Paradise Found: Eden Gardens

Paradise Found at Eden Gardens
Each Season Brings New Discovery at the Emerald Coast’s Very Own ‘Garden of Eden’ 

By Joyce Owen

For those looking for a change of pace from the hustle and bustle of modern-day Florida, Eden Gardens State Park could be the perfect destination.

At the gazebo and picnic area overlooking Tucker Bayou, families gather for reunions.

Beneath the historic wedding tree, as loved ones look on, a bride and groom recite their vows. Garden clubs host meetings at the pavilion or hold tea parties in the rose garden.

On any given day, the park might be the site of a picnic for two, a nature hike or a lazy afternoon of fishing.

Off the Beaten Path
Eden Gardens is in southern Walton County a mile north of U.S. Highway 98 on County Road 395 North in historic Point Washington. Located near popular beaches and iconic communities such as Seaside and Alys Beach, Eden Gardens might appear to be out of step with the rest of Northwest Florida.

Though Eden is touted in tourism brochures and featured in newspapers and magazines highlighting the park’s virtues, many visitors and even locals, with visions of sunning on a sandy beach and swimming in the surf, overlook the state park just because it isn’t close to the beach.

Eden’s park manager, Dan Blanner, has worked for the Florida Park Service for 19 years. Much of that time has been at parks with direct access to the Gulf of Mexico, which he said is an important feature for visitors to the region.

“People want to go to the beach,” Blanner says. “But when they get sunburned or tired of the beach, they venture out, and many find Eden – a jewel in Walton County.”

The Gardens at First Glance
That first visit to the park reveals what written words can’t convey: the colorful blooms in the rose garden, the buzz of a bee as it flits from flower to flower; the flutter of a butterfly’s wings as it settles gently on a petal.

Only by visiting Eden can one experience the joy of seeking out the treasures of this little piece of paradise.

Be forewarned. Once revealed, Eden’s charms bring visitors back time and again to savor the delights of each new season.

“I love to be on the grounds when people are visiting Eden for the first time, when they realize how obvious it is that the park is revered by the state of Florida and the people that maintain it,” says Virgie Thompson, a longtime supporter of the park.

As president of the Friends of Florida State Parks, a citizen’s support organization, Thompson has visited parks around the state, giving her a keen understanding of the park system’s immense value.

With the cost of gas and economic concerns at such heights, many Florida residents are turning to state parks for outdoor activities. Florida’s parks provide diverse opportunities for visitors at a reasonable cost.

There are parks with beach access, on big rivers or near large cities, providing a variety that boosts attendance.

Once home to art festivals, a camellia festival and monthly workshops, Eden has been underutilized in the last few years. Currently the park hosts two public events, a traditional Easter egg hunt and a candlelight tour of the Wesley House, decorated for the holidays in December. The park also is a popular location for weddings.

While some state parks have as many as a million visitors each year, Eden averages only 17,000, not including field trips by several hundred students.

Thompson, who is also a member of the local citizen support organization Friends of Eden, wishes more people would visit the park.

“Wouldn’t that be lovely?” she says. “Eden is a treasure. Everyone who sees it is awed by it. Eden is unique unto herself.”

Historic Home, Grand Grounds
A visit to the Wesley House and grounds presents a decidedly different experience – offering a respite from today’s hectic schedules. Visitors can while away time in a rocking chair on the shaded wraparound porches or nap on a blanket under the massive, 600-year-old, moss-draped live oak trees. The expansive, rolling lawns leading down to Tucker Bayou provide room for kids to run, play and explore.

Touring the home and grounds offers a glimpse back to a time when lumber production was one of the major industries in our region, and life moved at a slower pace. During guided tours of the Wesley House, park rangers share the history of the home and its owners, the timber industry and life as it was in Old Florida.

The Wesley Lumber Company, a timber business operating from the late 1800s, once occupied the land that is now Eden Gardens State Park. The stately Southern-style mansion was built in 1897 for the family of William Henry Wesley. At 5,500-square-feet, the home likely was the largest one in the area at that time. Also on site were 20 company-owned houses and a commissary built for the men who worked at the sawmill.

