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Natural beauty

BIGLER, Clearfield County — Drive down an unassuming street past a brick plant and you’ll get your first glimpse of the flower show that is to come.

Daffodils greet you at the stately entryway — an old railroad line you drive or walk under — and a regal swan glides by on one of the many streams and ponds gracing the 10 acres known as Walker Gardens. Soon, depending on which way you walk, there are tulips, hemlock groves, waterfalls, a marble replica of Michelangelo’s David, and places to sit down and drink it all in.

The sublimely landscaped grounds are the handiwork of Ray Walker, a 96-year-old green thumb and retired coal businessman.

Walker is opening the gardens to the public Sunday for the first spring in about five years. The showing is in memory of his wife, Louise S. Walker, who died in 2006 at the age of 94.“I always told her anyone who could put up with me for 65 years had to be good,” Walker said.

Garden from the ground up

Walker bought the Swiss chalet-style house from the neighboring brick company in 1940 for $2,000. Walker’s son, Alan Walker, said the property was pretty, with streams running through it. But it was also treeless and without landscaping, and was a dumping ground for ash.

“There wasn’t an evergreen tree on the place,” Walker said.Over time, that changed.

“It was my vitamin pill,” he said.

Walker said he would come home from the office mad at the world but could go into the garden and forget what was troubling him.

He developed his yen for plants when, as a child, a nearly fatal case of rheumatic fever forced him to stay in bed for three months. He and the nurse who took care of him would comb through seed catalogs.

During the Great Depression, Walker’s father and uncle lost everything in their general store business, so Walker began selling chickens and potatoes to Penn State fraternities.

“They called me the big butter and egg man from Bigler,” said Walker, a 1935 Penn State graduate.He started out studying pre-medicine, which required two years of German.

“After flunking German I twice, I decided I didn’t have the bedside manner,” Walker said.

So he stuck with coal after college, and found success first brokering and then mining as Bradford Coal.

True colors show

After Walker bought the house, he began to work on both the home and the property. Alan Walker told the story of his mother’s request: She wanted an indoor bathroom installed before they moved in.

Alan Walker said one of the first projects was channeling the stream that made the yard swampy. He compared living on the property to “growing up in Disneyland.”

With help, the projects continued from there.

“This is what we call our English garden. This has a little bit of everything,” Ray Walker said on a tour.Tulips with striped leaves decorated one section.

“These are little red riding hoods,” he said. “They’ll be red, and they’re beautiful.”

The marble statue “Venus at the Bath” stands near the swimming pool. Ray Walker said it was carved in Paris and had belonged to the great-grandson of Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt before it ended up in a pawn shop in New York City. Walker bought it to add to the Grecian motif of the swimming pool area.

Past the pool, a woodsy section filled with hemlocks leads to the “secret garden” built on some of the dirt pile created when two railroads were merged nearby.

“I took what they had left and made it into a garden,” Walker said.

Another section of the garden has a log cabin that had been in Ansonville and was the site of a shoot-out during the Civil War. According to the account, an indentured soldier in the war went AWOL. He and the Union troops sent to get him had a skirmish at the log cabin. Walker bought the farm where the cabin stood for coal and moved the cabin piece by piece to his gardens.

“I wanted to try to preserve the old artifacts of the area,” he said.

Nearby stand spectacular “Greek” ruins with waterfalls that were created from conglomerate rock.

While Walker remembers one spring showing when snow covered the ground, this year’s forecast doesn’t include snow. That means visitors will be able to enjoy the flowers along with the other features, including quotations Walker has included in the landscape.

“Happiness is not a station you arrive at,” reads one, “but the manner of traveling.”

Anne Danahy can be reached at 231-4648.

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