“What artist so noble … as he who, with far-reaching conception of beauty, in designing power, sketches the outlines, writes the colors, and directs the shadows of a picture so great that Nature shall be employed upon it for generations, before the work he arranged for her shall realize his intentions.” – Frederick Law Olmstead
A CLEAN SLATE
Clearing the timber in and around the Laurel area raised some unanticipated questions. Namely, what were residents going to do with all that barren land?
Once the trees were gone, Laurel and Jones County became a landscape of gently rolling hills, low vegetation, and exposed creeks and tributaries. The rural areas turned back to agriculture, raising crops where timber stands once reached skyward. The city, however, had grown up so quickly in the absence of pines that green space was becoming scarce, or privately held.
There were two schools of thought in town about what to do about the newly barren landscape. Both focused primarily on entertainment, but with an altruistic twist.
THE TALLAHOMA CLUB
Incorporated in 1905, Laurel’s Tallahoma Club was among the first, and proved to be the most enduring, of the exclusive social clubs that arose in the period of wealth following the lumber boom. Although chartered and manned by the social elite, the Tallahoma Club acted as an civic organization aimed at elevating the educational and cultural opportunities of Laurel’s residents.
Their chief contribution to these topics was their engagement with the Chautauqua Movement. These assemblies were created in upstate New York in 1874, in the form of “adult summer schools” that trained Sunday School teachers and other religious leaders, but the format became so popular that the “classes” were expanded to include a wide variety of topics. Culture-hungry, but highly isolated, populations across the country represented a huge demand for this type of religious, theatrical, musical, and political content. Unable to ignore the willing audiences offered in return for their travel, circuits were created for teachers and talent, and the itinerant Chautauqua Movement was born.
In the early twentieth century, the Tallahoma Club sponsored many “circuit” Chautauqua performances. Under its roof, Laurel saw her share of informative, provocative, and sometimes audacious, subject matter. Independently of the Chautauqua assemblies, local and regional acts and speakers passed through, each offering both education and entertainment to Laurel’s residents.
However, the most enduring legacy of the Tallahoma Club is actually credited to its successor, the Laurel Country Club. In 1917, a faction of the Tallahoma Club broke away to form the more elite Laurel Country Club, securing the club’s status as the oldest country club in Mississippi. The club shifted its focus to recreation, landing on the novel sport of golf. Golf was becoming a popular American pastime in larger, more metropolitan areas, and not to be outdone, our founding families took an interest. Since golf originated in Scotland, they invited a renowned Scottish golfer and course designer, Seymour Dunn, to visit Laurel and map the Club’s course. Dunn was known for integrating the natural terrain into his designs, building his courses around the features already present in the landscape.
“There is no hard and fast rule governing the length of all holes, in fact, a chief object in planning golf courses is to have no two holes alike in either length or character. They are laid out according to the natural undulation of the land, and such things as ditches, ponds, sand holes, roads, etc., are all considered and utilized as hazards.” – Seymour Dunn
The course was completed in 1919, and Dunn’s creation stood apart from any other course of its day. According to local stories, professional golfers of the time named it one of the most challenging courses in the country. The Laurel Country Club held its first tournament on Valentines Day, 1920, and has been in continuous operation ever since.
LAUREL’S GREEN BELT
Laurel Country Club’s fairways weren’t the only greens our town founders were interested in growing; Catherine Gardiner’s City Beautiful aspirations extended far beyond the architecture of Laurel’s residential district. Determined that Laurel shouldn’t lack for any hallmark of a metropolitan area, the founding families commissioned the firm of Fredrick Law Olmstead to create a park system that spanned from Second Avenue to Thirteenth Avenue and gave Laurel’s residential district residents easy access to green space.
Olmstead, the “father of American Architecture” was a landscape architect who’d gained national acclaim for his design of Central Park, in New York City, and the grounds of the US Capitol Building, in Washington, D.C. Olmstead believed, like Dunn, that the natural landscape should dictate as much of the design as possible, with planned interventions that enhance the experience of the user but don’t draw attention to any individual detail. Olmstead’s aesthetic could best be described as pastoral, favoring large expanses of green space and lush undergrowth that instilled the viewer with feelings of peace and calm.
He built a firm of like-minded landscape architects who focused on the long term effects of their designs, planning for future generations and the longevity of the ecosystem as much as they designed for their client. While Olmstead passed away before Laurel’s parkway system was envisioned, his firm, led by his two sons, followed his primary design tenets in designing Laurel’s first two parks — Gardiner Park and Euclid Avenue Park. Later, in 1929, additional parks were proposed: Daphne Park; Mason (originally named Cherokee) Park; and two parks that were never built, between 5th and 7th Streets and at the corner of Thirteenth Avenue and Jefferson Street. Laurel’s parkway system was meticulously maintained for years, and led to nationwide distinctions by the National Recreation Association.
THE GRASS IS ALWAYS GREENER
Both of Laurel’s celebrated greens – her formidable golf course and her historic parkway system – outlived their patrons and their designers, but achieved their intended purposes. The marks left in Laurel’s landscape by these visionary naturalists serve as a reminder that something beautiful can come from barrenness.