Diamond in the rough
Jennifer Bigham unearths historic Coweta gardens from their forgotten grave, then refurbishes them to their 1930s shine

By DANNY C. FLANDERS
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer

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.

"As we went, we stuck steel rods into the earth," she says, "and if we struck something, we all stopped and dug."

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.

"I didn't buy this property to develop public gardens," says Bigham, who opened the Newnan area site to visitors this spring. "When we started clearing, we had no idea what we had but soon said, 'Whoa, we're standing on a masterpiece!' Soon after, we realized we needed to share it."

Now, the Peachtree City resident -- who bought the acreage with her husband, Roger, for building the proverbial house in the country -- 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."

It and Hetty Jane.

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.

'Seized' by great idea

"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.

"As young people, we used to take our dates there and have our pictures made," says Annette Austin, 86, of Newnan, one of Sewell's cousins. "She grew all sorts of flowers, and I remember the swings and a wishing well."

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.

"It was just a beautiful place because Hetty Jane worked really hard to develop those gardens," the Fayetteville resident says.

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."

Bigham can identify.

Paradise neglected

After the couple died, the gardens languished at the hands of several different owners who didn't share, or couldn't afford to maintain, Dunaway's dream.

Wisteria and ivy choked out hundreds of rhododendron, native azaleas, oakleaf hydrangea, mahonia and mountain laurel. Rock walls crumbled in an avalanche of neglect. Pools cracked as 200-year-old white oaks stretched their mighty legs. Cottages and other structures fell in rot, leaving only chimneys as memorials to happier times.

Some buyers had big plans for the site, which never took off, including a "Gone With the Wind" theme park. But by the time the last owners, the nonprofit Dunaway Gardens Restoration group, decided to sell, the gardens were drowning in a forgotten sea of weeds.

"Everything out here had collapsed. After 40 years, there wasn't a single thing standing except for the fireplaces," recalls Bigham, who first noticed the site off Ga. 70 in June 2000 while she and her husband were driving Coweta's back roads.

"We were just looking for some property to build a house on," says Roger, an anesthetist at Newnan Hospital. "We just had no idea what was here until we started looking around."

The Bighams had heard of Dunaway Gardens and knew it was for sale. But neither had a clue about its many varied features, let alone where they were located, having no maps of the site. "Still, when I got back in the car, I told Roger it was the most incredible thing I'd ever seen."

For him, conditions at the site -- only a small part of the 135 wooded acres they'd eventually buy -- were too overwhelming. But to her, it was a diamond in the rough, and she couldn't wait to mine it. There was no choice but to restore the gardens, listed in 1996 on the National Register of Historic Places, and Roger let her run with it.

"We spent all our life savings on preserving this. Our kids are horrified," jokes his wife, 50, who won't disclose how much they've invested in the project.

Bigham, a self-described "backyard gardener," brought in arborists and other experts to assess the site, which includes a rare Japanese plum yew. She quickly learned that Dunaway could not truly be restored; its trees had grown so large that it had become a shade garden, making most sun-loving plants just a glimmer in Dunaway's past.

Regardless, this former Texan knew she would have to think big.

Unearthing a dream

The project began by the hiring of a crew of 20 who worked at Bigham's side every day for eight months to clear the weeds. Poking their way through the sweltering Georgia jungle, they stopped each time they discovered yet another remnant of Dunaway's past. Some were easy to identify, based on a few photographs and brochures provided by former visitors and the local historical society.

But until most could be completely unearthed -- like that 1/2-acre slab of granite dubbed "Little Stone Mountain" and the forest of a swimming pool -- they remained mysteries. "Essentially, the excavation just led itself," she says.

Along the way, they revived each of Dunaway's creations: the "Wedding Tree," a large oak around which she'd built a slate patio for conducting ceremonies; the "Hanging Gardens," now mangled by large roots of wisteria; and the "Grand Finale," a large swimming pool at the base of a series of cascading waterfalls. "When I hit the pool, I knew I'd struck gold," Bigham says.

Then the real work began. Crews repaired hundreds of feet of rock walls, resurfaced every pool and groomed the largest trees. The 4 miles of irrigation lines they laid had to be hand dug to avoid harming tree roots. A new entrance was built with stones found on site, and new gardens, one featuring 100 antique roses, were added.

Early on, the Bighams realized they were only stewards of the site; they had to go public, which would have its pluses and minuses. On the downside, the biggest battle was with local bureaucracies that viewed the project as new development, wanting, for example, to require paved roads and curbing. At the same time, by forming the nonprofit Dunaway Gardens Foundation, the couple is able to seek the assistance of government grants.

One project Bigham's anxious to see funded is the preservation of 25 acres of wetlands. She's hired a biologist to study the site and hopes to extend a bridge into its shallow lakes so that school groups can experience them up close.

Garden clubs, preservationists, Master Gardeners and nature groups also are eyeing the site's revival with much anticipation, and Bigham hopes to eventually build a facility for renting the gardens for events.

"This is just absolutely beautiful, an awesome site," says Wendell Holmes, a Carroll County Master Gardener, wandering the grassy paths one morning this spring.

Elizabeth Beers, president of the Newnan-Coweta Historical Society, considers the project "the greatest thing to happen to Coweta County since we got county water."

"The site can never be restored but renovated and saved," she says. "And when you go back and see how it's been cleared without totally decimating it, you see just what a tremendous job Jennifer has done."

Six employees help Bigham maintain the site, and even though the major renovations are done, leaving mainly the new plantings, she admits the three-year project can still be exhausting. "When I'm tired, I ask myself, 'Jennifer, what have you gotten yourself into?' " she says.

"But when I'm not, I'm reminded that I always wanted to have some purpose and think how blessed I am to have this opportunity. What an incredible journey I'm taking."

And with Hetty Jane Dunaway at her side.