By Meg Hibbert
When avid plant lover Esther Davis first looked at overgrown gardens and lawn at historic Preston Place, she had no idea she would pour her heart and hands into the soil and plants for the next four years.
“Little did I know that I would be charged with the privilege to oversee the gardens nor how they would also capture and hold my heart,” Davis said.
Altogether, Davis has given 578 hours to the gardens. Another 118 were done by other volunteers, including her right-hand volunteer Jack Susser, she said.
Davis’ work was recently recognized with a Monarch butterfly-shaped plaque. It reads simply “Preston Place Gardens, restored by Esther Davis.” Monarchs are her favorites. Each year she hunts for eggs on milkweed near her Wildwood Road home, and carefully nurtures them to develop into butterflies she releases.
Board members of the Salem Historical Society ordered and placed the plaque at the foot of a giant Osage Orange tree Davis was largely responsible for getting recognized on the Big Trees of Virginia. It is estimated to be 200 years old and the fifth largest in the state.
The two-story brick Preston Place on West Main Street is believed to be the oldest existing home in Virginia, built about 1812. It is also said to be the fourth-oldest house in the entire Roanoke Valley.
It was the home of Dr. Esther Brown, one of the first female physicians in the Roanoke Valley. She loved flowers, said Davis, who was one of the volunteers who turned out to spruce up the grounds before the opening of the White Oak Tea Tavern which leased the house from the Salem Historical Society. She recalls David Robbins turned to her and asked, “Where do we start?”
“I looked at the two front beds overgrown with weeds, and that’s where we started,” Davis remembered. “So we started pulling weeds.”
She kept going all day the second day. By the third day, “I was kind of hooked.”
Davis hadn’t planned to become the person who oversaw restoration of the gardens. At first she was reluctant when Historical Society Board Member Marsha Shortell asked Davis to take it on.
“One thought that came to mind was the title of the late Cabell Brand’s book, ‘If Not Me then Who’,” Davis remembered.
“I saw it as an opportunity for me to provide community service as a volunteer by doing something that lined up with my skills and abilities,” Davis added.
On the day of the grand opening of the White Oak Tea Tavern in 2017, Davis met with Dr. Brown’s son David, asked if he had any pictures of the gardens. He replied that his mom used to have some poppies at the Osage Orange at the front of the properties.
“I located about half a dozen poppy plants,” said Davis. “That was cool.”
When she started working on that area “I was careful to locate those little plants and protect them. They reseeded each year and thrived. I was so delighted at that,” she said. Davis also dug and replanted a few hundred bulbs she located.
One of the other little jewels she discovered was the native plant garden, buried under debris. In a poorly defined area marked by rocks, Davis found Jack in the Pulpit, Dutchman’s Breeches, Solomon Seal and Jacob’s Ladder.
On the other side of the mill race behind Preston Place, she found and transplanted some trout lilies, cutleaf toothwort and spring beauty.
Davis’ carefully kept list of more than 56 flowering plants includes common blue violet, yellow flag iris, lavender and daffodils. She even noted the weeds, ranging from henbit to wild chamomile.
Not only did Davis research, plan and replant the gardens, she also dug out weeds, fertilized, mulched, pruned and watered the wanted plants.
Last year, the Salem Historical Society honored Davis’ restoration efforts with the society’s James Simpson Award.
Brown’s family donated the house to the Salem Museum and Historical Society in 2014. It is on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register. Today the house is once again the home to a woman who heals, as the location of GLOW Healing Arts run by Meredith Cook Novak and partner Jesse Cantelope. He designed the mounting for the plaque.
Preston Place Gardens volunteer Esther Davis’ work is recognized with a plaque mounted by the huge Osage Orange tree. The former home of Dr. Esther Brown on West Main Street is believed to be the oldest existing home in Salem.
Courtesy of Esther Davis