Walker Gardens wasn’t always a garden.
At one time, it was just a dark little house in Bigler with a couple of scraggly trees in front of it. Ray Walker has a picture of it from the 1930s, about 10 years before he bought it. What a difference 80 years and a green thumb can make.
Today, the grass is lush. The old stream that trickled by is replaced by waterfalls and ponds that are home to several swans. And no matter what corner you visit, you are just a held breath away from a marble statue.
Some of them are familiar. Michelangelo’s David stands in one corner of the Clearfield County wonderland. St. Francis stands guard over a bridge.
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But one is totally original, a Cararra marble original whose verdigrised bronze plate tells visitors to her gazebo near the pool that this Venus was born in Paris. What most don’t know is that she was commissioned by a Vanderbilt.
Walker, who made his own money in coal, was happy to give the statue a new home when he found her in a New York pawn shop after one of Commodore Vanderbilt’s grandsons hit hard times.
The little house is unassuming, not the mansion you might imaginewhen you think of a guy who owned an international energy company and was known for his philanthropy. Penn State’s oldest alumnus, Walker doesn’t have a Vanderbilt-style Newport palace. His house, he says, is Bavarian, and that makes total sense. It looks like Snow White could live there with seven little friends, or that Cinderella might be talking to birds in the back.
Walker doesn’t keep it to himself. Most years, he opens the doors to the public. It isn’t just to share the paradise he built with his late wife, Louise. It’s to help a good cause, or several.
Walker Gardens is located at 2690 Wallaceton Bigler Highway, West Decatur. Follow the signs off state Route 322, east of Philipsburg. The gardens will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
It started about 15 years ago. Since then, Mother’s Day at Walker Gardens has become almost a tradition. The gates are sometimes open in the fall, too.
The cost is nominal, just $1-$3 depending on age, and all of the money goes to local charities like the Bigler YMCA, the area Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. The Methodist church runs a concession stand. (Try the bean soup — it’s a favorite.) The Y is selling commemorative T-shirts.
Walker likes to see the visitors, the people who appreciate the rare and special things he’s put together with simple flowers to create something tranquil and breathtaking.
“Right now, it’s mostly tulips,” said his assistant, Annie Ulrich. “We were the only people praying for cool weather.”
The chill in the air has kept some of the flowers set to be their best on Sunday. Gardeners have also been busy putting in the season’s annuals for maximum effect.
So how much does it cost to put together 10 acres of magic?
“I don’t even know. I’ve never thought about it,” said Walker. “That’s not the point.”