Fire was a common occurrence in the timber industry. When the sawmill burned for the third time, it was not rebuilt. However, the family continued to live in Point Washington until 1953, when Wesley’s wife, Katie Strickland Wesley, died. It was then that the house and 10.5 acres of land were sold.

Wesley’s mansion fell into disrepair and, believing it was haunted, neighborhood children dubbed it “The Ghost House.”

A decade later, Lois Maxon, a wealthy journalist from New York, discovered the home and purchased it for $12,000 in 1963. She renovated the old house, adding rooms and making changes to provide the perfect setting for her family heirlooms and a collection of Louis XVI furniture said to be the second largest in the country. She also improved the grounds by adding camellia and azalea gardens, as well as a reflecting pond.

It became her Eden.

Maxon lived at Eden for only five years. Her health failing, she moved to Pensacola to be closer to medical care. On Christmas Eve 1968, Maxon donated Eden Gardens to the state of Florida in memory of her parents.

Larry Stewart, an information specialist with the Walton County Tourist Development Council, remembers his first visit to the property.

“It was 1963, and I was 7,” Stewart recalls. “Friends of my grandmother were visiting from Memphis. They were staying in Panama City Beach and drove around looking at the sights.”

“They found this old house on the bay and said we had to go and see it,” Stewart says. “This was before Ms. Maxon bought the home, and it was in a terrible state of disrepair. I played in the abandoned home, but my mother wouldn’t let me go upstairs because she was afraid I’d get hurt.”

Most people describe the Wesley House as Southern Antebellum, he says, but the original home was Victorian, with gingerbread trim on the porches and a cupola on the roof.

When on duty at the Tourism Development Council’s Visitor Information Center, Stewart encourages out-of-towners to visit Eden, saying simply, “It is so beautiful.”

A Walk to Remember
While the historical nature of the Wesley House is a point of interest to many who visit the state park, regular visitors know each season provides a reason to revisit Eden and its ornamental gardens.

The camellia gardens, featuring some of the best specimens in the Southeast, are a favorite from October through May. In the spring, when hundreds of azaleas and dogwoods are in full bloom, the grounds are a photographer’s dream.

Just as those flowers begin to fade, the rose garden bursts into a riot of color, while gardenias fill the air with their bold fragrance. Hydrangeas provide a delightful display from May through October, and large, white magnolia blossoms can be enjoyed from May through July.

Even if a favorite plant is not in bloom, the hidden children’s garden and Eden Gardens Nature Trail offer additional opportunities for exploration. Families can revel in a game of hide-and-seek as they search for the hidden garden and the life-size bronze sculptures of children at play.

A visit to Eden wouldn’t be complete without a walk along the nature trail, Thompson says.

“Every time I’m there, I try to walk it,” she says.

The walking trail winds around the property’s border. It begins near the hidden garden and leads to picnic facilities along Tucker Bayou. Maps are available at the Fig Leaf Gift Shop inside the Wesley House.

For Walton County native and local historian Brenda Rees, it’s along those trails that she envisions visitors from an earlier time might have traveled. She imagines American Indians walking the same trails or British troops landing on the bayou as they traveled from Pensacola to Tallahassee.

“Who knows what could be there?” Rees says. “Historical objects, an arrowhead or something dropped by a soldier might be discovered while walking those trails.”

You may discover a veritable treasure trove of outdoor adventure and relaxation. Sure, Eden Gardens is off the beaten path and away from the beaches, but that might just be the best reason to seek the solitude of this little bit of paradise.


Get Lost in Eden Gardens

Eden Gardens State Park has expanded to 163 acres and is still being restored by the Florida Park Service with the assistance of the Friends of Eden.

The grounds, gardens and picnic area are open daily from 8 a.m. until sundown. Entry fees for the park are $3 per carload.

Park rangers provide guided tours of the Wesley House Thursday through Monday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The cost is $3 for adults and $1 for children.