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Digging deeper:

Volunteers showcase Thomas Jefferson Gardens of Jefferson

July 16, 2018
By DARCY DOUGHERTY MAULSBY - Farm News staff writer ( , Farm News


JEFFERSON - What comes to mind with the name Thomas Jefferson? President, perhaps? Avid agriculturist and gardener also fit, especially in Jefferson, where locals are quick to share this rich history.

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The Thomas Jefferson Gardens of Greene County are located in downtown Jefferson and are made up of five distinct gardens.

"Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens," Jefferson wrote in 1785 to John Jay, a fellow founder of the United States and first chief justice of the United States Supreme Court. "They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds."

Jefferson frequently extolled the virtues of the agrarian life and championed self-government. His legacy and ideals are honored on in the Thomas Jefferson Gardens of Greene County, Iowa (TJGGCI), in downtown Jefferson, thanks to dedicated volunteers, local civic groups and other community-minded supporters.

A life-sized statue of Jefferson himself greets visitors to the gardens, which surround the local Welcome Center/chamber of commerce office southeast of the Greene County Courthouse.

"The statue is so lifelike that I think a person is sitting there when I catch a glimpse of it while I'm working," said Jean Walker, head gardener and secretary of the TJGGCI.

Jefferson's interest in agriculture blends seamlessly with a rural community like Jefferson that honors its ag heritage and looks for new ways to promote the area, said John Turpin, a retired social studies teacher and coach from Jefferson who serves as treasurer and historian for the TJGGCI.

"Jefferson was a student of the flora and fauna in his home state of Virginia," Turpin said. "He also thought agriculture was the most important career a person could have."

Making something out of nothing

So what came first in Jefferson - the statue or the garden? It all started in 2010 when Wallace Teagarden, a Greene County native, lawyer and long-time admirer of Jefferson's philosophies, wanted to combine his love of agriculture and Greene County in a lasting legacy to the author of the Declaration of Independence.

Teagarden commissioned Jon Hair, an Iowa native and world-renown sculptor, to create a statue of Jefferson. While displaying the statue on the courthouse lawn was the original idea, it was decided that the statute should become focal point of the new TJGGCI, located just down the street to the east of the iconic Mahanay Bell Tower.

A great deal of work went into creating the $5 million gardens that visitors enjoy today.

"This lot where the gardens are had three dilapidated old buildings on it that had to be removed," said Mary Weaver, who leads 12-member volunteer board of the TJGGCI.

The ground itself wasn't ideal, either. Old cans and other debris were buried in the corner behind the area where a filling station once stood on the property.

"Multiple truckloads of soil were hauled in here," Walker said.

Before some of the first plants could even be planted, grant writing and fundraising were essential. Project leaders received grants from Vision Iowa and Grow Greene County, along with support from Alliant Energy, West Central Cooperative (which is now Landus Cooperative, the Greene County Board of Supervisors, and countless other groups and individuals.)

By 2014, the first plants were added to the new garden. Today, brick paving connects the five distinct gardens in the TJGGCI, including:

Learning and growing

Since Thomas Jefferson was interested in music as well as agriculture, the TJGGCI project leaders added whimsical, larger-than-life musical instruments, including a contrabass chime and xylophone, to bring sound to the garden.

"We were inspired by the outdoor instruments at Okoboji in the Arnolds Park area," said Jacque Andrew, of Jefferson, who handles marketing for the TJGGCI. "Anyone can play these instruments, and they make the garden more interactive."

So far, there has been one wedding in the garden in 2016. Tour groups from Des Moines to South Dakota have also visited the gardens.

Volunteers continue to work to make the garden even more inviting. They hope to add a third musical instrument and are hosting another year of Tuesday Talks. These free, educational lectures are held in the garden each Tuesday from noon until 1 p.m. through Aug. 14. Topics range from perennial gardening to birds in the garden.

"A garden is always a work in progress," Walker said.

That's part of what brings people together and makes this project inspiring, Weaver added.

"These gardens make me so proud of the community,"?she said. "We want to help Jefferson and Greene County become a destination, and the gardens are an important part of this."



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