Julia Lester Dillon: A Most Remarkable Woman
“The men and women who made gardens will find them safety valves for the spirit...They must plant in faith, water with hope, take counsel of patience; then...they will reap an abundant harvest of joy and peace and happiness.”
—Julia Lester Dillon
Blossom Circle of the Year in Southern Gardens, 1922
The first female in the South to become a professional landscape designer, Julia Lester Dillon’s expertise and creativity could be seen throughout the city that she helped name “The Garden City of the South” in the early 20th century.
Born in 1871 in Warren County, Ga., to Benjamin Lester and Martha Pemble Lester, Julia moved to Augusta with her family in the early 1880s after a tornado partially destroyed their country plantation house. They lived with her maternal grandparents on the 400 block of Ellis Street while Benjamin worked as a clerk at various dry goods establishments, and eventually at J.B. White’s. The couple raised two sons and two daughters.
Devout Methodists who attended nearby St. James Church, the Lesters lived out their faith in service to others. Martha P. Lester became a strong advocate for education of mill children and adults and worked tirelessly to establish the King Mill School. In 1934, the Richmond County Board of Education named its new school in Harrisburg the Martha P. Lester School, “for one of the most beloved women who ever served others.” The children followed their parents’ examples.
While many Augustans recognize the name of the mother, the remarkable daughter deserves notice as well. Educated in Augusta public schools, Julia was one of 22 graduates from Tubman High School in 1886 at a commencement ceremony in the Masonic Hall that was so well attended that hundreds were turned away. After graduation, she attended Peabody College in Nashville, a fine school for young women aspiring to be teachers. By 1890 she was teaching at Davidson Grammar School and was one of six finalists for the most popular “lady” teacher in the county.
In 1892, she married William Bennett Lester, who was principal of Central Grammar School, but was widowed in December 1894 and had to become self-supporting. In spite of hearing loss from a bout of diphtheria (one source says typhoid), she taught at Houghton Grammar School for several years, teaching in Louisiana from 1905-1906, before returning to Augusta to head the night school for girls at the D’Antignac School for a couple of years—work that must have made her mother proud. In 1909, perhaps because of progressive hearing loss, she became a stenographer to Dr. T. E. Oertel, a job she kept for several years.
Throughout these working years, Dillon continued to follow the Lester tradition of service, becoming involved with a vast array of organizations. Some of her early work was with the church, where she was an active member of the Epworth League, participating at the local and state level. She was also an early member of the Philomathic Club, which was founded in 1895 to foster the intellectual development of its members. In 1901, while serving as the club’s president, Dillon hosted a “Shakespeare Party,” which included a game of Shakespeare quotations.
One of her most significant charities was the Needlework Guild, an organization begun in Augusta in 1895, that her mother also supported. Dues consisted of two new garments each year, which were distributed to the poor of the community, particularly in the mill districts. Active for many years, Dillon served a two-year chairmanship in 1906-1908, during which time she traveled to establish other branches of the Guild, including chapters in Chattanooga, Nashville, Atlanta and Rome.
Her interest in art and design also appeared during these years of teaching and service. In 1902 she began penning a series on the “Teaching and Study of Art” in which she argued that art education was not about making artists of the “masses,” but about using art to sharpen “powers of observation [and] facilitate powers of expression.” Art, she believed, enlightened, for “in order to understand how the peoples of all nations, the races of all climes, have expressed their love for the beautiful, have recorded their impressions, we turn to their art.” Her work as a writer was woven throughout the rest of her life.
She was also an increasingly sought after speaker. When the Augusta district of the Woman’s Home Missionary Society held its first annual meeting in 1902, Julia Lester Dillon was touted as a keynote speaker sure to draw the audience for “when Mrs. Dillon’s name appears in the program something rare brilliant and enjoyable may be expected.”
The energetic Dillon would eventually find a new calling that suited her well in spite of her hearing loss. She recalled in an interview on her 80th birthday: “I remember the first garden I ever saw. I was four years old but the beauty of the moss and tea roses made a lasting impression.” It was with the beauty of nature that Dillon would fill the next five decades of her life. By 1908-1909, she began spending time in summers taking courses at Columbia and Harvard. When an article she wrote on “Art and the Environment” was published in the Christian Advocate in 1909, The Augusta Chronicle noted that she had taken a course in the history of art at Harvard University.
Her interest and work increasingly focused on design and the environment. By 1914-1915 she was listed in the Augusta City Directory as a landscape architect—the first woman in the South to make her way in this male profession. Her clients included many of the Northern visitors who came to Augusta for the winter season. Having acquired or built homes in the area, they brought their Northern gardeners who had little idea of plants that would succeed in the Southern climate. So Julia Lester Dillon became a favorite landscaper for many of them, as well as for local Augustans. She designed, among many other gardens, those of the Chicago family who built “Twin Gables” on Milledge Road.
