The Woman Behind Bellingrath Gardens

Bellingrath Gardens was a must-see visit for us as we explored Alabama’s Coastal Connection Scenic Byway. Sixty-five acres of gorgeous gardens and the impressive 10,500 square-foot mansion, complete with the Bellingraths’ original furnishings, were absolutely worth the visit. But what impressed me most was the story of Mrs. Bellingrath.

Avid gardener… collector of fine things… generous philanthropist. Mrs. Bellingrath was all of those things, and here is how it started.

In 1903, Walter Bellingrath purchased the Coca Cola Bottling franchise for the Mobile, Alabama, area. He was, in fact, one of the first ten bottlers in the company. An excellent salesman and businessman, it wasn’t long before Walter’s business prospered.

He added machinery and hired drivers. He also hired Bessie Mae Morse to help in the office. It wasn’t long before Walter and Bessie fell in love. They married in 1906.

Doctor’s Orders: Walter Must Learn to Play

By 1917, Walter owned not only the Mobile Coca Cola Bottling Company. He also owned a tile company and had interests in a steamship company as well as other organizations. Walter was so busy with work, he didn’t take time to relax. His doctor, who was also a good friend, told Walter he must “learn to play.” The doctor encouraged Walter to purchase an old fishing camp along the Fowl River. Walter took the doctor’s advice, purchased the property in 1919, and named it Belle Camp.

Bessie Adds the Gardens

Bessie wasn’t into fishing, but she often accompanied Walter to the rustic Belle Camp. However, she told her husband if she was spending time at Belle Camp, she wanted it to be beautiful. In 1927, she hired architect George Rogers and 40 gardeners to create the gardens. It took five years to complete, including adding bridges and ponds. To make the gardens appear older than it was, she purchased full-grown azaleas instead of small plants.

Bessie’s Early Philanthropy

Bessie learned of families in town who needed money. She purchased their full-grown azaleas for $500 per plant, much more than they were worth. It was her way of helping people without hurting their pride.

The Gardens Open

The resulting gardens were so magnificent, the Bellingraths wanted to share their beauty with the town. They put a small ad in the paper inviting people to come and see the gardens one day, from 1:00 until 5:00. People came, 4,700 of them. The flow of people didn’t stop after that. They kept coming, day after day. So, in 1932, the Bellingraths made it a public garden.

A Home is Needed

With the gardens now open to the public, the Bellingraths needed to spend more time there. The rustic fishing cabin would no longer do. After all, it didn’t even have electricity or running water. Once again, they hired George Rogers to design the home. The mansion is mainly an English Renaissance style but incorporates other styles, as well. Many of the materials were sourced from former buildings. The handmade brick came from an old home in Mobile, and iron lace trim came from a Mobile hotel that was slated for demolition.

Bessie Got What She Wanted…

Bessie wanted flagstone walkways—not like the ones in the city of Mobile. She wanted those exact flagstones. So, she made a deal with the city. If she could have the flagstones, she would replace them with concrete sidewalks. Being that she and Walter had financially helped out the chamber of commerce, highway commission, and other city departments in the past, they absolutely let her have the flagstones.

…But She Also Gave and Gave

Times were tough. It was the height of the Depression, and Bessie knew how fortunate she and Walter were. As mentioned earlier, Bessie had a way of helping people without compromising their pride. At one time she paid a woman $100 each for every hand-crocheted shawl she could make. She then gave those shawls to the homeless.

If she was riding through town and saw families in need on the side of the road, she would have her chauffeur stop. She’d get out of the car, talk to the families, talk them into selling her something. She’d pay them large sums of cash and tell them she’d be back later to pick it up. Bessie would never go back.

Others Took Advantage of Her

Although Bessie loved helping others, she also was self-indulgent. She collected all kinds of things… silver, china, and lots of antiques. She always paid the asking price. Later, one New Orleans antiques dealer admitted when they saw her coming, dealers would double their prices. And she paid it.

Bellingrath Home Becomes a Museum

The Bellingraths never had children. So, when Bessie died in 1943, Walter knew he’d open the home to the public, make it a memorial to Bessie, with all of her collections intact. In fact, he devoted the rest of his life to maintaining the gardens.

In 1950, Walter founded the Bellingrath Morse Foundation, and within a year after his 1955 death, the home was opened to the public for tours.

Continued Philanthropy

The Bellingrath Morse Foundation supports the maintenance of the home and gardens, but the Bellingraths’ philanthropy also lives on through the foundation, as well. It also supports two churches and provides scholarships to three colleges.

If You Visit Bellingrath Gardens

Bellingrath Gardens, located at 12401 Bellingrath Gardens Road in Theodore, Alabama, is open year-round (closed December 25 and January 1). Check the website for hours and other details.

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