It is quiet and serene. Peaceful yet majestic. With its perfectly aligned white headstones and manicured lawns, it’s a fitting place of final rest for our fallen heroes. 

President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation in 1862 during the Civil War that led to the creation of the Dayton National Cemetery, on the grounds of the Dayton Veteran’s Administration.

The more than 100-acre campus of this National Historic Landmark spans 51 buildings including the cemetery, a soldier’s monument, a $1.5 million renovated chapel originally built by Civil War veterans and the historic grotto.

Resident Civil War veterans developed the grotto and surrounding gardens in the area surrounding a limestone quarry. By 1900, the 25 acres of ornate gardens had become a paradise considered more beautiful than Central Park in New York City. From 1930 on there was a gradual decline in maintenance and by 1960, the ornate gardens were totally neglected, overgrown, and hidden from view.

Cut to 2012 when the Veterans Affairs Medical Center and American Veterans Heritage Center initiated the current reclamation of the historic Grotto Gardens landscape. The Ohio State University Extension’s Greater Montgomery County Master Gardener Volunteers joined the team in 2013 to provide maintenance support, develop and maintain new gardens, and continue the reclamation process. Along the way, other volunteers have joined the team and there have been significant financial and in-kind donations by individual, organizations, garden clubs and garden centers. 

“It truly is a team effort,” says Cindy LaPointe-Dafler, American Veterans Heritage Center volunteer events director.

Because of this kind of outside interest, the reclamation is progressing much faster than anticipated. In the spring of 2014, 32 memorial trees were planted. A 35-foot fountain, almost identical to the one that existed in 1900, is currently being installed in one of the lakes.

“The mission of the Master Gardeners is to provide a place for veterans and their families to reflect and enjoy the serenity and beauty of nature. In addition to the veterans who have given so much for the welfare of our nation, it is also a place for the VA staff to enjoy. Further, it is a place for all citizens to find solace and comfort as they tour these historical grounds,” LaPointe-Dafler says. 

After decades of neglect the grotto is showing signs of life, but continues to be a work in progress. 

“A wheelchair ramp has been built with cooperation from the VA and support from Home Depot including the bricks and volunteer labor. They plan is to extend the brick sidewalk on to the small parking lot on the other side, then we want to have a small ribbon-cutting,” LaPointe-Dafler says. 

Coming up, you’ll have a chance to experience the grotto gardens for yourself during a couple of events.

The Patriot Freedom Festival, now in its 12th year on Memorial Day weekend this May 28-29, has the theme “Women in the Military.” Fun for the whole family, the event features free admission, entertainment, tours of the historic grounds and the Putnam Library/Miami Valley Military History Museum, which, if this writer may add, is one of Dayton’s best kept secrets. 

Then on Aug. 27, the VA will host a Garden Party in the Grotto. 

“It will be a fundraising event for American Veterans Heritage Center. Our theme is ‘Turn of the Century’ featuring the 1900-1912 time period,” says LaPointe-Dafler.

The AVHC is a dedicated bunch of passionate volunteers whose goal is to honor our veterans and preserve this wonderful gem in our region. LaPointe-Dafler remembers her first association with the group. 

“It was over Labor Day weekend and was called ‘Reliving Veterans History.’ I was just an unassigned volunteer, but it was the first time I saw the 101st Airborne Reenactment Group. It was very emotional for me as my late husband was killed in Vietnam. His name was Joseph Guy LaPointe Jr., a Medal of Honor recipient. He was a medic in B-Troop 2/17 Cavalry, 101st Airborne Division,” she says.

LaPointe-Dafler is also a member of Gold Star Wives and gives more of her time at the Dayton VA hospital.

“Once a week I volunteer at recreational therapy with bingo games in the evening where some of the patients can come out of their rooms to meet and play bingo. Spending time with these veterans is so meaningful,” she says.

The American Heritage Veterans Association plans to create a walk of honor also on the grounds. 

“We will be selling bricks to honor veterans and those who have taken care of our veterans. The proceeds will be used for preservation and restoration of the pipe organ in the Soldiers Home Chapel, which contains the first electric pipe organ in Montgomery County,” LaPointe-Dafler says.

The most important information for our readers is the fact that the grounds are open to the public. It’s one of my favorite places to stroll, reflect and appreciate what we sometimes take for granted. Freedom isn’t free. 

A hats off and salute to our veterans. God bless this great country of ours.

Cheers,

Buch

For more information on donating to the American Veterans Heritage Center’s programs and activities or to volunteer, visit AmericanVeteransHeritage.org or call 937-267-7628.

For more on the grotto gardens visit daytongrottogardens.org.