Our story spans over 100 years and is still being written --- from the history of the surrounding area and the outlaws that called it home, to the creator of the Gardens, A.J. Hodges, Father of Forestry in Northwest Louisiana, conservationist and pioneer in forestry research.
While Hodges Gardens will undoubtedly be known for the beauty of its flowers and the magnificent gardens that were developed by A. J and Nona Trigg Hodges, the area is also a dividend of forest management. The original 4700 acres that became Hodges Gardens in the 1950’s was only a small part of the original 107,000 acres purchased by Hodges in the late 1930s.
Hodges Gardens is a testament to one man’s efforts of conservation and restoration in a region of Louisiana that had been left barren by the massive clear cutting philosophy known as “cut out – get out” that ran from Alabama to East Texas in the late 1800’s. A.J. Hodges was a leader in the conservation movement who set the standards for preservation of our natural resources. The story of our site would not be complete without first telling the story of the surrounding community and how it set the stage for A.J. Hodges’ future involvement.
Hodges Gardens State Park is located in an area that has a rich and colorful history. Built in what was once known as “The Neutral Strip”, a demilitarized zone that developed due to a border dispute between the United States and the Province of Texas from 1806-1822. The land was deemed “neutral” until its actual ownership could be determined by the respective governments. During this time the Free State, also known as “No Man’s Land”, was home for outlaws from everywhere. It was also the home of many hard working settlers. The only law was the “Regulators” made up of certain citizens which in a few years became more dangerous than the outlaws. Local folklore is rich with stories of caves of gold hidden by bandits like Hiriam Midkiff. The annual Free State Festival is held in Florien on the first weekend of November.
Sabine Parish was established in 1843 as a result of the opening of trails from Natchitoches into Mexico known as the El Camino Real or The Kings Hwy. Two main highways of the southwest traversed the Neutral Strip and ran about 4 miles apart in the vicinity of Many: The San Antonio Trace/El Camino Real that ran from Natchitoches west across Sabine Parish and into Texas. Phillip Nolan’s Trace crossed the Red River just above Alexandria and ran through Kisatchie to join the El Camino Real near the Sabine River Crossing. The late 1800’s the railroad brought lumberjacks and the timber industry. The lumbermen established sawmills to convert the trees into lumber to satisfy a worldwide demand for longleaf virgin pine. Three decades later, the forest acres were left stripped bare and virtually worthless, forcing the sawmills out.
(Above) Evidence of the clear cutting and log train tracks. Photo provided by Rickey Robertson of Florien.
Reforestation was innovated in the early 1940's and pulp and paper mills bought the thinnings. The payoff was the development of Southern Pine plywood and the opening of Vancouver Plywood, Inc. in Florien in 1965, the first plywood mill in the state. It came about as a merger of Vancouver Plywood Company and A.J. Hodges Forest Products. Mr. Hodges served as its Vice President.
The contributions made to the area and the impact that its founder had on the local economy and the entire timber industry in Louisiana and East Texas add to the importance of the Hodges legacy.
A.J. Hodges’ became known as the “Father of Forestry in Northwest Louisiana” and his progressive thinking and dedication to conservation led him to establish experimental research areas on the acreage that included a conservatory and greenhouse complex, arboretum and a 225 acre lake. Mr. Hodges’ efforts were assisted by Texas A&M, University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette, Louisiana Forestry Service and Caroline Dorman, to name a few. He believed that with proper land and timber management for every mature tree that was removed, 2 more could take its place. We are still discovering research studies and their significance to the horticulture and timber industries of Louisiana and to the Sabine Parish economy since the early 1950’s. Mr. Hodges was among a group of men in Louisiana who mobilized for the battle of the Southern Forestry on land left barren and worthless by the clear cutting. He was also instrumental in initiating the Louisiana Forestry Association. Mr. Hodges purchased the 107,000 acres in 1937 with the goal of growing and cultivating pine trees. The task undertaken by Hodges Industries was to reforest and bring back to Louisiana the wonderful timber that had previously been a source of pride and wealth of the state. His experimental area was aimed at a cross breed of the slash pine for straightness and the loblolly for toughness. The Arboretum area was set aside as an outdoor forest exhibit and contained 38 species of pines.
In the meantime, the old stone quarry had a charm all of its own. There was an almost magical cathedral-like quiet in the quarry. Mr. Hodges and his wife, Nona Trigg Hodges, thought the tri-level area would be a great place to plant some flowers. The beauty of the natural landscape inspired them to create the “Garden in the Forest” that has become the trademark of the property.
