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    Thursday, August 11, 2022

    Kindness in Real Life: Volunteers bring Gillette Castle’s conservatory back to blooming life

    New life is blooming this year in Gillette Castle’s conservatory as the result of months of effort by volunteers and state park staff. Shown are, from left, Samantha Van Jeune of Chester, Jaimie Burgess of Haddam and park employee Peter Wilson.(Photograph courtesy of Kelly Hunt, Capture the Moment Photography)

    Visitors to the century-old fieldstone mansion of William Gillette this year will see new life blooming inside the structure at the heart of Gillette Castle State Park.

    That’s because local gardeners have given Gillette Castle’s conservatory a generous dose of loving care, festooning the alcove with plants ranging from ferns and palms to an African milk tree, cacti and varieties of flowering plants.

    “The garden community truly has risen to the occasion with this effort to beautify the conservatory, for which we’re extremely grateful,” said Lynn Wilkinson, president of the Friends of Gillette Castle State Park, in a release.

    Samantha Van Jeune of Chester and Jamie Burgess of Haddam last year launched the rejuvenation effort. Burgess is president of the East Haddam Garden Club.

    “Gillette Castle has always been a favorite place of mine to visit because of the beautiful grounds and interesting history,” said Van Jeune, an avid gardener since childhood. “My husband’s grandfather even worked on the property for William Gillette as a teenager.”

    Van Jeune, a Connecticut native, said she took her son to visit the park in 2021 and was dismayed that the conservatory no longer harbored the array of plant life that she had hoped to see. She contacted the Friends, and Wilkinson arranged a meeting among herself, Burgess and John “Jack” Hine, the park’s supervisor. Additional meetings and discussions followed.

    To fill out the alcove, they also began to solicit donations.

    “The response was amazing,” Van Jeune said. “So many people contacted me to tell me how excited they were about the project and how much they love Gillette Castle.”

    No financial support was requested for the project, she said, adding that the effort instead has relied entirely on volunteers and material donations.

    Regional businesses that donated plants and materials were Zen Hollow Greenery LLC of Baltic; Acer Gardens and High Street Antiques, both of Deep River; Ballek’s of East Haddam; Riggio’s of Essex; Passion Flower Farm of Lyme; It’s only Natural Market of Middletown; and Sunny Farms of Rocky Hill.

    In addition to Van Jeune and Burgess, other individual donors of plants and materials were Meredith Devanney, David Muckle, Victoria Smolkin and Peter Van Jeune III, all of Chester; Lachlan Brennan of Deep River; Lynn Wilkinson of East Haddam; Jamie Burgess of Haddam; and Andrea Van Jeune of Killingworth.

    The structure including the conservatory is scheduled to open to the public on Memorial Day weekend. The park at 67 River Road in East Haddam remains open, and visitors may stroll about the grounds 8 a.m. until sunset daily year-round.

    There, visitors may explore the many pathways and take in the vistas from the hills overlooking the river. In several park areas, they also will see recently planted cherry trees donated in 2020 by the Japan Society of Greater Hartford.

    Trail maps and videos of the estate may be found at gillettecastlefriends.org.

    Those interested in becoming a Friends member may sign up online or download a mail-in application form at www.gillettecastlefriends.org/joinsupport, or direct their questions to info@gillettecastlefriends.org or (860) 222-7850.

    Kindness in Real Life is a regular feature. To contribute, email times@theday.com.

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