Leila Sisson Case: ‘Queen of winter’ reigns supreme at Oak Grove Cemetery

Published 11:49 am Saturday, February 23, 2019

The day was dreary and showers threatened; then suddenly the sun broke through the clouds and I decided it was a good time to take a break and venture forth — my destination: A leisurely stroll through Oak Grove Cemetery specifically to admire the lovely camellia garden that is in full bloom.
There are 54 different camellia varieties but a total of 79 bushes, making the garden perhaps the largest collection of camellias on public property in Georgia and is planted for the entire community to enjoy. Each camellia bush is tagged with its American Camellia Society name and registration number and the blossoms range from gorgeous shades of red, coral pink to white and variegated, of course, my favorite of all is the prize-winning Frank Houser variety — that has a showy, blowsy deep coral blossom.
But first a little background about Oak Grove Cemetery owned by the City of Americus. It is Georgia’s oldest active cemetery — established in 1856 — and it is a prime example of a Victorian cemetery where the names of many early founders of the city and county to the unknown are buried at the expense of the taxpayer.
Oak Grove is the perfect place to walk or run if you don’t want the noisy gym or the uneven city sidewalks. However, on this particular day I was not walking for my health but to admire the camellias that are due to the untiring efforts of George Hooks who aptly represented this district, serving on both sides of the Georgia House of Representative for more than 30 years and who we continue to address as senator even though he’s no longer in office.
Through the years, Hooks has devoted time to beautify Oak Grove but these efforts became more intense after the March 1, 2007, tornado destroyed tombstones and toppled countless trees including the ancient massive oaks in the historic section, the original portion laid out by the city in the 1850s and the reason the cemetery is named Oak Grove.
Hooks and the late Manson Markette initially selected 50 camellia varieties to plant and many are blue winners. The number of varieties has now grown to 56, including two propagated by Hooks that are unique and named in honor of his daughter, Mary Ann Hooks, and “Miss Ethel” for his grandmother whom Hooks says everyone called “Miss Ethel.” Both varieties have beautiful white blossoms but are totally different.
After the tornado, Hooks and Markette feared the bright sunlight might be harmful to the camellias because of the absence of the shady oaks; however, that wasn’t the case. They are flourishing and putting on quite a show at present.
The camellia garden goes beyond the original historic section and continues to the paupers’ burial site adjacent to the Sexton’s House. These camellias were transplanted years ago by Hooks and former resident Charlie Crisp from the garden at the home of the late Jimmy Ferguson when a portion of his property was purchased by First Baptist Church to use for a parking lot. And 13 more camellia bushes are planted and in bloom in the raised bed on the Tripp Street side of the cemetery.
So, I encourage you to visit Oak Grove Cemetery soon to take a stroll through the garden of camellias which Hooks describes as the “queen of winter” — that reigns supreme right now. You won’t be disappointed.
And don’t forget Sumter Historic Trust presents guided tours of Plains at 2 and 4 p.m. (Sunday, Feb. 24) led by Kim Carter Fuller — you will see places not a part of the regular tours and hear stories you haven’t heard before. For more information click on the Trust’s Facebook event page.

Leila Sisson Case lives in Americus.