By Louisa Finn, fourth generation Smiley family member
Episode #2: Garden Musings
In a private office on the ground floor of Mohonk Mountain House live grand old bookshelves lined with Daniel Smiley’s collection of garden books. Though I’ve not read them, the imposing presence of their sheer mass has often made me wonder if my own gardening obsession is a genetic inheritance. Gardeners have a particular kind of vision and determination, at times seeming to border on madness, when weather, critters, bugs, and soil conditions all conspire against the intended outcome. Among those who love to cultivate plants, these obstacles are never enough to dissuade from the sense of abundance, beauty, and joy that the garden can provide. I’ve observed, as well, a strong redemptive spirit in many fellow workers of the soil, not the least my Smiley ancestors!
Frederick Partington, a Mohonk guest, observed this about Albert K. Smiley’s garden pursuits:
“Getting the land may have been the hardest thing Mr. Smiley ever did – but taming it gave him the greatest delight of his life. He did not rest until he had coaxed into blossom nearly 20 acres of that hopeless slope of the mountain.”
That would have been in 1888, when wagonloads of fertile soil from the surrounding property were transported to create the formal garden. Thousands of plants were cultivated, from ornamental trees to flowering bushes like Rhododendron and Hydrangea, fruiting plants like gooseberry and raspberry, and many varieties of flowers including Peonies and Roses (two Smiley favorites). Among the treasures to be found in the Mohonk Archives are personal notebooks with lists of numbered beds and the flowers they should contain.
Victorians were passionate about the science of botany, and the learning of plant names and characteristics were considered essential knowledge for the educated. Sarah Smiley, sister to Albert K. and twin brother Alfred, infamous for being a female preacher in the early 20th Century, recommended the following plants in the year 1880. The list is interesting not only for the number and variety of the flowers contained, but her understanding of the particularities of their care.
Heliotrope, Sweet Alyssum, Double Hollyhock
Verbenas need new soil and ashes, Pinks
Sweet Peas (Painted Lady best, Crown Prince Prussia
and mixed varieties) Pansies (bed sunk and well composted
Cow manure) White Double Gladiolus, must not be manured
Except old manure and leaf soil, plant deep water when young
That same year, 1880, Sarah wrote and published a book, Garden Graith: Talks Among Flowers in which the garden serves as metaphor for her passionate spiritual beliefs. Here she makes the connection between the struggles of gardening and the hard work of evolving as a human being.
“And so my joy has come, not from the placing of a perfect gift in my hands, but through slow triumphs over many obstacles – so turning at last desolation into beauty. Yet even thus have I learned most. My garden redeemed is a truer microcosm of the world of human hearts.”
Thank you, Sister Sarah – there’s hope for all of us! Sarah’s words help me to consider how the garden may “grow us” rather than the other way around. The patience, persistence, and humility required in the garden help us to develop these qualities in ourselves, as well as the hopefulness inherent to garden planning.
It is this quality that is most apparent in two typed notes I discovered between Albert K. Smiley, Jr. and his mother Effie in January 1916. Albert, manager of Mohonk at the time, was clearly surprised by the arrival of 2,000 Gladiolus bulbs in the dead of winter. Effie’s response demonstrates her advanced planning for Spring, including the all-important consideration of fresh cut flowers for the hotel.
I love the image of the 2,000 bulbs lying in boxes during that Winter of 1916, just as the United States was considering involvement in World War I. It communicates a kind of prescient optimism and determination of normalcy: “the show must go on.”
Effie’s appreciative knowledge of the cultivars she was ordering also reminds me of a more recent ancestor, Rachel Matteson. Aunt “Rachie” was clearly endowed with the Smiley Garden artistry. She was known during her tenure at Mohonk for her masterful ability to create flower arrangements, a skill relatable to any work of art, involving design, color, and feeling. Rachie’s arrangements were distinct for their simplicity, playful freshness, and delight in color. Rachie would place arrangements around the hotel in locations meant to lift the eye and the spirit. They were not just superficial decorations, but more like small expressions of the whole world of “Mohonkness.”
Pressed flowers were another way that people demonstrated reverence for plants in the Victorian era. It was not uncommon for people to stick a flower or leaf between the pages of a book they were reading, either to preserve it for the future, and/or to document the memory of a special day or moment.
Recently, some Smiley family members and I were looking through Daniel Smiley’s book collection in the Family Parlor at Mohonk. I opened a hundred-year-old book belonging to Daniel’s wife Effie (my great-grandmother) and discovered a pressed leaf and flower.
The discovery made me take a breath and pause a moment to receive this communication from across a century. I traced the shape of the leaf and imagined the vibrancy of color long since faded. Who put it there? What were they thinking? The celebration of one particular moment was communicated by an ancestor through the faded, flattened body of a plant, making me feel the temporary nature of existence, and our fragile connection to the past and future. Birth, growth, flowering, death. All of humanity’s grand visions are, after all, accomplished moment by moment—a vast garden created flower by flower.
Louisa Finn is a fourth generation Smiley family member. She is Secretary for Mohonk Consultations, a Speech/Language Therapist, and poet. Her mother, Patricia Smiley Guralnik, directed the Festival of the Arts at Mohonk following the death of her husband, pianist Robert Guralnik. As a child, Louisa spent many days visiting her grandmother, Rachel Orcutt Smiley, who, in her later years, lived in Mohonk’s tower room 271. Currently, Louisa enjoys spending time in the Mohonk Archives, and reading the letters of her ancestors. Their words help to confirm her strong sense of the value of place, and inspire her to share the way past voices can instruct the present, and the future.