There was once a magical garden on the outskirts of Nixa, Missouri. It was a place of great beauty and purpose. A sensitive soul created the garden and was also famous for inspirational poetry, itself a bit of magic. This April Old Spider is dedicated to him, George Nicholas Rees, the poet from Craig Hollow. Before meeting George Rees, let us, as always, pay a moment of homage to the Old Spider, by reciting this Rees’ verse about Schoolmaster Spider’s namesake blossom, the tradescantias, otherwise known as:
Years ago, while digging through old papers and books , I stumbled onto
a passing reference to the once famous Nixianna Garden. It was but
a few words of print, hardly a fitting representation of nearly an acre
of heaven, but enough to arouse my curiosity. In time,
I developed an almost spiritual connection to the fabulous garden, along
with reverence for the words, poetry and prose of a modest, genteel man.
In researching the Nixianna Garden and its tender sculptor, George Nicholas
Rees, I was blessed in discovering the utter charm of Rees’ poetry, and
gradually came to fully appreciate why he was acclaimed as Poet Laureate
of the Ozarks in 1938, and a living State Treasure in 1963. One writing
in particular ushers in the sunny skies of Spring. It is:
There are folks who think Craig Hollow existed only in Rees’ imagination.
They are mistaken. It begins just a bit north of
Highlandville, Missouri, meandering through enchanted Ozark woodlands, ending a short hike from the Jamesville riverfork. Christian County claims most of the 3-mile length, but one-eighth mile of Craig Hollow (also known as “Crag Hollow”) enters Stone County’s Finley River bottomland. With each stroke of his pen, George Rees painted many a tribute to the marvels of Ozark living, showing special fondness for Craig Hollow. It was there that Rees created much of his prized poetry along with the first of internationally acclaimed hybrid iris.
George Rees’ first published book of poetry was “The Garden Lark.” Its success afforded the first payment on 80 acres in Craig Hollow. By the age of 31, Rees had published more than 500 poems and was awarded the title of Poet Laureate of the Ozarks. Though his work was highly regarded, it was brother Charles’ cattle business that ultimately paid for the house. George and Charles had remained at home with their invalid mother while Lowell became an ordained evangelist of the Church of Christ and began a family of his own. When WWII unfolded, George became a soldier, though he was not in combat. Sadly, he developed a debilitating diabetes while in active service and was discharged. In 1947, the Rees’ family rented out the Craig Hollow property and moved back to Nixa. George took along a beloved 150 iris bulbs and proceeded to develop a landmark that, regrettably, has not endured. The Nixianna Garden was for a time Nixa’s best claim to fame, often touted as the largest tourist attraction of the area in the 1950s.
Rees had a special fondness for the Aven family, naming the garden after both LuAnna Avens and Nixa, thus honoring his Grandpa Inman as well as the lovely LuAnna. Ms. Aven was the first homecoming queen of the Nixa High School. He also named irises after the Aven ladies: “Lois Aven” and “Amazing Grace”, were two gorgeous white varieties. “Slim Wilson” was another popular iris hybrid which, in Rees’ own words, “...is a sunflower tinted giant named after one of Christian County’s favorite sons...” (Wilson was a country music legend of the time in southwest Missouri.) Rees was especially proud of “Green Hope” one of the top-ten registered bearded irises of its heyday.
Paul Rees, son of Lowell Rees and nephew of George Nicholas, and his
wonderfully dear wife Naomi allowed me to have photographs of the Nixianna
Garden reproduced from Viewmaster slides they share with guests of their
bed and breakfast. One of these is displayed here showing what appears
to be a “Nixa Jubilee”, which George Rees described as his “...very nice
yellow iris.” In the background is the Rees’ house where mother Lethe
and brother Charles lived. Next to it is a miniature home where George
lived, spending countless hours in creating a magical garden and rhymes
of appreciation for his native Ozarks. The site of the Nixianna Garden
is roughly two miles south on Gregg Road from where it intersects Hwy 14
(about a mile west of Hwy 160). Rosedale is the last street on the
left right before the former garden’s location appears. There sits
dilapidated remains of the Rees’ big and little houses. Proud remnants of thousands of bulb flowers dot the forsaken landscape. A llama named Bill strolls the pastureland, keeping watch over cattle that graze nearby.
During late1965, while Rees was a patient in the Veterans’ Hospital, Missouri proclaimed George Nicholas Rees the State Poet Laureate. His mother had just died in July. George died that November.
Last week I happened upon an obscure little writeup by George Rees himself. It peeked out of a cozy file in the Christian County Library, as if caught in a game of hide-and-seek. Perhaps the great poet knew I’d be writing this and wanted to speak: “...The interest and kindness the public has shown this half-acre enterprise is a source of ceaseless wonder...A hundred years from now, it seems likely that flower lovers will point to plants from Nixianna Garden.”
Rees dedicated the naming of a cloud-white iris, “Amazing Grace”,
to Ms. Grace Aven. He then wrote this poignant accolade as if it
were a big bow wrapped around a heart full of goodness and love.
Which, of course, it was.
(Photo of George Nicholas Rees and of Nixianna Garden courtesy of Paul Rees; poems “Spiderworts” and “Amazing Grace” taken from “A Symphony Of Flowers” by G.N. Rees, 1957; “Lovely April in Crag Holler” is from “Crag Hollow Calendar” also by G.N. Rees; much info taken from “Born to Be a Poet” by Kathleen Van Buskirk, “The Ozarks Mountaineer”, Oct/Nov 1994; and, George Rees’ own writeup entitled “Nixianna Iris Garden”, date unknown, provided excellent insight--as did personal interviews with Paul and Naomi Rees of Highlandville, Missouri, through whom this State Poet Laureate’s legacy shines so brightly.) © April 22, 2000