From Eyesore to Enchanting in Chickasaw County

A group of Master Gardeners in Chickasaw County looking for a service project has turned an overgrown eyesore into an enchanting downtown park.
The quarter-acre of land to the south of the Chickasaw County Courthouse and west of Houston’s City Hall was donated to the Chickasaw Development Foundation by J.C. Wright several years ago. In 2007, the volunteer gardening group got permission from CDF to landscape and beautify the lot.
“It was just an overgrown empty lot that was terrible looking,” said John Walden, president of the Chickasaw County Master Gardeners, who worked tirelessly on the project for two years. “It said nothing good for the town. It was what you’d call an eyesore.”
Jeff Wilson, the area horticultural agent for Mississippi State, was called in for his expertise, said Scott Cagle, extension director for Chickasaw County. On paper, Wilson laid the park out, showing what needed to be planted where and how pathways needed to be arranged.
“Then we sat down and modified his plan and figured out what we wanted to do,” said Cagle, who oversaw the project in his role as extension director.
“Actually, I’m just like a Chihuahua in a dog fight,” he joked. “I got it started and then I let them go from there.”
The city and county brought in heavy equipment to clear and shape the lot and dirt to
shape the berms. Next came masonry sand and base dirt and then the brick-laying began for the Walk of Honor and Memories.
“I did my share of toting bricks,” said Master Gardener Glen Chisolm. “You can’t carry brick. You’ve just got to tote them buggers.”
So far, the group has sold 300 engraved bricks at $40 each for the walkway. There are about 8,000 more available, which can be purchased in honor or memory of a person, a family or a group. The brick sales will help pay for routine maintenance and seasonal flowers in the park.

Plants, benches and more
The Master Gardeners planted 14 crape myrtles, two ginkgo biloba trees, two golden rain trees, six loropetalum shrubs and several camellia sasanquas and knockout rose bushes. Asiatic jasmine was used as a groundcover.
“We had white and purple wave petunias, white and purple angelonia and diamond frost in the flower beds,” said Virginia Rowlett, a member of the group. “This fall, we’ll be putting in pansies and ornamental cabbage and kale.”
Employees of Trace Regional Hospital donated an elaborate three-tiered fountain in memory of Dr. John D. Dyer, hospital founder. It sits in the middle of the park, surrounded by flower beds.
Black metal picnic tables, benches and trash receptacles, donated in memory or in honor of people in the community, are sprinkled around the area. They were all crafted at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.
And that’s not the only time prisoners helped the cause. Trustees at the county jail have regularly pitched in to lay brick and do carpentry work.
“It got to the point where we tried to get the sheriff to arrest some brick layers, because we were running low on them,” Cagle said with a wink. “Without those prisoners, we couldn’t have gotten this done.”

$45,000 and counting
Master Gardeners dedicated the park in May with a ceremony.
Now, they and their helpers are in the process of building two arbors on the south end of the park. One is in memory of J.C. Wright, the land donor, and the other is in honor of former Houston Mayor Bill Smith.
The last project is soft lighting for the lot, but nothing firm has been decided on that. The group is also toying with the idea of putting a fence on the east side of the park.
“This place complements City Hall and the Courthouse, which are both good-looking buildings,” Walden said. “And, it beautifies the town square.”
The group received two $3,000 grants from the Appalachian Regional Commission to help with expenses at the park as well as $2,500 from PACE, or People Achieving Community Excellence, an affiliate of CREATE.
Cagle estimates that if you count the cost of donated manpower, grants, proceeds from the sale of bricks and other in-kind donations, about $45,000 has been spent so far.

“Volunteers have popped out of the woodwork, giving time, talent and equipment,” Cagle said. “This park has unified the community in a lot of ways.”

Want to join?
The Master Gardeners program is a volunteer horticulture education program of the Mississippi State University Extension Service. To become a Master Gardener, each volunteer trains 40 hours, then passes on their knowledge through 40 hours of service every year back to their community.
If you’d like to join the Chickasaw County Master Gardeners or for more information about the group, which has 17 members, call (662) 456-4269. The group meets every third Monday at 10 a.m. at the extension office.

Ginna Parsons/NEMS Daily Journal