Who Was Mother Meres? The Garden Fairies

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Who Was Mother Meres?

Mother Meres: The Mother of all Garden Fairies.

Mother Meres was part of a group the first non-native settlers to make their home in Tarpon Springs in the 1880s and became one of Tarpon Springs’ most admired women. Mother Meres was Pinellas County Florida’s original ‘Garden Fairy’—spreading her love of gardening throughout Pinellas County one hundred years before our modern day flock.

Emilia Petzold in the 1860s

Amelia Petzold “Mother” Meres was born in April 5th, 1845 in Leipzig Germany and died in Tarpon Springs on October 20th, 1923. Her family emigrated from Germany, arriving in the USA when she was a five years old. The family first settled in Elmira, N.Y. where they ran a dairy farm. Amelia married Walter Frances Meres, who was fourteen years her senior. The couple moved to Bradford, PA where they started a nursery— she loved all kinds of flowers, plants and trees.

The Tropical Hotel in the 1880s

In 1882 the Meres decided to move to Florida due to Walter’s poor health. They came by train to Cedar Key, took a boat to the mouth of the Anclote River and then by river boat to Tarpon Springs. Walter and Emilia managed a bunkhouse for the workmen who were helping to build the town of Tarpon Springs. The bunkhouse was called “The Tropical” and stood at the corner of what is now Tarpon Avenue and Pinellas Avenue.

Mother Meres legacy of love looms large in the development of Tarpon Springs.

The Meres made their home adjacent to the Tropical Hotel, just east (located between Tarpon Springs Cultural Center and Tarpon Ave). Their front yard had no grass. Instead, Emilia planted a lush jungle-style garden which engulfed the entire lot at the corner of Tarpon Avenue and Pinellas Avenue.

As the years went by and Walter’s health declined, Mother Meres assumed the role of manager of the Hotel, where she feasted her guests on fruit, vegetables, chickens and honey from her garden and mothered them if they needed it. She renamed it “The Ferns Hotel” because of her love of plants. Emilia became known as “Mother” Meres.

“Downtown” Tarpon Springs in the 1920s. The Meres property is shown in green. Pinellas Avenue didn’t exist yet.

The Ferns Hotel

Looking north to Pinellas Ave. from the house trough the garden

In the book “Tarpon Springs/The Early Years”, Mother Meres is described as having a strong open face and soft German accent, a trained florist and an inspired green-thumb gardener who supplied flowers for every public occasion, for parties and for the sick.

Mother Meres’ Garden

Meres Park in the 1920s

Mother Meres bequeathed the site of her house and beloved garden to the City of Tarpon Springs, so it could enjoyed by the public in perpetuity. Shortly after her death on October 20th, 1923, the garden was made into a park. An urn was placed in the park named for her by the Garden Club as a tribute to the woman who was loved throughout the city.
The park was palm shaded and Victorian in style, a popular spot for social gatherings. The park included many benches and a band shell. The park remained intact until the 1950s, when the city converted most of it into a parking lot. All that remains of the park is a small plot of land on the corner, still maintained by the local garden club, where the urn is still prominently placed. Recently, the city of Tarpon Springs street-scaping project upgraded the perimeter, adding many new plants.

Mother Meres, a life-long gardener, made many horticultural contributions to Pinellas County. Mother Meres planted the cycad palm trees that gave Tarpon Springs’ Cycadia Cemetery its name. When they died in a freeze she planted oleander which you see still standing today.

There’s Mother on the porch, watching over her garden

In 1883 Mother Meres gave the town’s first Christmas Party, in the bright tropical sunshine. There was singing and merriment and a Christmas tree. The ground was covered with sawdust and scrap lumber and the outdoor tables were piled high with game. Mother and her friend Viola Beekman labored with rakes and hoes and a mule cart hauling water from our wells during the dry season to water the plants. They also planted trees in town to beautify the streets of Tarpon Springs.

The famous Kapok Tree traces it’s roots back to Mother. Mother corresponded and became friends with David Fairchild, a noted botanist in Miami, who started world famous Fairchild Gardens. He sent Mother hundreds of bromeliads, palms, ferns, bamboo and other plants. He also sent her the seeds for the famous Kapok tree that still looms large on McMullen Booth Road.

The red bromeliads you see in Tarpon Springs are called Hurricane bromeliads because they blossom during Hurricane season. There are still stands of bamboo where Mother’s son Ernest lived on Orange Street. Mother supplied all of the flowers in town for any occasion you could think of for 40 years.

The Tarpon Springs Garden Club in the 1890s. Mother is 4th from right.

Mother, along with her friend Viola Beekman, started Tarpon Springs’ Women’s Town Improvement and Beautification Society. Descendants of the Meres Family are still living in Tarpon Springs.References to the Meres family remain around town. The Mural is attached to the Meres Building. Meres Blvd., which connects Pinellas Avenue to Florida Avenue, also bears the family name.

When the Garden Fairies first started working on the Mother Meres Mural we didn’t know much about Mother Meres. We knew she was a much loved, green-thumb gardener and humanitarian. As the project progressed our appetites for information about her grew. Artists have a way of falling in love with their subjects. Mother seemed to be guiding the process or maybe it was just coincidence that two major events happened.

Mother Meres great grandson, as if on cue, showed up. Hammond “Hamm” McKie Salley, the Meres’ family genealogist, now living in California, happened to be visiting Tarpon Springs for a school reunion a couple of days after the mural was installed. Hamm ended up supplying us with an treasure trove full of information and images about Mother Meres.

The second coincidence was the date of the dedication which we went back in forth on as to dates and ended up to be October 20, 2010, exactly 84 years to the day after Mother Meres’ death.

The mural is a gift to the City of Tarpon Springs, lovingly created by The Garden Fairies as a joint project with The Greater Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce. The mural is to be a part of the Tarpon Springs Art and History Trail and the city’s Public Art Collection. The project received no public funding and was made possible through fundraising events of The Garden Fairies and Greater Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce, including The Garden Fairies’ 2009 Garden Tour and subsequent benefit party. The mural took approximately 2000 hours to complete, spanning three years of fundraising, planning and crafting.

Many thanks to the mural’s sponsors– BB&T Bank, Lake St. George office, Donna Hayden and Sue Hamill; and to all the people who attended our fund raising events. A portion of the tile was donated by Tons of Tile, located at 9325 US Highway 19, Pinellas Park, FL. The mural was installed by TWard, LLC on two gorgeous days, September 30th and October 1st, 2010. Thanks to Hamm Salley for all the history and family photos shown here.

The centerpiece of the mural is a 15 foot tall mosaic depiction of Mother Meres holding a bouquet of flowers. It is positioned so she can once again watch over the site of her beloved garden. Hopefully she will continue to inspire future generations of garden enthusiasts. And who knows, maybe a few new plants will sprout nearby.

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