Cooper: A famous gardener took part in Douglas County's history

Joseph Forsyth Johnson

Through the course of my research regarding the resort era of Salt Springs/Lithia Springs from the mid-1880s to 1912, I've run across many interesting stories, some have proven true and some have not. I've also been introduced to a great cast of characters who made the wondrous Bowden Lithia Water Company, the Sweetwater Park Hotel, and the Piedmont Chautauqua appear on land that previously had held ancient forests and farmland. Joseph Forsyth Johnson played a part in the resort era by designing the grounds for the Piedmont Chautauqua which came on the scene in 1888 and lasted until 1891. It was the brainchild of Henry W. Grady, editor of "The Atlanta Constitution" and father of all things related to the New South philosophy. The Chautauqua occurred during the summer months and consisted of a program of speakers and seminars on various topics.

Joseph Forsyth Johnson was destined to become a landscape architect because it ran in the family. His maternal grandfather was a florist while his great-grandfather, William Forsyth was a botanist who co-founded the Royal Horticultural Society in 1804.

Johnson had a business card he liked to hand out that was literally filled with his landscaping exploits including 15 different botanical and horticultural enterprises in Belfast, London, Manchester, Amsterdam, Paris, Brussels, Ghent, and St. Petersburg including "gardener" for the Queen of England as curator at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Belfast as well as the conservatories for the King of Siam. I've never actually found proof of these jobs other than his gig as the Queen's gardener.

At any rate Johnson left his wife, six children and Great Britain behind in 1885 to take a job in Brooklyn, New York, as their superintendent of horticulture and arboriculture the next year.

At that time Brooklyn was still a city in its own right. Johnson arrived in the middle of a political upheaval as the parks department had been overhauled with a one man show being "upgraded" to a five man team costing citizens two thousand dollars more per year. Add in the fact Johnson was a bit of a pompous foreigner with a proposal to cut a number of trees at Prospect Park, and tensions were high.

By September 1886 Johnson was taking space in the local paper to explain why the tree removal was necessary. He was going to remove dead and crowded trees, so that others might live. His explanation fell on deaf ears. Folks didn't like a foreigner in his position, didn't like his stance on trees, or the fact that he was a personal friend of one of the commissioners. By December 1886 Johnson had been let go, but the actual reason had to do with a legal issue. It seems the Brooklyn city charter had a provision regarding hiring a non-citizen.

Joseph Forsyth Johnson didn't return to Great Britain, however. He remained in the United States and began to look for other positions. The fact that he had a second family in the United States might have been the reason. When Johnson first arrived in the United States in 1885, his pregnant mistress, Frances Clark, accompanied him. Over the next few years they would have two more children.

By the first of May 1887 Johnson had secured a job in Atlanta working for the Piedmont Exposition as the landscape engineer. "The Atlanta Constitution" stated he would arrive in the city any day and would "make plans for beautifying the Piedmont Park," the new name the Driving Club had been given. A 189-acre forest had to be cleared to make way for buildings, terraces, walkways, flower beds, and buildings. It was all hands on deck as the public was asked to donate cannas, coleus, and scarlet geraniums. Work for the Piedmont Exposition was done in just 104 days!

Continuing his stay in Atlanta, Johnson was hired by Atlanta developer Joel Hurt who needed a landscape architect for his Inman Park project, the first planned suburb in Atlanta. Johnson assisted in laying out the parks and streets, an operation that included the planting of more than 700 trees, "curvilinear street designs, and liberal usage of open spaces."

The next summer Johnson was furiously at work attempting to get the property just west of the Sweetwater Park Hotel in Salt Springs/Lithia Springs in shape for the Piedmont Chautauqua. Newspaper accounts during the summer of 1888 count down the days until the Chautauqua would open and advised at least 100 laborers would be needed to execute the design plan.

Part of the plan included Lake Erskine, a lake that would grow to a "magnificent sheet of water" from a small pond due to a dam that was 150 feet across. The depth of the lake would be "uniform and shallow" making it perfect for group of 25 paddle boats that had been ordered.

By 1902, the Chautauqua property was in ruins, and today, there is no indication this wonderful place was ever there.

Between 1890 and 1906 Joseph Forsyth Johnson worked steadily in various locations. He completed a major job in Chattanooga where he worked for a syndicate of Chattanooga and Boston capitalists who were setting up parks, streets and boulevards. He set up parks in Fort Valley, Smithville, Albany, Cuthbert, Eufaula and Union Springs. Many of these jobs were entrusted to him via the Macon Railroad. They had complete faith in Johnson due to his work at Salt Springs/Lithia Springs where the Chautauqua grounds were said to be the most beautiful in the South. He also was the landscape architect for Latta Park in Charlotte, North Carolina, which was described as a "modern Eden" once he completed the work.

In early July 1906 it was announced Johnson would take on a new job in Cumberland, Maryland, supervising a new park. It was not to be, however. Joseph Forsyth Johnson died on July 17, 1906 at Brooklyn Hospital. The funeral was held the next day, but there was no family there to attend the ceremony held at Brooklyn's Evergreen Cemetery.

Following one of Johnson's trips home to Great Britain in 1899 or 1903, his American family was notified he had died during the voyage, and he had been buried at sea. He abandoned his second family much like he had abandoned his first leaving no reasons why.

His two families were not discovered until his great-grandson, the British entertainer Bruce Forsyth, signed on to explore his family history on the BBC program "Who Do You Think You Are?" Folks my age might remember he played Swinburne in "Bedknobs and Broomsticks" in 1971. Needless to say he was shocked to find a family secret. Bruce Forsyth further discovered his great-grandfather lay in a grave with no headstone and had died with only $389 to his name. The headstone situation was quickly rectified.

Joseph Forsyth Johnson's death notice in "Gardening" magazine simply but accurately stated, "In short, Joseph Forsyth Johnson helped show the south how to bring nature into the city."

He did, indeed, though much of his work is lost to us forever, including his work right here in Douglas County!

Lisa Cooper writes the amazing stories of Douglas County each Sunday. You can find her new book "Every Now and Then: The Amazing Stories of Douglas County" online at Amazon, print and Kindle versions. Locally, her book can be found at the Douglas County Museum of History and Art and the Douglasville Welcome Center located at O'Neal Plaza in the former Douglasville Banking Company building.

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