As a result of her writing, Dillon’s reputation spread throughout the South. In 1914 an article on the home of Boykin Wright appeared in House and Garden. “Mrs. Dillon, who is an authority on gardens and flowers, is especially felicitous in her descriptions of the trees, shrubs and flowers that adorn this lovely Southern home.”
In 1915 Dillon was proposed and accepted as a member of the Augusta Woman’s Club. She attracted the group’s attention when she submitted a plan to the conservation department of the club to organize a “plant exchange,” where people could gave away plants or seeds they didn’t need to others who could use them. Within a month of the proposal an exchange of 38 plants took place with some going to Central Grammar School.
During her tenure at Woman’s Club Dillon also organized a project, funded by the Merchant and Manufacturers Association, to link school children with empty lots where they could plant. By May of 1915, The Augusta Chronicle reported that Dillon had involved hundreds of children in making gardens, including 100 from Houghton School who had garden plots at their home and another 50 who established plots on a lot opposite the school. She began speaking at PTA meetings on “The Home Garden and Its Relation to School.” The M&M Association even offered prizes.
From there the project snowballed into a citywide effort. By fall Dillon was working with a number of empty lots, prompting the city to actively solicit additional properties for planting. And within a few months the city launched its own “City Beautiful Campaign” headed by Julia Lester Dillon, “an individual leader in beautifying Augusta...and well-known writer for House and Garden and other publications.” She would plant one or two vacant lots each week as a lesson for organizations and individuals. One such lesson involved the transformation of the old trash heaps south of Union Station into a beautiful green space. Dillon urged civic organizations to participate and asked that businesses offer prizes as incentives to turn “vacant lots into beauty spots.” To assure that the entire community was involved, she met with Silas X. Floyd to include the Colored Civic League.
In the meantime demand for Dillon’s professional expertise continued to grow. The U.S. Department of the Treasury awarded Dillon six landscape gardening contracts in late November 1916. For three weeks in December she travelled from Florida to North Carolina to visit the sites she was contracted to plant, which included post offices, custom houses and other public buildings.
When the United States entered World War I, Dillon wanted to do her part. By June 1917 she attended Red Cross classes where women made garments and surgical supplies for soldiers and she was also part of the Woman’s Messenger Motor Service. In addition she was a patron for programs put on for the soldiers at the YMCA tent at Camp Hancock and she served as chair of the Augusta/Richmond County Food Production Committee of the Council of National Defense, which included Lawton B. Evans, Peter H. Craig and other prominent Augustans. The committee developed home “Victory Gardens” to provide food for local citizens and for the troops.
When the war ended in late 1918, Dillon continued both her professional and volunteer work. She had been a founding member in late 1917 of an organization of business and professional women who used men’s Rotary Clubs as a model of service—“personal, civic and national.” Twenty-five vocations for women were slotted; Dillon was the only landscape designer. In 1919 she was the club’s representative to the State Federation of Professional and Businesswomen’s Club. She became one of six members of the state board of directors, whose first act was to urge the state legislature to pass the 19th amendment for women’s suffrage.
After the war, she actively continued her work with the Woman’s Club as the conservation chair for the 10th District. As such she encouraged communities and organizations to plant memorial trees “as living monuments” for those who had given their lives in the Great War. Entire groves were established throughout the district, which was said to be a “decided compliment to the splendid work of Julia Lester Dillon.” Among other accomplishments in this busy period, she took an active role in urging the passage of the Overman Forestry Bill in Congress and became chair of the State Forestry Committee of the Georgia Federation of Woman’s Clubs. She also continued the “Garden Army” of children begun during the war.
During this time Dillon was increasingly recognized throughout the South as a writer—editing the Southern garden department for House and Garden Magazine as well as writing a regular garden column for The Augusta Chronicle, which included such titles as “The Making of Gardens From the Curb to the Border,” “The Making of Gardens: To Live In and Love,” “Historic Trees of Augusta and Richmond County” and “Making the Garden Walks and Drive.” Perhaps her best-known work was the book Blossom Circles of the Year in Southern Gardens published in New York in 1922.
In 1920 Dillon received a commission to design and plant a six-acre memorial park in Sumter, S.C. Her work was so well-received in Sumter that she was hired permanently as the city’s landscape architect and before the end of the year Augusta lost one of its foremost citizens. Her remarkable career continued in South Carolina where for many years she wrote weekly articles for The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., as well as articles for Flower Grower Magazine. After a lifetime of service and a successful career devoted to helping people and making gardens “to live in and love,” she died in 1959 at the age of 80.
Dr. Lee Ann Caldwell is an Augusta historian, author and director of the Center for Study of Georgia History at Augusta State University.