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Lebanon's 'secret' gardens open

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 17, 2011 - After traveling across the globe in the military, Jonathan Svoboda retired to embrace an intense passion for one thing: gardening. The former Air Force pilot and his wife drew up a five-year plan that meticulously plotted out their yard. When he wasn't glued to one of his several dozen design books, Svoboda was outside digging deep trenches for four separate gardens in a small subdivision environment. The five years are up, and the Svobodas are ready to display their work.

The Svoboda gardens are one of the highlights of the "8 Secret Gardens Tour" June 18 in Lebanon, Ill. The event -- from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. -- has expanded. "When we first put this together we had seven gardens, and we added one more, plus the Mermaid Gardens," Svoboda said. Garden enthusiasts can purchase and pick up tickets at the Lebanon Visitor's center where the mystery will begin.

Svoboda says participants will get a map, on which descriptions of each garden will be listed A through H. The catch is that visitors won't know what each garden will look like. "You can go to any of the locations in any order that you please," Svoboda said.

"My inspiration comes from nature and other gardens," Svoboda said. You don't have to be an expert, or avid HGTV connoisseur; Svoboda wants others to realize that great gardening can come from anybody. "We're having this tour, and we want visitors to check out other people's gardens and gather simple ideas," Svoboda said. The goal of the garden tour, sponsored by the Lebanon Garden Club, is to give people inspiration and for members of the community to be better educated on gardening techniques.

According to the website , "You will see well-manicured landscapes as well as enjoy a unique horse ranch with a bountiful display sun-loving perennials and gather thought-provoking vegetable garden techniques."

In between viewing the gardens visitors can take in the sights of downtown Lebanon; which was once a vacation spot for St. Louis' powerful. Indeed, the inclusion of the Mermaid Inn and its gardens ensures a step back in time.

Before Highway 50, the only route people used to travel to the Mississippi from central Illinois was the old Vincennes trail. Dignitaries, locals and Native Americans used the trail to work, travel and play. Charles Dickens once arrived with a party of 14 people and stayed at The Mermaid Inn, a quaint house that stood right on the side of the trail.

Sea Captain Lyman Adams built the early 19th century structure. Inspiration for the structure came from Adams' days at sea, where he claimed to have seen real mermaids. Svoboda and others think that a few other factors might have weighed in. According to Joe Vastine, a member of the Lebanon Historical Society, Abraham Lincoln had been rumored to stay there once (although that's never been proven, it is known that Lincoln walked the Vincennes trail and stopped in Lebanon).

The visit of Charles Dickens is clearly documented, as he mentioned The Mermaid House Hotel in his 1842 "Travel Guide, American Notes," on a chapter entitled, "Looking Glass Prairie." According to Svoboda, Dickens "was out driving his coach during April, and it was cool and rainy. His cart got stuck in the mud, and he did not get to see the prairie that he wrote about." Dickens gave the Inn an OK review, saying that the people were hospitable.

"When Dickens stayed here, this room had to be much larger. Everything in (the main lobby) is antique, though none of it is original to the building," Joe Vastine said. Toward the back of a wooden fireplace, sits a large collection of Dickens' books along with a large gold-plated clock. Vastine points out that the bottom of the hand painted antique has "a reverse glass painting, because makers had to paint the details on the glass backward."

The upstairs bedrooms include wooden chairs, old saws and beds that don't have spring box mattresses. During a recent tour, Vastine pointed to a small, light brown chair, claiming that the thickness and workmanship indicated that it came from money. Vastine lifted an inch thick mattress, showing that hotel guests would sleep on thin bedding stuffed with hay, straw or whatever else they could find to make sleeping comfortable.

In his years as a tour guide, Vastine said he learned one thing that surprised him from a tourist. An Air Force captain asking about what was described as a tool box. The box was actually a rifle chest dating to the Civil War. Vastine later found that the original owners' of The Mermaid Inn had it just lying in their tool shed for years.

Vastine, who moved to Lebanon from Cahokia in 1995, used to conduct tours for the historical society until age and illness caught up him.

He said he hopes the secret garden tour will be a fun and interesting community activity that was different from other garden club tours.

"We wanted a way to promote our gardens and community. We also want people to help improve it," Svoboda said.

Ray Carter, a senior at Purdue University, is a Beacon intern.