Perhaps this can be chosen as the real beginning of Hodges Gardens. Originally a private paradise now described as a “Legacy of Love”, with one planting that led to another and soon thereafter, visitors began to come. According to Mr. Hodges, there was no overall plan for the garden layout, one vista opened up and revealed another and so on. The walkways were laid where it seemed one would naturally stroll and footbridges built over natural drainage runoffs. Rock stairways climb the old tram railway embankment that was once used to haul out the quarry rocks that were used to construct the jetties in Port Arthur, Texas. Through one of the valleys, Mr. Hodges found a stream of clear water. Deciding that a lake would enhance the beauty as well as provide a water source for the experimental pines and for the flowers, 2 dams were built in 1954 that trapped sufficient water to create the 225 acre lake. It was later discovered that 3 main natural free flowing artesian springs and many smaller springs feed the lake.
(Above) The initial construction of the 225 acre lake. Photo from site archives.
(Above) An aerial view of the property as it begins to recover from the massive clear cutting. The outlines of what was to become the gardens are clearly visible. Photo from site archives.
(Above) This aerial view shows the spillway, house island. The Arboretum area in the bottom left was awaiting the new plantings. Photo from site archives.
A.J. Hodges (left) and C.B. Byrd (right) discussing Lookout Tower. Photo from site archives.
It took 7 years to complete Hodges Gardens, with Mr. Hodges involved in every aspect. The couple opened the gardens to the public in 1957. Thus was the beginning of a new industry in Sabine Parish, tourism, which was augmented with the completion of Toledo Bend Reservoir in 1968.
In a 1961 article entitled “The Spirit of Hodges Gardens” that was discovered by park staff in one of the many scrapbooks, Jean Warner Breeding wrote that she was at a loss to describe the beauty and had asked for Mr. Hodges help. After he explained his attempt to follow nature’s lead in every step, Ms. Breeding said of Mr. Hodges “it is the spirit of A.J. Hodges himself that prevails throughout Hodges Gardens”.
Throughout the 1960’s the park was a flurry of events and quickly became known nationwide. The gardens were featured in many articles for Southern Living, Louisiana Gardner and newspapers nationwide. The numerous scrapbooks that were left by the Hodges Foundation contain articles discussing the building of the gardens and the events being held. The air strip provided easier access to the remote area of Florien for those with small planes and the Hodges Gardens Inn with the golf course provided additional weekend entertainment.
With 11 historians on staff, 2 horticulturists, a marketing staff and countless employees in the gardens, many local old timers can recall the days of working for Mr. Hodges as a summer time job in their youth. Each can tell individual stories of his public and private generosity. In one instance, cash showed up at the door of an employee in need with no note or explanation.
With Ms. Hodges’ passing in 1959, Mr. Hodges formed the A.J. and Nona Trigg Hodges Foundation, a non-profit corporation that would manage the gardens for public use. Even today, Centenary College still maintains a representative on the Board of Directors of the Foundation. Mr. Hodges remarried and lived in the Hodges House, commuting from Shreveport to Florien until his death in 1966.
Some of the attractions and programs will be carried on as part of the interpretation of the site; others will remain alive through the stories because they cannot be duplicated with the accuracy and perfection that were the standard of A.J. Hodges.
The history of some of the events and structures in and around the gardens include:
Easter Sunrise Service began in 1955 with the Centenary College Choir presenting the Easter Story on the Nona Trigg Hodges Lakefront Stage. Visitors would brave the dark and chilly Easter morning with chairs and blankets to sit on the Rose Terrace lawn and hear the Story. The long standing relationship between Hodges and Centenary made the creation of this program a natural part of the park’s past, present and hopefully its future.
The Service is described in the 2nd Quarter 1962 Hodges Gardens Magazette:
“Perhaps the most meaningful program is the annual Easter Sunrise Service, when thousands of visitors gather on the Rose Terrace beside the darkened lake, watch dawn bring forth magnificent color and hear rich voices blend in songs of worship. At the Easter Season, Spring is at its height and natural beauty is everywhere. Azaleas are blooming. Camellias are still heavy with their rich, wax-like blossoms. All the earth is bursting with new life and color. This grand panorama of Nature provides an exquisite floral background for a high moment with God, who planned the first Easter morn in its most natural setting…a garden.”
The services were cancelled in 2007 & 2008 as the transition in ownership was taking place. On April 12, 2009, the voices once again blended in songs of worship as 300+ visitors attended the service.
