I recently completed the first phase of the landscape installation at the Lyman Trumbull House in Alton, Illinois. I have long held a special place in my heart for this historic riverfront town of brick streets climbing steep hills. Alton is where abolitionist Elijah P. Lovejoy stood firm on freedom of the press, and where he shortly thereafter was martyred for the cause. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas concluded their senatorial debate tour there in 1858. Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis was born there in 1926. It was a real pleasure working in Alton, not only because it is a wonderful town full of great old residential structures, but because it is still home for me in so many ways, nearly four decades after I was born there.
My family’s connections to this town go back at least 200 years, to before the town was founded, but mainly it served as a stopping point on their travels to richer lands further north. It was not until 1913 that it really became home to my family.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, the economy of rural Kentucky was in shambles thanks to decades of abusing the land through the growing of tobacco. Very few jobs were available to young men, but industrial powerhouses in the north, such as Alton, beckoned my Great Grandfather Allen Reuben Laslie and others like him to hop on a train in search of a new life. He went to work at the glass works, met and married my Great Grandmother Bessie, and upon deciding to try his hand at farming, moved the family back to the hills of Kentucky. This didn’t last long: a couple years later, they were back in Alton and Allen found his niche as a carpenter, building many of the new homes in the new post-war subdivisions in Upper Alton. A few years later, his son John, my grandfather, worked his way out of the brickyard to become the most talented bricklayer in the area. In time, my father joined him on job sites and became quite skilled in his own right.
Being presented with the opportunity to be the fourth generation to shape a portion of the built environment of this town was truly an honor. I enjoyed my time in Alton immensely: from daily conversations with my clients and their neighbors to the regular concerts of church bells. I truly felt home again.
I am grateful to the clients for their patience and for their labors; they started clearing the hillside and even washed up some of the old paver bricks found on site to use in the expansion of the public walk. Thanks also go out to Lenhardt Tree Service, who not only took out all the old overgrown and unhealthy trees and shrubs, but who also came back upon my request to grind a massive stump down another few inches so I could install the step stone walkway. I am grateful also to the material suppliers who provided quality mulch, planting specimens and hardscape elements: St. Louis Composting, Sonnenberg Landscaping Material and Supply, Joe’s Market Basket, The Greenery, A. Waldbart & Sons Nursery, Effinger Garden Center, and Home Nursery.
The project is far from complete, but the rain garden, the trees, and most of the shrubs are in place. The berm adjacent to the public walk will in time feature a holly hedge, but considering how prone hollies are to winter burn, and considering that we would essentially be planting them in what is presently a frost pocket, we thought it best to wait. Also yet to go in, the central “ghost stair” and most of the perennials.
Instead of writing a tome about the installation process, I’ll let the pictures and their captions tell the story. Needless to say, it was great being in Alton again. I enjoyed the daily exercise of working on such a steep slope (as did my hamstrings). There were days when I felt like an archaeologist (discovering an Auburn Rubber toy car from the late 1930s) and a sculptor (pounding handfuls of clay into dams to create wells on the hillside to support the Fothergillas); it was great fun. I look forward to going back next year for Phase II.