Dr. Bahnson’s Water Lily Pond
Dr. Henry T. Bahnson’s garden was a showcase in late 19th century Salem. The extraordinary water lilies in these photographs were grown by Bahnson in a pond behind his home on Church Street.
From the time of its settlement in the 18th century, gardens have been an integral part of Salem’s landscape. Families had utilitarian gardens adjacent to their homes, where they grew vegetables and fruits as well as medicinal herbs. Larger gardens, or “out-lots,” on the edge of town were granted to residents in order to grow crops requiring more space, such as corn, wheat, potatoes and flax. By the middle of the 19th century, food was available from a wider variety of sources, and residents were less dependent upon their kitchen gardens.
In America and in Europe, the Victorian era ushered in a middle class that enjoyed more leisure time, allowing for the pursuit of hobbies. Cultivating ornamental plants and designing “pleasure gardens” became a popular pastime. At the same time, there was a great interest in travel to exotic locales around the world, leading to a fascination with the peoples, cultures, and natural surroundings of faraway places.
Bahnson’s house had been built in 1823 by Abraham Steiner, a chair maker. In 1837, Steiner moved to the country, and sold the house to Dr. Frederick Heinrich Schumann. Schumann’s interest in flower cultivation led him to convert the hillside behind the house into a garden. Dr. Bahnson and his bride, Emma Christine Fries, moved into the house in 1874, and further developed the gardens that Schumann had begun. The sloping hillside was terraced and planted with flowers that bloomed throughout the year, as well as vegetables, mountain ash, white pine, mimosa, and fruit trees.
Bahnson created the pond at the bottom of the hill by damming a small stream. He grew some 36 lily varieties, ranging from white to pink, deep red, blue and yellow. He hybridized a pink water lily, which he named “Nymphaea Odorata Caroliniana.” Bahnson had a larger pond four miles south of Salem on Friedberg Road, where he had room to grow more lily varieties.
The photographs of the water lilies were taken by Sylvester E. Hough around 1890. Hough must have been a patient and talented photographer, as he was able to have four children and even a dog on a rocking chair stay still enough for the images to be taken. The African American man in the photograph is Thomas S. Wright; his wife Isabella stands on the bank with a child. The Wrights were employees of Dr. Bahnson. One of Hough’s lily pond photographs was featured in National Geographic Magazine in 1999.
First named Victoria regia in honor of Queen Victoria, and later renamed Victoria amazonica, these enormous lilies are native to the Amazon River region of South America. It is believed that Bahnson was the first person to grow these plants successfully outside of a greenhouse environment in the United States. The leaves are known to grow up to 20 feet in circumference and be able to support up to 300 pounds each.
During his candidacy as vice-president, Adlai Stevenson visited the towns of Winston and Salem in 1892, and made a stop at the Bahnson residence. Mr. and Mrs. Stevenson “both declared that they had never seen anything more lovely and delicate” than the Bahnson water garden. The garden was also admired by the students at Salem College, who enjoyed visiting its tranquil setting.
Later in life, when he was no longer able to keep up his garden, Bahnson drained the pond. The house is now used as a residence for the senior minister at Home Moravian Church. The site of the pond is the present-day location of the Salem College Fine Arts Center.
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Haywood, Louise Bahnson. “Mrs. Henry T. Bahnson’s House” in Old Salem, North Carolina, edited by Mary Barrow Owen, 134-136. Garden Club of North Carolina, 1946.
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