One of Sumter's most remarkably beautiful spots was located near the heart of historic Stateburg. The gardens were located north of the Columbia Highway about 10 miles from downtown Sumter and were privately developed by the late Dr. J.R. Dunn, an ophthalmologist who practiced in Sumter.
According to Anne King Gregorie in her text The History of Sumter County, the gardens were once located on land owned by Chancellor Thomas Waties, who, in the early 1800s built a plantation home there that he named Marden. Sadly, this home site no longer exists; however, remnants of the once renowned Dunndell Gardens still remain.
According to an article written by Frances H. Hilderbrand in 1947, "the Dunndell property was purchased by Dr. Dunn in 1926 mainly for its fish pond. It had been part of the estate Thomas Waites settled in the 18th century, that was later purchased by Thomas Sumter. Marden, the Watues home, was erected two years after the Revolutionary War at the top of one of the hills overlooking the small mill pond which was to become the Dunndell Lake. John Sumter, Stateburg historian, described the mill house and its operation in his booklet on old Stateburg homes: "Marden was eventually destroyed by fire, the old mill ceased operation, and the mill house crumbled." Sandstone rocks from that building were used in constructing the gardens.
The idea for the gardens originated in 1928 when Dr. Dunn ordered dahlias from New Jersey, and with them came a number of Japanese irises, which were to be planted near water. "Dunndell Gardens were born. For 20 years since the first flowers were rooted, Dr. Dunn planted and planned - invested thousands of dollars and countless working hours in his project. Development was slowed during World War II because of the lack of manpower. With the prospect of labor becoming more available, Dr. Dunn had ambitious plans blueprinted for Dunndell's extension. The gardens, along with the famous Swan Lake Gardens, were included on Esso company's pictorial road map of the state with word sketches of their attributes."
For many seasons Dunndell was open for a nominal fee ($1) for adults, (children for free) and visitors enjoyed the Doctor's "Easter present" to the community and state.
Every new project within the development led to the expansion of the gardens. In an article published in 2006 by Betsy Humphries, the gardens were described as "azaleas in solid color groups of white pink or deep rose covering the sloping hills on the sides of the ponds. Camellia plants lined the entrance and grew throughout the garden. H.C. Bland, the developer of Swan Lake-Iris Gardens, was a patient and friend of Dunn; it was Bland who encouraged Dunn to plant Japanese iris at Dunndell." When the garden reached its peak, it featured "50 varieties of iris, 20 varieties of narcissi, not to mention innumerable types of camellias, azaleas, dahlias and numerous other blossoms.
"Dunndell was different from any iris garden in the world. The rolling hills of the area, the historic millpond dating from 1775 and the 16 springs which fed the pond made this spectacle possible. The edges of the brooks, trickling through a dozen small valleys, were lined with masses of colorful iris in white, red, purple and blue in single and double varieties. Dunndell also became famous for its planting of the "hemerocallis" (day lily); it was described as having the "greatest mass plantings of hemerocallis in the United States."
Dr. Dunn had a Swiss chalet-like structure constructed to overlook the lake. This building was a two-story design by the Dunns themselves. Their home was considered to be as "simple and tasteful as it was furnished."
In a 2006 article written by Betsy Humphries, she stated that a large portion of the original home site was purchased from J.R. Dunn Jr. by Rick and Renee Nelson who have constructed a home "on a bluff overlooking Dunn Sr.'s old log cabin." The Nelsons continue to reclaim the land and restore the former beauty of this piece of floral paradise.
"Dunndell Gardens won't return, but the beauty of the dell (a small, secluded valley or glen, usually covered by trees) is being revealed again."
Information and photos from The Sumter Item archives.
Reach Sumter Item Archivist Sammy Way at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 774-1294.