Most would think long and hard before trudging through kudzu-carpeted hillsides in the middle of summer - not Jennifer Bigham.
Sure, she and her machete-wielding workers met plenty of snakes, ticks and poison oak three years ago while clearing the 25-acres she bought in rural Coweta County. But it was the thrill of the hunt -- the sweat- and adrenaline-soaked anticipation of what buried treasure they might stumble upon next -- that drove this former nurse onward. To her surprise, five descending terraces emerged, each distinguished by its own features: rock walls, slate patios, waterfalls, goldfish ponds, hanging gardens, a 1-acre granite outcrop, even a swimming pool blasted from solid granite that had trees growing in it. All lay beneath her feet under 40 years of neglect and decay.
Bigham knew the site once held some gardens known as Dunaway. But little did she know she was excavating one of the South's largest rock gardens and the historic ruins of a theater training center frequented in its heyday by celebs from Walt Disney to Minnie Pearl. Bit by bit, Dunaway Gardens was rising from a Rip Van Winkle nap.
Now, she has raised the curtain on Act 2 of the Dunaway story. By reviving the unusual site, she's not only preserving a slice of Southern history but sharing the 1920s vision of its creator, Hetty Jane Dunaway, who spent 18 years creating her "theatrical gardens."
Like the late actress, told by some she'd never make much of the former cotton plantation, Bigham met opposition, which made her all the more determined. Yet what fueled her drive the most was her discovery of a kindred spirit among the jungle of ivy and wisteria. "The place just looked like a bunch of kudzu when I first saw it from the road," she recalls, "but ever since, I've just been drawn to it."
Dunaway was a young bride in the Roaring '20s when her husband, Wayne P. Sewell, decided to move his Atlanta-based theatrical booking agency to his family farm in the crossroads community of Roscoe, about 40 miles south. And he wanted them to live there.
"The story goes that she shook her head and said, 'I'm not living down here,' "Bigham says. "But he told her she could create whatever she wanted here, so she set out to develop a theater center."
As one of the highest-paid actresses on the Chautauqua circuit of summer theater, the Arkansas native wrote some of the plays she performed and was known for her elaborate costumes. She and Sewell helped small towns across the country stage shows by training actors, directors and producers, who traveled there and recruited local talent for the vaudevillian productions.
But the training center was no barn converted to a theater. Dunaway created elaborate gardens as a scenic backdrop and refuge.
Years before the site's 1934 opening, she brought in prominent landscape architects and a hired a full-time stonemason, who spent more than 10 years building its rock walls and terraces. She paid workers 50 cents a day to haul in the stone, bought from local residents, and trained farmhands to become gardeners, providing jobs during the Depression.
She dug 12 spring-fed collection pools on the hilly site and erected hanging gardens along a lush, hemlock-shaded rocky bank. She built a 1,000-seat rock-wall amphitheater for staging plays and opened the Honeymoon House for lodging and the Blue Bonnet Tea Room for hearty meals.
Jean Rowe Stinson will never forget working at Dunaway in the '30s because it was her first job. Sarah Ophelia Colley, later better known as Minnie Pearl, was head instructor of the dramatic school, and Stinson, now 89, trained there to become a director.
Shortly before she died, Dunaway said in a 1961 newspaper interview that the project "seized me and has never let me go. I have worked 18 hours a day and planned all night on this place. When my friends spent money on lovely dresses, I bought lengths of pipe for drainage ditches or coaxed a family of strange magnolias into buxom growth."
Learn more at www.dunawaygardens.com!