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The Birthplace of the Southern Landscape

photo by Robert Du Bois

The annual pause of “normal” for the Augusta National’s Masters Tournament seems as if it has gone on since life crawled from the seas. Yet all other weeks of the year, commuters whiz by a piece of the past without giving it a thought, except to anticipate the next Masters Tournament. The Washington Road artery pumping commerce in and out of Augusta proper shrouds what was not so long ago rolling farmland on the western outskirts of downtown. Asphalt and concrete mask its fertile contributions to the city, the state and the Southeast. Behind the gates of the Augusta National Golf Club exists more than green jackets, egg salad sandwiches and a one-week hiatus from the ordinary.

Sentimentality wells up in Augustans’ and golf-lovers’ hearts when they first glimpse the images of the Augusta National’s emerald fairways and blossoming flowers. Some folks are even guilty of amending the Biblical creation story to say, “And on day three, God created the dry ground and gathered the waters into Rae’s Creek. He called the dry ground fairways and the ponds water hazards.” The Augusta National is a lost and found Eden concealed from public view 52 weeks of the year.

To set the record straight, though, it was Bobby Jones in the 1930s who saw the land’s potential as a Southern hub of golf. He is alleged to have said, when touring the property, “Imagine this land sitting here all these years just waiting for someone to build a golf course on it.” Course designer Dr. Alister Mackenzie pointed his finger and created a place where champions would be unveiled.

The Berckmans faily operated Fruitland Nurseries from 1858-1918,fulfilling Redmond's goal to cater to the Southern agricultural economy.

The azaleas, the pines, the camellias of the Augusta National, recognizable the world over, allude to a past as important to the region as the club and tournament are locally and internationally.  The club’s stewardship over its inheritance has preserved a segment of history that shaped not just the vistas on the stunning golf course, but also the landscape of the Southeast.

Hinting at its future, experimental ag­­riculturist and junior editor of the Southern Cultivator Dennis Redmond, who bought the acreage in 1853, named the property Fruitland. Adding acreage from the Bedford plantation, he had visions of operating a commercial nursery to sell fruits and flowers to Southern growers. Concerned about Southerner’s sole reliance on cotton and the devastating effects of overworking the land, Redmond was a proponent of diversifying with fruit orchards, which promised beauty and productivity.

It was Redmond, also, who built Fruitland Manor, completed in 1857, the first concrete structure of its type in the region. Borrowing from Louisiana plantation and West Indies architectural styles, he designed it as a commentary on and protest against the South’s reliance on slave labor. Fruitland Manor now serves as the Augusta National’s clubhouse and is as important an image of the prestigious club as is Amen Corner. The cupola at the top, used by Redmond to survey the work at Fruitland, still provides panoramic views of the 345-acres nestled in the crook of Berckmans and Washington roads.

Redmond’s vision of a Southern utopia foreshadowed the property’s future, but Redmond’s tenacity waned. Meanwhile, Belgian-born physician and horticulture enthusiast Louis Mathieu Edouard Berckmans and his university-trained horticulturist son, Prosper, on a quest similar to that of Bobby Jones’s more than 70 years later, were searching for the ideal location for a plant nursery.  They purchased Fruitland in 1857.

The Berckmans family operated Fruitland Nurseries from 1858-1918, fulfilling Redmond’s goal to cater to the Southern agricultural economy. It was the first large-scale horticulture venture in the Southeast, performing the functions of experimentation, development and distribution. Over the course of the next 60 years, the Berckmans, in particular Prosper, changed the face of Georgia and the region. One need only smell the sweet spring air or observe the graceful draping clusters of purple flowers dangling from vine-entwined trees to appreciate the impact Fruitland had. Fruitland Nurseries is credited with the introduction of that aromatic, pervasive vine, wisteria, synonymous with the southland. With their work in ornamentals and fruits, the Berckmans defined the Southern landscape.

Notably, Prosper, like Redmond and other Southern visionaries of the day, understood the need for crop diversification. Cotton couldn’t sustain the economy forever. He sought to propagate a hardy peach tree adapted to the region’s climate. Through research and experimentation he bred the Thurber, Belle and Elberta varieties, which became staples in Georgia orchards. Due to his success, he was known as the Father of Peach Culture. Other fruits brought to the region by Fruitland include the Kelsey plum, the Japanese persimmon, the sand pear and the kumquat.

