A History Mystery
"The Search for Benjamin's Garden"
To enter the main garden at the Vaughan Homestead one must first stand with the 1794 house to one's back, Benjamin Vaughan's 200 year old Black Oxford apple tree to the left, and the 100 year old "sun house" gazebo to the right. Standing like this, one is faced with a passageway cut into a towering cedar hedge, framing a glimpse of what is to come. Upon passing through the hedge, the outside world is quieted and left behind, and one is drawn across the green to the "summer house" gazebo. Here visitors may sit in the shade with the wilderness at their backs and a panorama of blossoming flowers in the foreground.
After reading Andrea Wulf's book, "Founding Gardeners," one might surmise that the garden, which literally stands as a formal doorway to the imposing wild woods beyond, is a statement of the importance of the American Wilderness - a common theme in the gardens of the founding fathers as described in Wulf's book.
Benjamin Vaughan after all, was a contemporary who shared their passion for agriculture and botany, and who corresponded with all of the founding fathers. He even visited with Jefferson at Monticello, the site of the famed gardens, and exchanged seeds with him. It is hard to believe that Benjamin would not have been as deliberate with his garden design and plantings as his contemporaries were. The problem with this line of thinking, however, is that the garden we know today is not Benjamin's garden. Records show that the current Homestead garden was established by Ellen Twisleton Vaughan during a period of revitalization of the Homestead grounds sometime around 1900. How closely did she mimic the garden that existed during Benjamin's time 100 years earlier? Is it even stand in the same place? Did oral history give her some sense of what the garden once was? Did Benjamin keep records, as the founding fathers did, of what he planted, where he planted, and why he chose which species - records we have not found yet?
Here is what we know. In addition to a farm at the site of the current day Maple Hill Farm, Benjamin also planted crops and a garden at the Homestead itself. He also instructed specifically that the current day stand of old growth pines bordering the garden not be cut. Alluded to in various publications and letters, the garden was extensive and known for its beauty and juxtaposition to the woods and wild ravine. The current day garden's unique design highlighting the Woods, plus Wulf's comparison of garden design and political statements, and the lack of anything more in our records than passing references to the Homestead's original garden piqued our curiosity, and thus began "The Search for Benjamin's Garden."
So far, we have investigated our catalogue of papers and articles as well as Vaughan family books, journals, and memoirs. We found many lovely descriptions of his garden and the answer to some but not all of our questions. The next step is to search Benjamin's papers that now live in other places, including the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston and Bowdoin College in Brunswick. We can only hope that he kept records or discussed his garden in the many letters that he wrote. But only time and research will tell.
To read the garden references we have found so far, visit this article on our website
. Also, stay tuned to the newsletter for the continuation of this "history mystery" as the "The Search for Benjamin's Garden" unfolds.