PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla.—When you think of Florida as a vacation destination, Disney World or perhaps Cape Canaveral (and the attendant traffic and endless lineups) may be the first things that pop into your mind.
But there are a whole host of interesting destinations tucked away in little towns and villages off county roads that provide some really great breaks from the hustle and bustle.
The Panhandle in northwest Florida, for instance, is a great area for some spots on the road less travelled.
One of the Emerald Coast’s best-kept secrets is Eden Gardens, a real jewel in the crown of Florida’s state parks. It is hidden away near Point Washington on Tucker Bayou, in Walton County, between Tallahassee and Pensacola.
Off Highway 98, 15 miles east of Panama City Beach, then north on County Road 395, the park preserves the historic Wesley mansion. In a setting of massively-spreading, moss-draped oaks, it is surrounded by superb azalea, camellia, rose, and fern gardens.
The original mansion, built in the ante bellum style more than 100 years ago by lumber baron William Henry Wesley, was in a sad state of disrepair when purchased and extensively renovated and refurnished by heiress Lois Maxon in the 1960s.
Maxon then donated to it the State of Florida in 1968.
By 1990, again long neglected with the buildings lapsing into a state of disrepair and the once magnificent gardens overgrown and gone wild, this jewel was badly-tarnished.
Maintaining an estate of this complexity—with its reflecting pool, extensive gardens, and aging structures—is a daunting and expensive task. Although we may expect our governments to care for these treasures, scarce resources, bureaucracies, and rotating staff often are a less-than-satisfactory solution.
The “Friends of Eden,” formed in 1994 as a not-for-profit community support organization (a member of the Friends of Florida State Parks), is a great example of what volunteers can accomplish.
They came to the rescue, spearheaded by founder Joan Thomas.
“Friends of Eden” has grown into a small army of dedicated volunteers. Together they have wrested the grounds of the old estate back from encroaching wilderness to its former magnificent state of an opulent southern plantation.
Working, semi-retired, retired, locals, northern transplants, snowbirds, young, and old, they have a common creed, says retired Bell South employee and current grounds chairman, Wayne Carlisle: “A passion about this park!”
“We were down here from St. Louis in the ’80s just wandering around when we discovered this place,” remembered Marianne Burback.
“It was like, wow! Those magnificent trees! And you couldn’t see the flowers, they were all overgrown,” she added, reliving her first visit to Eden.
Spectacular live oaks on the grounds have been aged at more than 600 years.
On a Tuesday morning, Burback, who, with her late husband, Ed, was a “Founding Friend,” was busy reviewing with Carlisle the status of one of the projects—the Fountain and Butterfly Garden.
Master gardener Fritz Hennl and Virgie Thompson had just finished an assessment of the rose garden. Jane Angner was everywhere. John Beem was up to his knees pulling weeds. Canadian snowbird Jane Rogers was cleaning the pavilion.
Maryjo Morris was on the dead run doing everything. . . .
Then the “Garden Gourmets” all gathered in the pavilion for a potluck lunch and to discuss their morning’s work and plans for next week—and for weeks and years to come.
“Friends of Eden” not only look after projects on the grounds, they also run the Fig Leaf Gift Shop in the Manor House and propagate and sell plants from their nursery on the grounds.
The pavilion they constructed with a full kitchen is rented out for wedding receptions and other special events. Their budget this year of $90,000 is supplied by memberships, gifts from individuals and organizations, as well as grants from the state.
The thousands upon thousands of hours of volunteer labour stretches those 90,000 bucks to incredible lengths.
Planning for the future is detailed in a 10-year master plan, and with the addition of 100 acres to the site, there is a long list of ongoing projects, explained Carlisle.
Funded by the state, over the next year a new entrance to Eden Gardens is being constructed off Walton County Road 395. This not only will increase exposure to the public, but bring traffic into the park without passing the local school and residences, while providing a more scenic approach in concert with the overall theme of the Eden Gardens.
“Friends of Eden” contribution to the project will be a reconstruction of the original entrance pillars, complete with its wrought iron gates, plus some new landscaping to focus visitors approach to the manor house.
Archaeological digs and assessments of the new area have unearthed pottery shards evidencing early human habitation back to 500 B.C.
Plans call for the addition of a picnic area, restrooms, fishing, and a canoe/kayak launching area along Tucker Lagoon. But the area will remain largely natural and undisturbed, with nature trails and bird-watching areas in the salt marsh.
Tucker Bayou itself was once a fresh water lake, but opening of the banks and construction of the intercoastal waterway turned it into the salt water body of today.
If you are the casual tourist with an appreciation for beautiful flowers, stately mansions, and grand trees, you owe it to yourself to take this side trip up CR 395 a mile.
According to the state park brochure, Eden Gardens is open 365 days of the year from 8 a.m. until sunset. Guided tours of the Wesley Mansion are offered on an hourly basis from 10 a.m.-3 p.m., Thursday through Monday.
The park offers many recreational opportunities to visitors with disabilities. Should you need assistance to enable your full participation, contact the park office at 1-850-231-4214.
But be warned: your first visit to Eden Gardens could be addictive! If you have a true passion for beautiful, relaxed, soul-soothing settings, you could find yourself showing up Tuesday mornings in your work clothes prepared to exercise that green thumb.
Don’t forget to bring a potluck dish and join the “Garden Gourmets,” post exercise, for a well-earned lunch. Sure beats shovelling snow!