Many people touring Sunnybank’s secret garden this year have commented on the decorative cast iron fence that frames the front garden and house, so I thought I’d relate again how it came to be here.
A crisp autumn day over a quarter-century ago found me driving to a farmhouse estate sale in the mid-Michigan’s Saginaw Valley area. I’m a scrounger; most of the architectural decorations I cherish were salvaged from various yard and estate sales, or rescued from junk piles in the U.S. and in England, an adventure that has spanned 50 years.)
What an extraordinary place it was! The entire farmhouse leaned evenly, as though all its. support beams had given up on the same day. Sun and wind
had scoured off every scrap of exterior paint years ago, but I thought it retained a certain glum dignity.
The sale was in the weedy, parched back yard, which changed to untilled fields. After a quick inspection of the farm’s big, tired equipment and the house’s dusty interior, I realized I’d traveled a long way for nothing. The meager furniture was long past exhaustion; dishes and vases were faded and chipped...There was no point in staying for the auctioneer’s patter.
Reluctant to face the long drive home just yet, though, I decided to explore the rest of the property.
There were two decrepit outbuildings. Peering through each one’s dirty windows I saw that both structures had been emptied. Despondent, I wandered toward the farm’s small forest.
Hmmm... Something long and skinny was chained to the thick trunk of an ancient oak tree. A closer inspection revealed it to be multiple disconnected sections of a cast iron fence, boasting elegant iron fancywork! It dated from the mid-Victorian era, and had probably been chained to this tree for far longer than I had lived. In another year or two the oak and fence would be one. Copious iron rust had attacked the thick chain and was patiently eating away parts of the fence’s intricate design. Nevertheless, I felt the thrill of discovery! Here was a nineteenth century work of art, forgotten by everyone for several lifetimes. I was determined to own it, and so camped out on that parched meadow with grasshoppers and ants the whole afternoon, watching overalled farmers bid for bits of this and that.
It was nerve-wracking: some curious soul might wander into that forest and discover my treasure...
Finally, the last scavenger departed. As two strong men tossed rejected machine remains into the back of an old Chevy truck bed I approached a grizzled, suspendered fellow who looked to be in charge. He was surprised to learn of the fence, and I kept my voice carefully casual as I asked if he’d sell…
Rubbing his hairy chin he walked with me into the forest’s cool shade to look it over. He found a bolt cutter and, with some struggling, freed the rusting iron sections. I itched to see the whole thing properly so we laid each length of fence on the ground: it measured 75.5 feet. I muttered something about confining my old dog, cheap, and he nodded, snapping his fat suspenders, but there was a gleam in his eye that told me this man wasn’t born yesterday. However, I was the only potential buyer left, and a bird in hand...
After doing the time-honored haggle dance we agreed on a modest price, and he cheerfully loaded each rusted, flaking piece into my long-suffering old GMC van.
After making sure no iron scrap had been overlooked I trundled off, my grin threatening to displace my ears. I took that fence to Wheelock Welding on Long Lake, near Traverse City. They sandblasted every inch, re-attached broken parts, and then powder-painted it a lovely forest green.
My research revealed that this graceful beauty was around 150 years old. It frames venerable Sunnybank House to perfection, hosting climbing red roses and bright red and gold daylilies that weave through its fine design. Lovely fans, instead of sharp points, set off the tops of each rod, and ‘G clefs’ serve as repeated motifs that connect the long length of each panel. And best of all, three magnificent matching gates now open into and out of the secret garden.
Its art looks wonderful in all seasons, but especially when blanketed in winter’s white mantle.
I’m still gleeful these many decades later that I have given this ‘Iron Span’ a new life.