Under The Oak
Airlie Gardens' storied history
If trees could talk, the Airlie Oak could spout nearly five centuries of stories. Since 1545, the tree has grown in silence and increasing splendor in this coastal plain with only creatures, wind, and water to witness its humble beginnings. Airlie Gardens, now owned by New Hanover County, originated as part of a 1736 land grant from King George II to the Ogden brothers. TARA DUCKWORTH, director of parks and gardens for New Hanover County, is passionate about her role in managing the site. The gardens are an intrinsic part of the area’s culture, history, and sense of community.
In the 1790s, Joshua Grainger Wright took ownership of the land, and in 1835, Thomas Henry Wright built Mount Lebanon Chapel near Bradley Creek, close to the gracious oak. But, it was under a woman’s hand that the place blossomed.
In 1884, Sarah Green purchased acreage on Wrightsville Sound, just prior to her marriage to Wilmington native Pembroke Jones, and she later purchased adjoining land. That is where her dream garden flourished. Full-time workers tended the azaleas, camellias, and other flowers, bringing color to the tree-covered land. Her husband named the place Airlie to honor his family home in Scotland, and Sarah called it Airlie-on-the-Sound.
The Joneses gave lavish parties where guests received extravagant gifts which some have claimed led to the phrase, “Keeping up with the Joneses.” The reputation of the gardens was well-known around Wilmington.
The Corbett Package Company purchased the property in the 1940s but not to acquire wood for the company, says ALBERT CORBETT. His grandparents wanted the property as a gathering place on afternoons to foster close family ties. The gardens and the majestic oak were cared for like family.
“Grandmother worked in the gardens every day,” Corbett says. The children enjoyed the grounds, talked to the tree, and took girlfriends to sit under it, he says, laughing at the memory.
A dozen white and a dozen black swans graced the property back then. His grandmother said the black swans were more costly, but they disappeared over time.
When Corbett’s grandfather died, his father took over management of the gardens. After Hurricane Hazel hit in 1954, Corbett recalls riding out with his dad from their Forest Hills home to survey the damage. The gardens were ravaged with felled trees, standing salt water, and destroyed plants.
“His eyes welled up, and I hadn’t seen him like that since his father passed … He said, ‘We’re going to restore it.’” Waddell Corbett spent the next two years traveling to gardens around the Southeast, finding plants to replenish the gardens. In the 1990s, 1,300 trees were lost to hurricane damage. By then, the Corbetts had learned to move the plants they could to higher ground when a storm was forecasted.
The North Carolina Azalea Festival remains intimately tied to Airlie Gardens. In the beginning, Albert Corbett recalls, Airlie Gardens and Orton Plantation were alternate hosts. The first festival luncheon was held in the old Airlie house dining room with about seventy-five people attending.
No one knew then that a photograph of the first Queen Azalea beside the old tree would be its ticket to fame.
Duckworth says that in addition to the Azalea Festival, this sole remaining undeveloped track along Bradley Creek offers a wide range of opportunities to visitors. As Airlie Gardens weaves into the fabric of family traditions, many are passionate about it, she says.
All Airlie Gardens employees are county employees, but Duckworth is executive director of the Airlie Gardens Foundation, as well. The foundation invests the property’s revenues back into the gardens for items such as capital improvements.
Airlie Gardens has a vigorous education curriculum for preschoolers up to college interns. The eighth-grade curriculum includes a study of water runoff from Airlie Road and its path to the creek.
“They test the water and can see what happens in the living classroom,” Duckworth says.
Students learn that fertilizer and silt run into the pond and can kill the fish and that everything from the pond goes into the creek. They learn about the master plan to eliminate excess water sitting on the nature trail. Engineers advised planting cypress trees to drink the water.
To view more of photographer Terah Wilson’s work, visit www.terahwilson.com.