There must be something special to be said about spending an evening in a beautiful garden with friends and a glass of wine. For the last three years, Mrs. Tiedemann and I have had the pleasure of attending the Elkhart Wellfield Botanic Gardens Annual Dinner. Our attendance at this wonderful summer evening event was through the kind invitation of long-time friends Tom and Dana Pletcher. Tom is the current Gardens Board Chairman and a tireless volunteer for the cause. I must say his passion for the Gardens project is quite contagious…contagious enough that Mrs. Tiedemann and I have donated all of the wines for the last two annual dinners and plan to do so again for the upcoming dinner on July 18.
Last year’s August dinner was a white-tent affair, situated in the Gardens next to a tranquil creek. It was attended by over 320 people, which was the largest attendance to date. This year’s event is expected to be even larger.
Our table mates for the evening were Brad and Jan Richards, Bob and Julie Thatcher and Sam and Faye Davenport. The dinner was provided by local chef and restaurateur Kurt Janowsky. Kurt is a member of the Garden’s Founder’s Circle, board of directors and a Garden sponsor.
On this warm summer evening, the Garden was elegant and a perfect setting for Chairman Pletcher to announce the funding of seven new or expanded Gardens. If you live in the Elkhart area and haven’t visited the Gardens, you have missed a treat in life. Those of you who have been there know what I am speaking of. It is simply an extraordinarily beautiful oasis in our community. This is one place you do not want to miss spending time in.
I recently sat down on a rainy afternoon with Tom Pletcher. We shared some wine and discussed the Wellfield Botanic Gardens. The following are Tom’s answers to questions I posed on the Gardens:
Q: How did the Gardens get its start?
TP: “The Gardens were actually started in 2005 as a result of Rotary International’s request of its 13,000 rotary clubs worldwide to do a project to commemorate Rotary’s centennial celebration. So a group of us from Elkhart’s Noon Rotary Club formed a committee and decided that this project could be a legacy for those of us involved and for many in Elkhart to give back something to the community which has been so good to us.”
Q: Why did you settle on a garden for the project as opposed to some other kind of project?
TP: “We wanted to have something extraordinary for our area. One of our members knew of this piece of property and its uniqueness. The property contains 36 acres, 18 of which are water. We also had people on the committee who were aware of how important gardens are to the culture of cities. Meijer Gardens is probably the closest of such gardens and they have over 700,000 visitors a year. Actually gardening is the most popular hobby for Americans. It just came together as a somewhat a natural fit. It really is built on the concept of nature and man’s relationship with nature and water. Our entire life cycle depends on water. This just came down to the unique thing we could do that would provide pride in our region and last for future generations to build on.”
Q: Tell me more about the Gardens.
TP: “The Elkhart Rotary Club had the idea to begin the Garden, but we also recognized that this Garden would be way beyond the scope of Rotary’s ability to complete. But that was the plan. Rotary raised approximately $200,000 to do the study of the potential success of the Gardens, of our ability to build it and most importantly, provide the money to hire an architect to design the master plan for the Gardens. And that is exactly what we did. When that was completed, Rotary’s mission was final and the club turned over the Gardens to an independent board of directors to complete and manage the Gardens.
TP: “We interviewed several architects and chose Dennis Buettner from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who had extensive experience in designing public gardens; he created an overall master plan for the 36 acres. The Gardens do not have one penny in tax dollars in any way. All the money for the Gardens is from donations. The people from Elkhart and surrounding communities have built this Garden 100%, with great cooperation from the city of Elkhart.
TP: “That allows us to be flexible in the master plan. But now 8 years later, we are still very close to the original concept that Buettner created. There are a total of 26 Gardens planned. We have built 7 or 8 now and there are several others currently under construction. We are approaching half way. We have only affected about 6 acres of the 36 acres. There is going to be a wonderful wetland nature area on the west side of Christiana Creek which we won’t have a very large footprint in, but we will potentially have floating bridges between several islands on that side of the creek. We have funding now for six more gardens that we will be starting soon. So literally what is there is not yet half what you will see in approximately 18 months.
TP: “I remember walking across the Main Street Bridge years ago and seeing a bronze plaque that read something like this: We should transmit to future generations this city of Elkhart better than we found it. So this just became the overriding principle of what we are trying to accomplish and it kept fueling our passion to keep this project moving.
