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Welcoming Spring - Then and Now

The daffodils are always the first to return. At the end of a long and sometimes dispiriting winter, one can always tell - at least in central Ohio - that the worst is almost over when the daffodils begin to poke their heads out of the ground. This year has been no different.

The arrival of the flowers with springtime is nothing new. People have been welcoming the end of winter in central Ohio as long as people have been living here.

The only thing that has changed is how it has all been done.

The earliest settlers in central Ohio had much on their minds - carving out homes in a frontier forest, keeping all sorts of enemies - both man and beast - at bay, and simply surviving in a new place.

But there was still time in the Spring to wander along the river and watch the land begin to become green again. Or one could travel a few miles south to the great Darby and Pickaway Plains with their shoulder high prairie grass and the field of wild flowers that stretched for miles.

With the growth of the Borough of Columbus into the city of Columbus, the gathering of spring flowers became a bit more formal. A local resident later remembered the rather elaborate garden on Sixth Street in downtown of one Belle Espy Carter in the 1840's:

"It was delightful to have a garden as many homes had, but to own a greenhouse where all sorts of tropical plants grew, where roses bloomed the year around, where gold fish swam in little pools fringed with moss, where tiny love birds cooed, and a fascinating parrot made remarks was rare indeed Small as it was, that little greenhouse, we thought it was paradise."

By the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, Columbus was a town of 18,000 people and was large enough and busy enough to support truck gardens, nurseries and even a vineyard operated by the Lazell family where the Convention Center is today.

But the one man everyone thought of first in that long ago time when one thought of gardens was neither Mrs. Carter nor the Lazells. It was a man most people simply called "Old Joe" and who was fondly remembered in a memoir from a later time.

"Franz Joseph Weitgennant came to Columbus from Freiburg, Germany, in 1833. He was for sometime in the employ of Mr. Kelley and Mr. Fisher, and under the direction of the former planted the elms in Capitol Square. He was one of the earliest professional gardeners in the city and soon made himself useful to the citizens."

"He seemed to act toward a tree or plant as toward a person. He petted, and fondled, and talked to them He examined a diseased tree or a blighted flower with the professional dexterity of a physician. He talked of trees breathing, sweating, choking, being sick and doctored them accordingly."

"In 1842, he established the garden on Washington Avenue, and though unfortunate for a time, he was soon permanently located He prepared with exquisite taste the bouquets for sweethearts, emblemed love of the most enthusiastic young man in beautiful clusters of flowers that always told the story truly, and entered with all a boy's enthusiasm into the secret maneuvers by which the lover's bouquet was made a sweet surprise to the fair recipient."

When Old Joe died in 1867, he was buried simply by a number of his German friends in Green Lawn Cemetery. But his finest tribute came when hundreds of people came in the days after his death to visit his garden and the simple one room cottage where he had lived alone for more than twenty-five years. As all of his friends and neighbors and passing acquaintances walked through Old Joe's garden, they simply admired what he had done - and not a single flower was picked.

Each year for more than forty-four years, Old Joe had waited through the long winter for the flowers and the promise of Spring to return. When a rapidly moving snow storm covered the daffodils of central Ohio with an inch of snow this year, I wondered if they might survive. Old Joe would probably have told me not to worry - the daffodils are strong and they always come back.

And they did.

Ed Lentz is a WOSU Commentator and local historical consultant.