Arts & Crafts Festival began in 1960 by Louisiana Artists, Inc. from Shreveport, Louisiana. The Festival was one of the four main events of the past. Pictures from archives show artists from across Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas displaying their work in the Gardens. On site demonstrations in pottery, stoneware, sculpture and painting would entertain guests as they strolled among the artists set up in every nook and cranny of the Gardens. Exhibits from the 1962 festival included dolls of Texas, Louisiana clays, neo-Gothic illuminations, enamels, jewelry, a potter’s wheel, fountains, finger painting, woodblocking, printmaking, etchings and weaving as well as oil, water color, casein, gouache, pastel and tempera liquitex.
Photo from site archives
Construction of Lookout Tower, Photo from site archives
Current View of Lookout Tower, Photo taken by park staff
Lookout Tower gives a full 360 degree view of the gardens below. Benches and the covered pavilion give the visitor a chance to sit and take in the garden view and scents of sweet olives, roses, honeysuckle and many more. It was constructed in the very distinct architectural style of the time on the top of the largest boulder found by Mr. Hodges when he began creating the gardens. On the garden tour, visitors stop here for a refreshing rest and to hear more of the story and discuss various plants that are in the area. It is also a favorite place for silent meditation for the visitor that prefers his or her own interpretation.
The Louisiana Purchase Memorial
The Louisiana Purchase Memorial was completed in 1969. It was designed by the Shreveport firm of Walker and Walker, architect for all structures in Hodges Gardens and American Terrazzo Company of Dallas, with Michal Flabiano in charge of the construction. The formal dedication was held on the 166th anniversary of the signing of the Louisiana Purchase agreement by the governments of France and the United States. The oval structure measures 110’ x 60’ and is the nation’s largest monument to the great land acquisition. It contains a large terrazzo map of the United States defining the Purchase. The map measures 96 feet from coast to coast and exceeds in area the terrazzo map of New York state at the New York World’s Fair and the global map at Love Field in Dallas. The only other comparable historic monument to this great act is the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, Missouri, which memorializes the spirit of the pioneers who settled the West after the Louisiana Purchase rather than the Purchase itself. Flanking the map are 18 flags:
5 of the 10 governmental standards flown over Louisiana (Spain, France, England, Confederate State of America and Old Glory) plus flags of the other 12 states carved out of the territory (Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Oklahoma). In addition, the Hodges Gardens flag was included.
(Above) Close up aerial view of Louisiana Purchase Memorial – Photo from site archives
(Above) Wide aerial view of Louisiana Purchase Memorial on Flag Island – Photo from site archives
The Memorial was completed 3 years after Mr. Hodges’ death in 1966. It was his last major project on the property. It is difficult to find a student from Sabine, Vernon or Natchitoches Parishes that didn’t visit the Memorial during their studies in Louisiana History.
Today, the island is closed to the public and only the American flag is flying. The tremendous display is one of the first views the visitor will see as they cross the lake and travel to the main garden area. The story of the Memorial is told to visitors from the Old Fashioned Garden hill where the view to the Memorial is even better.
The future of the Memorial is undetermined at this time.
Willow Point Fountain
The Willow Point Fountain was once an impressive display of light and water moving to the sounds of music that was piped throughout the gardens. The 3-ring fountain is located at the bottom of Old Fashioned Hill and is surrounded by parking to allow the visitor a place to stop and watch before they move on to the next adventure. In the past, the point around the lake was known as “Rose Point” and home to roses donated by the American Rose Society that were still in the experimental phases. In exchange for the donations, reports were made back to the Rose Society as to the viability and success of the plants.
Today, the point is the location of beautiful oleanders, lantana and willow trees. The fountain became inoperable shortly after repairs were made in 2008. This is one area that has been designated for repair again in the near future.
(Above) Willow Point Fountain – Photo taken by park staff in 2007
The Gift Shop is located at the center of the main garden area and carries gift ideas to fit any budget. Specialty garden and nature items are the central theme and wind chimes resonate throughout the shop. The shop is built in the architectural style of the 1950s, surrounded by glass that allows a great view and the pools in front are the backdrop for the water gardening workshop. A display of 8x10 photos from the Hodges archives is currently displayed in the Gift Shop. The park’s Master Plan calls for a museum in the new visitor center where an extensive collection of photos and history will be displayed.
(Above) Gift Shop at Tulip Time – Photo from site archives
Sometimes interpretation is best left to the individual who comes here to experience the natural beauty and magical charm in peace and quiet, without the help of an interpreter, and just be. For many couples, it’s the “Legacy of Love” and their memories of love, romance and beginnings they compare to the story of the couple who lived and loved here so long ago. “It began in the Garden” is a favorite of visitors over the years to describe the relationships that started here and draws parallels to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden as well as the famous story of Jesus and the Garden of Gethsemane that is told by our Easter Sunrise Service.