TP: “When we meet other people from outside this area and they remark that we live in the Rust Belt of America and isn’t the weather just miserable in Northern Indiana in the winter? And to that I say, well it could be a little better in January and February, but for the most part we have some of the most beautiful weather 8 or 9 months of the year and it’s a great place to raise our families. So we have something to be proud of here. And along with other initiatives going on in Elkhart, such as the Riverwalk, the Ruthmere Historical District, the Lerner Theatre and our wonderful museums, we have something really great going on. And we won’t complete these Gardens in anything less than a world-class situation. We have a wonderful, cultural, educational, entertainment venue for the people of this area.”
Q: Has the acceptance of the Garden changed over the years?
TP: “That really is part of the gratification of the Garden today. At the time we announced that we were going to attempt to raise $15 million, it was by far the largest project every attempted by private enterprise in Elkhart County, Indiana. And we heard about it from more than one source. Some thought we would not be able to raise that kind of money. We were not deterred; we were hopeful we could, and we knew we had a lot of time to complete it. There are no real deadlines. And we had wonderful and generous donors. With our latest gifts, we have raised nearly $6 million, and we are optimistic about the future. Many of those who were initially concerned are now donors and great supporters of the Gardens. Every week I hear ‘We just did not know if you could make it happen, but look what you have accomplished.’ Our great team, including a phenomenal, relentless board of directors, has made this happen.
Q: What’s new with the Gardens this year?
TP: “Now we are going to be the gateway, called the Garden District, for the cultural and historic walk created by SOMA, which is headed up by Diana Lawson and the Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau. The walk literally starts up at the Botanic Gardens. We actually anticipate 125,000 visitors a year when we are completed. We also just opened our visitor’s cottage and will be charging admission to the Gardens. That was the plan from day one, but we will finally be able to have a better idea of how many people visit the Gardens every year, and to fund our day-to-day operations.
TP: “It was always our intent to charge admission to be able to support the Gardens without any money except private donations. And we would much rather have people and families become members of the Gardens as opposed to having to pay an individual admission charge to visit the Gardens. Right now we have approximately 1,100 members; at the start of the year we had approximately 500 members. That also speaks to the generosity of the Elkhart community. We had no charge to enter the Gardens and yet we had 500 members who were willing to pay for membership to support this endeavor. Memberships start at $35 a year. We think that is a reasonable investment because every dollar that comes through our door helps build the Gardens.”
Q: What is your most favorite thing about the Gardens?
TP: “I read that a Garden somewhere put a blood pressure machine its visitor’s center that read people’s blood pressure coming in and going out. And, on average, the experience lowered people’s blood pressure by 12 points. While it makes a fun story, it really is true. There is something about the serenity of the Gardens. While we need the educational and entertainment aspect of the Gardens, there is something else about the effect that Gardens have on people.”
Q: Any final thoughts?
TP: “I firmly believe Elkhart, Indiana, will be better known for its Botanic Garden than for anything else in 20 years. That is how strongly I feel about the Gardens. Just one more story to share: Two women were pushing an elderly lady in a wheelchair through the Gardens one day. One of the volunteers asked the two ladies if they had been to the Gardens before and they responded that they had been often and said they loved it there. They told the volunteer it was their mother in the wheelchair and explained that she was a dementia patient. And they said ‘we bring her here as much as we can because when we visit her in the nursing home she hardly recognizes us.’ But they said she had loved her garden and gardening all her life. They proceeded to say, ‘when we bring our mother to the Gardens, she is happy, she smiles and she is responsive to us. It literally is the only time we have our mother back.’ That story shows so much.
TP: “We are building a world-class Garden here. It’s about education, inspiration, entertainment…but there is also an ambiance to it, like fine wine. So the combination of a fine wine and a world class Garden…perhaps life does not get any better than that.”
The Wellfield Gardens truly are a rare jewel in Elkhart. It is just amazing that in a town known as the RV Capital of the World…truly a manufacturing, blue-collar community…you can find something so beautiful. The culture of our community has been changed forever by the creation of the Wellfield Botanic Gardens. We all owe a great deal of gratitude to the many people who have made this wonderful project possible. On my research of the Wellfield Botanic Gardens, I found this quote by author Thomas Moore. It says a lot.
“The many great gardens of the world, of literature and poetry, of painting and music, or religion and architecture, all make the point as clear as possible: The soul cannot thrive in the absence of a garden. If you don’t want paradise, you are not human; and if you are not human, you don’t have a soul.”
– Thomas Moore
Elkhart already has one of the great gardens of the world. Have you been to the Wellfield Gardens and what are your opinions of this Diamond in our midst?