Its scenic beauty is breathtaking and in the early 1900’s was one of the country’s leading tourist attractions.
Though located in Dayton, I never even knew it existed until recently and I’m certain that many others are unaware too about this national historic landmark. First developed in 1867, the Historic Grotto & Gardens at the Dayton VA Medical Center is restored and is a site well worth witnessing.
The story behind the Grotto is as fascinating as its visual beauty and I’m typically not interested in either history or scenery. Back in 1865, President Lincoln signed a bill, his last major bill before being assassinated, ordering that three facilities be built as a refuge for disabled soldiers of the American Civil War. Due to its proximity to the railroad tracks and balmy weather, Dayton was chosen as one of the locations. At its peak, 7,000 Veterans resided on the grounds, which operated like its own little city.
In 1868, The Chapel was constructed (the oldest building still standing on the property) out of limestone that was quarried from the grotto area. That same year, Frank Mundt a resident Veteran, and florist by trade, began developing the garden amongst the manmade rock walls and lakes. The 25 acres started to flourish and under the direction of Major Charles Beck from 1875 to 1906, 75 full-time resident gardeners cared for the land.
By 1900, the ornate gardens had become a garden paradise which was considered more beautiful than Central Park in New York City. It became a major destination point for travelers averaging 600,000 visitors per year. A hotel was built on the grounds to house all of the guests, most of which came by train.
By the mid-1900’s, the Veteran population on the property declined and the Grotto Gardens became uncared for. The site became overgrown and was lost from view for decades. A restoration began in 2012, and a year later the OSU Extension Montgomery County Master Gardeners joined in a combined effort with the Dayton VA Medical Center and the American Veteran Heritage Center (AVHC) to design and maintain the gardens. Local garden centers, garden clubs and donors have made it all possible with their generous support. The area is now 12 acres, featuring more than a dozen gardens, three fountains, a waterfall and grotto. All the work on the land is done by dedicated volunteers. The funds are gained by donations and grants.
The historic grotto & gardens is open 24 hours and is meant for the public, as well as the residents and patients of the VA to enjoy. On Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, volunteers are present, and weather permitting, tours of the Grotto Gardens are given during the months of April through November. More volunteers with a passion for gardening are always welcome, as are monetary donations to help the area continue to be restored. Donations can be sent to the American Veterans Heritage Center; P.O. Box 1366; Fairborn, OH 45324. Designate the donations to the Grotto Project The AVHC is 501 (c)(3) so the donations are tax deductible.