Touring Bluefield’s immaculate gardens is a delight for the senses.
In the 20th century Bluefield was on fire. Its streets rumbled with passing coal trains, boiled with people, simmered with life. This southern West Virginia town sprang up from the soil of the bituminous industry, its population swelling fast as word got around that the valley boasted the largest deposit of soft burning coal in the world. Coalfield millionaires, bankers, and industry giants squeezed every drop of riches from the ground and built sprawling mansions, towering buildings, and striking examples of neoclassical architecture. Over the years Bluefield’s resources fueled the Norfolk & Western Railroad, a blossoming coalfield, and two world wars before mining mechanization in the 1950s dampened the fire and miners and millionaires left the town in droves.
But you’ll be surprised to learn modernity hasn’t worn away the luster. The town’s striking 1920s architecture—from the Elks Lodge and Opera House downtown, with its massive Corinthian columns and cornices, to many of the grand old houses of the Country Club Hill and Oakhurst neighborhoods—has been preserved for posterity on the National Register of Historic Places. And its openhearted character hasn’t dimmed in the slightest. “It’s the hospitality. It reminds you of the old South with its cocktail parties and the way people work together to make positive things happen,” says David Hardin, a local restaurateur and active member of the all-volunteer Bluefield Beautification Commission. “We care about the city and keeping it alive and vibrant.”
Downtown, boxes of red dragon wing begonias, sweet potato vines, pink petunias, and purple secretia spill over windowsills and porticos. Urns on street corners, planters beside park benches, and baskets hanging from light posts overflow with blue alyssum and orange million bells. Pass through one of the town’s historic neighborhoods in August 2015 and, like refined Southern ladies, the grand old homes will have donned their best attire for one of the town’s premier and most well-attended soirees—the Bluefield Garden Tour. In late summer visitors will find ruby red clematis dripping from arbors, neatly trimmed boxwood hedges cutting across green lawns, patinated sculpture peeking out from nets of English ivy, reflecting pools hiding red and gold koi fish, and water fountains scattering sunlight. Bluefield’s heritage might be in the dust and muck of coalfields, but its soul is in the lush colors and vibrant landscapes of its well-maintained homes. “To say I was blown away would be an understatement,” says first garden tour attendee and Charleston native Sally Barton. “I felt as if I had been transported somewhere else. The gardens in Bluefield’s old neighborhoods were magical, not cookie cutter—designed yet naturalized, beautiful yet wild. I was enchanted.”
Sponsored by the commission, the first garden tour in 2012 was a raving success, with some 300 visitors exploring Japanese-inspired groves under canopies of 100-year-old trees, English country-inspired tea parties on carpets of green, and mazes of hedges and perennial flowers revealing whimsical art. In 2015 David says the commission, together with homeowners, has added a distinct theme called Through the Garden Gate. “We will be featuring all kinds of outdoor entertaining spaces—terraces, patios, and outdoor kitchens. We are going to set up table-scapes displaying design themes like a brunch, a backyard barbecue, a romantic dinner, even an English tea.” As in 2012, each location will be flawlessly decorated and include live entertainment and instructional discussions on things like beekeeping, container gardening, water gardening, herb gardening, and Bonsai. The final stop on the tour, at 1339 Liberty Street, will include wine, beer, champagne, lemonade, and hors d’oeuvres.
Although only in its second year, Bluefield’s garden tour and the commission itself has had a big impact. “All the money we raise goes right back into the community,” David says. Together with other fundraising and volunteer projects throughout the year led by the commission and the city, the tour fires up local tourism and helps pay for improvements like new entrance signs, renovations to the city park, new stone entranceways and gates, landscaped islands and triangles along roadways, and general cleanup and beautification. And, perhaps even more importantly, the tour helps rekindle the pride of Bluefield’s past. Ask commission member and longtime resident Betsey Sorrell why keeping grand gardens and boxes of flowers fresh along the city’s streets is so vital, and she’ll tell you it’s simple. “I believe we have all been given a small corner of the world to tend. When I drive down the streets of our city, emblazoned with flowers, I see love,” she says. “A love for beauty, a love for a community, and a love for its people. Some days I feel like my heart might explode with joy.”
The 2015 Through the Garden Gate tour will take place August 8, 2015. Tickets are $25 per person in advance, $30 at the door, and include drinks and hors d’oeuvres.
WRITTEN BY MIKENNA PIEROTTI