Ravine Gardens azaleas, a WPA legacy

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By Rog Patterson

Azalea Days are a big deal at Ravine Gardens State Park, about 70 miles northeast of us, up in Palatka. That’s because the azaleas are adding their full colors throughout the grounds and ravine walking paths by then. And it’s especially so this year because the annual event is a major fundraiser that will help keep this state park open.

The “ravine” itself was formed over the past couple of eons by underground springs softening and displacing the earth. That’s different from erosion that created the Grand Canyon or a giant sinkhole that has become the Devil’s Millhopper in Gainesville … and it’s still going on.

My co-pilot and I enjoyed the good fortune to have state park specialist Donna Rhein bring us up to speed about park history and activities, but also take us on a tour of the formal gardens, one of the suspension bridges and some of the Ravine walking paths.

One of the Depression era work programs which resulted in so many of the state parks we enjoy today throughout our country, Ravine Gardens was created in 1933 and 1934 by the combined efforts of the City of Palatka, the federal Civil Works Administration (CWA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Azaleas became the garden’s theme plant because they bloomed during tourist season. More than 95,000 azaleas were planted by Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) workers. The basic 74-year-old layout, formal garden and surrounding rock-walled lawns and steps welcome you to enter the Ravine itself.

An original park building has been relocated to become the Garden Club of Palatka headquarters and a new two-story Roy E. Campbell Civic Center houses park offices, meeting rooms and other public facilities. Next to the park’s entrance arch is an obelisk dedicated to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, with the Court of States stretching behind it and flanked by entrance and exit roads.

It is worth noting that Ravine Gardens was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999 and recognized by the American Society of Landscape Architects as a national Landmark for Outstanding Landscape Architecture.

As with many state parks, Ravine Gardens depends heavily on volunteers to help maintain and assist in funding projects. A major contributor to such efforts is Friends of Ravine Gardens State Park. This group, which has restored stone garden columns and walls over the years, is augmented by student volunteers as well. The latter are essential to the success of the annual Air Potato Rodeo, of which I’ll tell you more later.

In addition to the walking trails weaving through the Ravine interior, there is also a 1.8-mile (paved) driving loop around the perimeter. Some of the Ravine entrances from the perimeter loop are stairways descending from lookout platforms.

Be aware it seems so easy going down but it will take as many steps back up. No problem for the nimble, but senior visitors might find the Ravine entrance and exit behind the formal garden a path of less resistance.

Along the perimeter road are lookout platforms, exercise stations, restrooms, picnic tables with grills and even an amphitheater. The latter can be rented for weddings or similar events, as can a gazebo, two pavilions or several meeting rooms and an auditorium in the Civic Center building.

Azalea Days are March 14 and 15 this year and according to Ranger Rhein, “Our visitors will enjoy viewing a spectacular patchwork quilt of colorful azaleas, dogwoods, plums and magnolias throughout the Gardens and Ravine.” Of course, kids may be more interested in checking out the alligator.

Vendors and crafters will line the Court of States, artists and archaeological groups will have displays under the obelisk and in the auditorium and Civic Center, plus food and drink can be purchased throughout the park. So plenty is going on for young and old that weekend.

Oh, and we can’t forget the Air Potato Rodeo, which was Feb. 28. The “air potato,” or dioscorea bulbifera as agriculture types may prefer, is a vine originally from Africa that has no insects or diseases to hold back its growth. In other words, much like Kudzu, these parasite vines can and do grow everywhere in the Ravine, endangering the desirable foliage.

To keep its growth under some kind of control, the fruit which resembles potatoes but does not, as expected, taste the same, must be collected and disposed of before the little rascals sprout more vines. So community support organizations, like Friends of Ravine Gardens State Park and the Garden Club of Palatka host their annual Air Potato Rodeo.

Aided and abetted by adults, many schoolchildren, Boy and Girl Scouts and youngsters from wherever are recruited for the event. Younger participants harvest the fallen “potatoes” or pull them from the vines, while older kids and adults pull up the vines identified by their large, heart-shaped leaves.

Their collected booty is placed in black plastic bags to rot or burned and, either way, the Ravine’s foliage is safer for another year. All sorts and sizes of awards and prizes are doled out to participants, making it a fun day for everyone

Other annual events at Ravine Gardens include the Mature Today Expo in May, when seniors have an opportunity to experience a variety of topics ranging from finance to health.

Then there’s the Enchanted Ravine Fall Festival coming up Oct. 24. This pre-Halloween event shares decorations and displays situated along ravine pathways appealing to younger visitors and their parents.

Ravine Gardens State Park is open 8 a.m. to sunset 365 days a year and the entrance fee is $4 per carload.

But wait, there’s more.

Not only can Ravine Gardens be a wonderful day trip destination for Corridor residents, the 70-mile drive and visiting Palatka can be part of your adventures.

I go out S.R. 40 to Nuby’s Corner and take C.R. 314 to Salt Springs, where it joins S.R. 19. About 10 miles south of Palatka, you’ll arrive at a turnoff to Rodman Reservoir and dam picnic area just before scaling a “gynormous” bridge over the defunct Cross Florida Barge Canal that’s now called the Cross Florida Greenway. You can see the erstwhile canal stretch to the horizon in both directions as you drive over the bridge but, unfortunately, the approach from either direction it too long to encourage walking up to a viewing point for photos.

The easiest way to reach Ravine Gardens is turn right off S.R. 19 onto S.R. 20, or Crill Avenue, and drive about two miles to the Ravine Gardens sign where you’ll turn right again on 18th Street. Then follow the signs.

Palatka is an interesting town. Spanning the St. Johns River, it must have been quite a lively place during the peak days of river travel. Even now it’s well worth a few hours after you’ve visited Ravine Gardens.

There is a rack in Ravine Garden’s Civic Center lobby just crammed full of helpful folders like a “Mural Guide to Palatka, Palatka Historic Tour, Driving Tour of Putnam County (that’s where you’ll be), Marjorie Harris Car Visitors Center, Festivals & Events in Putnam County” and a real gem, “Cross Florida, you should be there …”, describing the entire barge canal route planned across four counties.

And don’t miss the Palatka Chamber’s “Restaurants” folder. We’ve sampled Musselwhite’s Seafood just over the bridge in East Palatka, where the food was excellent, but the noise level made sure we won’t go back.

Angel’s Diner, claimed to be the oldest in Florida, seems like the genuine article offering really good food. But the cook is hidden out back where you can’t enjoy watching his artistry.

There are literally dozens of other restaurants from fast to fancy listed in the folder to sample for lunch before heading back home.

While it’s a bit of a drive, there you have it for another dandy day trip.

Rog Patterson is a Marion Landing resident, Friendship Kiwanis member and Citizen columnist. Contact him at smcnews@earthlink.net