“We enjoy our walks around town,” Benbrook said. “For some reason the Morgan House just draws us, every time. We appreciate everything the Historical Society does, and all of the wonderful dinners there.”
The pair approached Marilyn Jones, PHS president, to ask if they could rework the garden as a way to thank the board.
“They’re all volunteers, and people lose sight of that,” she added. “We just feel like volunteers are the heart of any community. Without volunteers, your community wouldn’t be anything. Marilyn, especially, has done so much.”
One of the things Jones had done was plant and maintain a few things in the existing garden. Jones admitted she was hesitant at first to accept the offer.
“I don’t live close enough that it’s handy to come in every day and water,” she said. “That was my big concern.”
That issue resolved itself when Benbrook and Slocombe offered to water and maintain the garden once their renovation project was completed.
Renovation being the operative word here.
“I think all she thought we would do was a little weeding and watering,” Slocombe said about Jones. “Little did she know. I think she was very nervous when we were in there digging and digging. In the end, we did salvage portions of everything she had in it.”
Some of those things were mint, horseradish and vintage tomato plants, which reflected the kind of vegetation the Morgans might have grown in their day and his interest in homeopathic cures.
“(The existing garden) was a lost treasure in the sense that not many people knew there was a garden in the back,” Slocombe said. “By renovating and redesigning it, we’re trying to offer it to the community as part of the Morgan House and its past.”
Added Benbrook: “We always refer to it as Mrs. Morgan’s garden. And we try to make it Victorian—something we think Mrs. Morgan would like, and keep her spirit alive in her garden.”
A physical feat
After drawing an initial design, the two women started the very physical task of transformation around the first of June—working six days a week from 8:30 a.m. until sunset with breaks for meals.
“And we came home filthy,” Slocombe said with a laugh.
“We let our own gardens go to pot,” Benbrook said about their determination to complete the project by June 24, when a family had reserved the Morgan House to celebrate a 60th wedding anniversary.
“Our husbands had to get meals for themselves because we were just determined we were going to finish that big list of stuff,” Slocombe added. “It’s been work…but it’s been fun.”
“We have had a ball,” Benbrook agreed.
The women, with some assistance from Ed Slocombe, Ann’s husband and Peabody’s mayor, hauled out numerous truckloads of weeds and trimmings, then replaced them with an array of perennial and annual plants, three kinds of decorative mulch, limestone stepping stones and a variety of props and benches reflecting the Victorian period.
Some of the plants and materials were purchased, some donated from personal stockpiles—including a metal bed headboard from the Jones’ farm yard—and some were contributed by various other residents as word about the project spread.
One of their favorite props is a flower box that was decoratively painted by Jones with patterns that came from a Morgan family quilt.
The aged box, which was reinforced for its new purpose, came from the old barn near the alley.
Jones isn’t sure whether it was a hay trough for horses or perhaps a small casket from the days when the Morgan House was used as a mortuary.
Benbrook’s favorite prop, a wrought-iron plant stand on the back porch, was donated by PHS board member Ross Baker, and has ancestral significance.
“My grandfather was the blacksmith in Peabody years ago and he made it,” she said.
That connection is all the more meaningful because Benbrook did not live in Peabody until she and husband Jeff moved to town from Wichita three years ago when he was hired as city administrator.
Those kind of connections have convinced the two women that this project has had almost a magical quality about it.
“It started as a very quiet, behind-the-scenes thing,” Slocombe said. “Suddenly, it’s taken on a life of its own. Everyone has responded so nicely. A lot of people are very interested.
“We started out initially that this was ‘our’ project, but now it has included many people. And we are very, very appreciative of people’s enthusiasm, interest and support.”
Heading that list is Jones, herself. “It certainly showcases the Morgan House,” she said, adding that the energy the two women invested in the project was “mind-boggling.”
And a bit surprising.
“If I would have picked two ladies in town most unlikely to renovate the garden, I would have picked them,” she said with a smile.
“I see them out walking and they look like ladies of leisure. I really mean that. There are some farmers around who wouldn’t have worked as had as they did.”
The other minor miracle to emerge was that despite the intensity of the work, the two women remain close friends. If anything, their bond has deepened.
“One of the most wonderful things about all this is that we’re not only friends, but we’ve gotten to know each other even better through this shared project,” Slocombe said. “We’re still friends and we appreciate each other’s abilities and talents that have come out of this project.
“There was never any debate,” Slocombe added about their working relationship. “She would be really strong about something and I would be really strong about something else. It was a work in process, together.”
The affirmation of passersby only fueled their drive.
Benbrook said: “There were lots of times when we were working that someone would come by and say, ‘Oh, that’s so pretty’—which was a relief to us because we weren’t always so sure.”
The two women began the project as a way to thank to community volunteers, but recently had the tables turned on them when the Historical Society hosted an appreciation picnic supper in their honor.
“We feel (the project) has turned out well because it has taken on a life of its own,” Slocombe said. “And now we have been entrusted with just being the caretakers.
“That’s how we envision ourselves,” she added. “We want to be humble about what we’ve done because we were just trying to say thank-you.”