Fruitland Nurseries also cultivated ornamentals that perform well in this sub-tropical climate. Prosper popularized the use of azaleas, the flowering shrub caught in every sweeping camera angle of the televised Masters Tournament. Many of the camellias familiar to Southerners were imported by Fruitland Nurseries as well. Privet hedges across the region are descendants of the amur privet hedge Prosper imported from France. The “mother hedge” still grows on the Augusta National property. Most people can’t imagine a Southern yard or the Augusta National without these foundation plantings.

This idea to lay the property's future over the lines of its past made the picturesque scenes of the Augusta National grounds the ones that fans of golf and of spring cherish today.

Just two years after establishing Fruitland Nurseries, the Berckmans supplied Godfrey Barnsley, a wealthy cotton broker from Savannah, plants to adorn the landscape surrounding his beloved Woodlands Manor (now Barnsley Resort) in Adairsville, Ga. The year 1876 saw the founding of the Georgia Horticultural Society by Prosper, who served as president until his death in 1910. In the mid-1880s, Fruitland Nurseries camellias were installed at Arlie Gardens in Wilmington, N.C. A variety of 1,636 Fruitland Nurseries evergreens were planted in Atlanta’s historic Piedmont Park for the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition. The grounds around Tom Watson’s Hickory Hill in nearby Thomson boast magnolias and deodar cedars from Fruitland. Ginkgo and China fir trees at Hills & Dales Estate, formerly the widely acclaimed Ferrell Gardens, in LaGrange, Ga., were products of Fruitland Nurseries.

From the fruit trees in orchards to the dogwoods lining neighborhood streets to oaks casting shade in sweltering summer heat, the footprint of Fruitland Nurseries is visible across the Southeast. The work of Prosper’s hands became the horticultural heritage of the South. He gave us the familiar. The Augusta National Golf Club basks in the same favor and protects it from falling into obscurity. On May 25, 1979, the property was entered on the National Register of Historic Places.

Eight years after Prosper’s death, Fruitland Nurseries closed. The acreage stayed in the possession of the Berckmans family until 1925, when they sold it to a developer from Miami who set sights on building a resort for Northerners wintering in Augusta. When his finances fell through, the timing was perfect for recently retired amateur golfer Bobby Jones, who appreciated the land’s potential to change the face of the region.

To the credit of the golf course’s designers, instead of forcing the old nursery to accommodate its new purpose, they enabled the links to accommodate the land’s previous function. Like drawings on tracing paper laid atop each other, the Augusta National overlays the outlines of Fruitland Nurseries. The past and the present share the space. They share the prestige.

Two of Prosper’s sons still lived in Augusta when Fruitland was purchased for the fledgling Augusta National Golf Club. Interestingly, both had applied their horticulture knowledge to golf courses since the close of Fruitland. Prosper Berckmans Jr. was an expert in corrective planting for golf courses and Louis Alphonse Berckmans had consulted the golf club at Sea Island and Pine Hurst Golf Club in North Carolina. It seems the land that spoke golf so clearly to Bobby Jones had spoken to them too. Jones and his associates brought Louis on to rehabilitate the Fruitland trees and shrubs that in neglect had slipped into wildness.

This idea to lay the property’s future over the lines of its past made the picturesque scenes of the Augusta National grounds the ones that fans of golf and of spring cherish today. Fruitland Manor, a model of innovative architecture and former home of the Berckmans family, stands at the end of Magnolia Lane, which was planted from seed by the Berckmans. It gives the same welcome to Masters patrons and players that it gave to the Fruitland owners and workers. The big oak tree behind the clubhouse has rooted there since the 1850s. Amur privet hedge—the mother hedge to southeastern privet—is a standard in the landscaping surrounding the clubhouse.

Spanish cork oak, China fir and other specimens dating to the Fruitland era remain. The enormous wisteria vine established by the Berckmans—the first one planted in the United States and the largest of its kind in the country—continues to bloom. Show-stopping azaleas, Prosper’s contribution to nostalgia, backdrop the Masters Golf Tournament. In fact, everywhere spectators look, whether inside the gates or driving through Augusta’s neighborhoods, azaleas abound.

Without Fruitland Nurseries, the face of the Augusta National, the face of Augusta, the face of Georgia, the face of the South would be that of a stranger. The colors, fragrances and flavors that give the places we love identity would be absent. A fertile ground of influence lies behind the lemon hedge (lemon hedge brought here by Prosper Berckmans) outlining the Augusta National’s boundaries.

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