaps even that of Cora Howe herself. As May Buntin
Hill, former member of the Cheekwood Board of Directors and one of the people
instrumental in the move of "Wildings" to Cheekwood, said many years later, "I
have really seen the wildflower garden grow by leaps and bounds. I think Mrs.
Howe would have liked it here.