Celebrating Bellingrath: A Storied Southern Home

As the Alabama home turns 80, its museum director shares three tales from its history

photo: All photos courtesy of Bellingrath Gardens & Home.

A logging operation turned fish camp, a fish camp turned garden, a garden turned home, a home turned museum. That’s the short story of Bellingrath Gardens & Home, an estate in Theodore, Alabama, on the Fowl River outside of Mobile, built by Coca-Cola bottling magnate Walter Bellingrath and his wife, Bessie, an altruist from Louisiana with a fondness for antique furniture.

While the house is expertly designed and the award-winning gardens bright and blooming (both the work of Mobile architect George Rogers), its most intriguing features, like many Southern homes, might just be the stories of the folks who built it. “The Bellingraths were no doubt an interesting couple with plenty of funny stories,” says Bellingrath’s longtime museum director, Tom McGehee. Here are three of his favorites, which he shares—along with many others—during his guided Tuesday Tours.


A Gator Meets Its Maker

One weekend a Coca-Cola bottler from West Point, Georgia, was visiting the Bellingraths, and brought his son along. Mr. Bellingrath had a pet alligator, or as close to a pet as an alligator can be. The alligator, named Roscoe, would come at the sound of a bell Mr. Bellingrath rang to signal a fish-scrap feeding. Mr. Bellingrath loved to show Roscoe off to visitors whenever he got the chance. The Coke bottler‘s son, it’s said, was wandering around the camp when a gun shot rang out. The boy came running to where the two men were sitting and shouted, “I just shot an alligator!” The boy had rung the bell while checking out the dock, and Roscoe came swimming over for his treat. The boy, not knowing Mr. Bellingrath’s affection for this particular gator, shot him between the eyes.

“The two of them got to see Mr. Bellingrath’s temper at full force, needless to say,” McGehee laughs. “They headed back to Georgia, and never came back.”

Valuable Azalea Specimens

“Mrs. Bellingrath was a giver,” McGehee says. When she learned of some neighbors who were experiencing financial trouble, she’d do what she could to help. Even if it meant telling a little white lie. On multiple occasions, Mrs. Bellingrath would show up at the front door of these folks’ house and ask if she could pull some of their azaleas. “She’d convince them the azaleas growing in their front yard were a very particular, rare variety, and she’d ask if she could pay for them to plant at her home.” McGehee says. Mrs. Bellingrath would offer up to $400 for each plant.

Bellingrath gardening staff with a truckload of transplanted shrubs bought from families struggling through the Depression.

We’ve Got Quail?

One afternoon before the home was built, Mrs. Bellingrath’s nephew Ernest was driving her and architect George Rogers to a picnic at the proposed homesite. En route, Ernest began to nod off, and the car—floorboards stacked high with containers of fried chicken, and pie—veered into a ditch, spilling a full Southern picnic all over the passengers. As it happened, Mr. Bellingrath pulled up immediately following the crash.

“Dammit, Ernest. What have you done now?” Mr. Bellingrath boomed, and before Ernest could conjure up an answer, Mrs. Bellingrath shot in, “A covey of quail ran out in front of the car and Ernest was only trying to avoid hitting them.” Nobody said a word.

The following day Mr. Bellingrath confronted Ernest again. He told the truth and apologized. Mr. Bellingrath sat quiely for a moment. “I knew it. I knew we didn’t have no damn quail down there.” McGehee laughs, “Apparently, Mr. Bellingrath was just frustrated he wouldn’t be able to hunt quail on his property.”

Taken in 1938, Mr. & Mrs. Bellingrath stand in front of a commemorative plaque given to them as a thank you for opening their gardens to the public.

Bellingrath Gardens & Home is holding events in June, July, and August celebrating the history of the property and its former residents. Find more information on their website.