As with many great ruins, sometimes all you can find to indicate the presence of a noble history are a few rocks; and if time has been kind they are still stacked one atop another.
This is the story of a graceful and glorious chapter of Mansfield’s past. True to classic centers of culture from antiquity, all that is left of it are a couple small stone walls.
For one brief generation of the 20th century it was a center of grace and culture in our town.
People around here knew the place by different names: for some it was the Dickson Gardens. Others knew it as Woodland Garden.
Its true name however, was Woodland Echoes.
A nation as big as ours has a cultural ebb and flow of large proportions like waves that arrive upon the shore and then pass into obscurity. In terms of popular music this is especially true.
Some songs rise into huge and widespread prevalence so that everyone is humming them for so long it seems like a standard of American life that defines our soul. But it takes only one quick generation when the band stops playing those songs so the music which was the soundtrack of an era simply vanishes like spray in the wind.
One of those songs was called Woodland Echoes.
The music was written in 1866 and throughout the lifetimes of Americans until the 1940s it was a piece that nearly anyone could hum along to. It had no words, except as supplied occasionally by poets in tribute to the song’s deep nostalgic stirrings.
Woodland Echoes was a sentimental melody that schoolkids learned on the piano, and old folks sighed at when the band slowed to a more reflective mood.
So when James Dickson and his sister Lillian created a sweet, old-fashioned public garden near their home in Woodland, it was perfectly fitting that the place should be called Woodland Echoes.
In fact, when the garden was engaged as the site of a huge pageant and musical revue in 1934, the show was also titled Woodland Echoes.
By then the gardens had been established for over a decade and the little flat knoll next to the lily pond had been adapted into an outdoor theater. The amphitheater served for countless community performances, from Children’s Theater and charity benefits to Presbyterian Church Vespers and Easter dawn services; but by far the biggest production ever to take the stage was Woodland Echoes.
The show brought 1,000 people out in June for standing room only audience participation. The cast itself had 600 people.
The epic musical had “singing, dancing, melody and comedy,” and there was a short interlude when a projector was wheeled out to show a movie onto an improvised outdoor screen.
When the show was reprised two years later the production was scaled back somewhat, perhaps in deference to the Great Depression in progress. The second time around there were only 300 in the cast.
For out-of-town journalists the Dickson garden complex was referred to as “Mansfield’s Sunken Gardens.” Floriculturists from around the state came to see Dickson’s astonishing flowering shrubs that grew to tremendous glory because they were fed by an ingenious system of ponds and channeled springs.
The lily pond had a rare collection of water plants, arranged seasonally so that the pool was in nearly continuous bloom. The rock gardens were carefully infused with tiny flowering mosses. The streams were “stocked with black bass and goldfish, and bordered with rocks overgrown with vines.”
The sunken gardens, and all of the residential area known as Woodland, were conceived and accomplished by Jim Dickson.
He was born in 1867, raised in Mansfield, and educated at Andover (Andover Road) and Yale (Yale Drive.)
As a business entrepreneur he was hugely influential in downtown Mansfield. Among his many undertakings were the Third Street Market and the Evergreens Café.
In the early 1920s he acquired the Stewart farm on the south side of town (Stewart Lane) and laid out the streets of Woodland.
He envisioned it to be a ‘dignified community of highly civilized citizens;’ and to set the appropriate tone for this standard he devised and developed a highly cultured garden right in the heart of the neighborhood.
Dickson left this life in 1949 and his gardens were not long in following him to the next world.
In the early 1950s a modern highrise apartment was constructed in the peony bed. In deference to Dickson’s floral dream the building was named Woodland Garden Apartments.
Many of the flowering plants from the sunken gardens survive today throughout Woodland in the landscape designs of various older homes.
There are two specific landmarks that can still be seen in our time that hearken back to the famous gardens.
One of these mementos is a rustic gazebo that was removed from the gardens in the 1950s to be resituated just inside the tree line of Black’s Woods, on Woodland Road north of Overlook. A residence occupies the lot today but the little gazebo is still visible from the street.
The other remnant of Woodland Echoes is a humble sandstone wall. It stands in front of the Woodland Garden Apartments to hold up the landscape in memory of Mansfield’s sunken gardens because, as with many great ruins, sometimes all you can find to indicate the presence of a noble history are a few rocks.