Gallerist Atea Ring’s peonies are spectacular in her Westport garden.
The rose-colored Sarah Bernhardt and red-flecked, white Festiva Maxima possess an interesting history that originates north of Pittsburgh, Pa., in a rural community.
Ring’s friend, Chapin Davis, helped packed ancestors of these peonies as a lad of 7.
His grandmother, Lila Davis, worked as a homemaker for a Mr. McFetridge, who had an acre of peonies. He also had 10 brood St. Bernard females and cages of pheasants and white king pigeons.
“He had lost his wife and his daughter had drowned,” Chapin said. “Because of the novelty of what he had on his land, he often had people to visit beyond people interested in purchasing a dog.”
Lila and her employer built up a reputation, so people were forever dropping by. She would rustle up chicken soup and dinner rolls from scratch.
“She and her sister ran a tea room,” Chapin said. “It was up along the Pennsylvania line, just short of New York state. Henry Ford stopped one time on one trip between Buffalo and Detroit and praised them. He stopped and had a meal he was very happy about.”
Lila was an extraordinary woman and self-taught painter.
“I have a Limoges picture she painted and signed ‘Lila Davis 1917,’” he said. “It was of such a quality if I saw it in an art shop, I would have bought it. She’s was a very good painter. She did china painting like a lot of ladies did in the ‘20s and ‘30s.”
McFetridge’s peonies were shipped to the Pittsburgh Cut Flower Firm in long boxes filled with the fragrant blooms.
“One of the ironies is that company was owned by the father of my childhood best friend,” Chapin said. “He is now the president of the company. I remember that matter of sending the peonies on.”
The fields of peonies were quite mature.
“Some are producing in Atea’s garden, and they have for well over 100 years,” Chapin said. “Mr. McFetridge was a chemist. He lived in this home that had a deed back to 1823. It was his wife’s family’s home. It was extraordinary in that the foundation was placed on great, huge rocks.”
The upstairs bedrooms revealed the house’s vintage with its concave walls papered with thicknesses of wallpaper in a pre-sheetrock and wallboard era. The ceilings were low with ax-hewn beams.
“It was a classic 1800s home,” Chapin said. “I ultimately inherited it. My grandmother inherited the entire property. She had been a homemaker for him a good 20 or 30 years.”
When his grandmother died, Chapin, a U.S. Air Force air-transportation officer, was overseas. He couldn’t convince his mother, Pearl Davis, to sustain the property, so he sold it.
“The people who inherited the house burned down the house and put up a trailer,” Chapin said.
After Lila died, Pearl transplanted a number of peonies to her Pittsburgh property. Chapin, subsequently, brought peonies to the Adirondacks.
“The peonies are quite remarkable in that respect,” he said. “Atea has some, I have some and they continue to thrive. They are the sort you don’t have to do much about. They are not subject to insects and deer don’t like them. They just thrive and sometimes there are mountains of blooms on them. They are remarkable plants. They can be an heirloom in a family as they are.”
Email Robin Caudell:firstname.lastname@example.org
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