Virginia's New Tourist Attraction
In 1991, Bernice and Armand Thieblot found their retirement home 25 miles southwest of Charlottesville -- 440 acres straddling the Piedmont and Blue Ridge mountains.
“I saw an ad in the Wall Street Journal for Paradise Found," Armand recalls. "We had an airplane at the time, so we called the realtor, went out to the airplane, we came down to look at Paradise Found. We were the first of 135 people show showed up that day. Other people were looking for a horse farm. We were looking for a project. We won!”
Their project was inspired by a trip to British Columbia where, in 1912 Jennie Butchart began work on a magnificent sunken garden that – today – draws thousands of tourists to Vancouver Island.
“That was an old limestone quarry that had been redeveloped as a garden in order to hide the fact that it was a quarry. We got to talking about it, and said, ‘Y’know we have quarries too, but our quarries are handsome to look at. We wouldn’t be hiding them, but we would be displaying them,” he explains.
Working with an organization called The Center for Urban Habitats in Charlottesville, they added about 50,000 plants, making this the largest assemblage of native species of any botanical garden in Virginia. Each plant has a story to tell – some delightful, and some terrifying.
“White snake root is the plant that killed Abraham Lincoln’s mother," Armand Thieblot says. "It’s the second most poisonous plant in North America, and it is eaten in pastures by cows who are not affected by it, but it goes into their milk, and if people drink their milk and it’s not pasteurized it can kill you.”
They also built a visitors center that tells the story of soapstone -- an industry that had flourished around Schuyler since the 1890s removing 800,000 tons of that rare material for use in laboratories and kitchens.
The Thieblots began offering tours in 2017 after just four years of work. It was possible, Armand says, because there was no bureaucracy to slow them down.
“We have no outside funding. We have no board of directors. We can do it on our own,” and – Bernice adds, “We’re too old to be patient.”
Already they’re drawing about 1,500 visitors a year, and last summer they hosted the Victory Hall Opera Company for an outdoor concert.
“They sited performers at various points around the quarries," Bernice recalls. "Then the audience followed the program by walking along the trail. It was amazing how those high walls and the water will magnify sound, and the birds and frogs very obligingly joined in.”
This winter they plan to install fencing to keep deer from devouring too many of their plants, and Bernice says the battle to remove invasive species is never ending, but they don’t complain.
“Actually," says Bernice, "it’s been very stimulating for both of us to be learning native plants, and it’s also been good exercise taking care of them, so we figure this project will keep us going if it doesn’t kill us.”
At first, the couple offered tours at no charge, but too often – they say – people who hadn’t paid for a reservation didn’t show up, so admission – by appointment – is now ten dollars a person, and those who fall in love with the place and want to hike regularly can join what the Thieblots call the Explorers Club.