Robert Jemison, Jr. Jemison Park consists of lands along Watkins Brook and along Shades Creek extending two miles from Cahaba Road to Beechwood Road. When Mountain Brook was subdivided, the developers reserved these lands from adjacent estates to be preserved in their natural state as a park of plants such as William Bartram found in the southeast on the eve of the Revolution. Mountain Brook is beautiful because nature made it that way and its developer, Robert Jemison, Jr., planned to preserve the original contours of the land and its native growing things. One of his early announcements stated: “The beauty of Mountain Brook is not a thing of a few years’ development, it has been there for centuries. The builders of Mountain Brook as an ideal residential district merely took fullest advantage of the natural beauty already existing.”
Such beautiful terrain, so close to a major city, afforded an unusual opportunity for a developer of imagination, energy, and a love of the native environment. Bulldozers were not used on residential lots in Mountain Brook until after World War II. Fortunately many lots had already been built upon by that time.
Other pronouncements by Mr. Jemison demonstrated his vision and determination: “Before a single stone was turned in Mountain Brook, every estate in this thousand-acre development was plotted. Roads and streets were planned for greatest convenience, privacy and beauty…. No commercial structures will ever go up overnight to destroy the value of your property…. The unspoiled beauty of Mountain Brook lends itself naturally to graciously living…. The unusual contour and heavy natural growth in this area has been developed on every estate.”
With these conceptions, aspirations, and aims, Mr. Jemison conferred with developers of highly regarded residential sections in other cities. He employed a landscape architect, W. H. Kessler, one of the leading landscape architects of the South; an engineer, J. H. Glander, a prominent Birmingham engineer; and retained Warren H. Manning of Boston, Massachusetts, a distinguished landscape architect, as consultant.
After several years in acquiring the land and planning its development, Mr. Jemison declared in 1927: “Mountain Brook will be much more than a beautiful subdivision. Mountain Brook is one of the most distinctive beautiful places in America, an interesting garden spot.”
Among associates of Mr. Jemison in the development were: L. C. Morton, Erskine Ramsay, Victor H. Hanson, George Gordon Crawford, Temple W. Tutwiler, and H. G. Seibels. Jemison Park consists of the lands and its native growth reserved from subdivision and sale as parts of adjacent residential estates, by the developer and landscape architects and engineers working under his direction.
In various publications Mr. Jemison told of his conceptions and ambitions. In Mountain Brook, he said, he sought “… to preserve native woodlands, with high hills and rounded knolls, deep bluffs, clear springs and sparkling streams, endless vistas, with appeal to every instinct for the beautiful in nature… the varied character of Mountain Brook’s topography, precipitous bluffs, gently sloping meadow-land, level areas with beautiful trees, brooks and streams.”
He said that “… landscape work has received long and careful study. Intent upon preserving the alluring native beauty of this woodland scene, landscape architects and engineers have adroitly blended the convenience of city life into this picturesque evironment without disturbing nature’s craftsmanship. Always the aim has been to reveal the original beauties of the region in unexpected spots. Not a tree has been disturbed nor a branch cut without forethought for the finished picture.”
Further descriptions of his vision of this unusual development were: “The quaint grottoes, overgrown with drooping ferns, the quiet pools, the gurgling water falls, like miniature cataracts that whisper their way across the shale; the rustic stone bridges that carry the winding highways over the creek and back again, like aisles through the forest cathedral… see nature in different modes, wooded hills, cross lonely country roads… skirt the banks of rippling streams.”
Land companies headed by Mr. Bob, as he was affectionately known to his many admirers, conveyed these reserved lands to the City of Mountain Brook without cost to the city, but with the understanding that they would be preserved as a nature park. In landscaping the reserved lands along the creek, the old mill was built as a focal point of attraction. In October 1942 Mr. Jemison said that the mill was “a replica of Perryman’s Mill which occupied the same site more than sixty years ago.” Unfortunately, in liquidating obligations of the land company that held title, creditors required sale of the mill property, although it brought only a few thousand dollars. Fortunately, however, the mill pond and curving flow of the creek could not be moved, and the old mill with its water wheel remained as a charming feature of the scene.
Roadways had been paved by the developers along the length of the reserved park lands for over two miles, from Mountain Brook Village southward down Watkins Branch to Shades Creek, thence eastward along the creek via the Parkway into Overbrook Road and on to Beechwood Road. Winding along and across the creek, these roadways crossed five bridges of native stone.
Colorful flora originally adorned the park in abundance, including Mountain Laurel and Rhododendron clinging to rocky crevices along the creek and up the face of Shades Mountain, varied colored Azalea and Oak Leaf Hydrangea preferring ravines and drains, Dogwood and fragrant Sweet Shrub scattered throughout the woodland. There were enormous ferns along the creek banks and a great variety of small wildflowers.
Much of this native growth was destroyed by fire. After the roadways were paved and opened, but before the area was well built up, there were frequent wood fires of leaves in dry winter seasons. Excavations for construction of the county sewer throughout the length of the park were even more destructive of root structures, a number of which did not survive.
On October 6, 1952 at a regular meeting of the Mountain Brook City Council, Hill Ferguson, Charles B. Webb, and W. H. Kessler suggested that the park be named Robert Jemison, Jr. Park. Upon motion of Charles Gamble, seconded by William Hood, and unanimously adopted, it was so ordered and a highway marker was erected on the Parkway at Cahaba Road.
In order to preserve all parklands for use and enjoyment of the people, it was made the law in Alabama some years ago that properties dedicated for park purposes may not be sold by the municipal governing authority except upon authorization by a vote of the people.
In 1973 citizens, intent on preserving the park as Mr. Bob visualized it, organized themselves as Friends of Jemison Park, a non-profit corporation aspiring to help preserve this native garden spot as a lasting monument to Robert Jemison, Jr.
-Rucker Agee, 1978
For a fascinating, more detailed account of the philosophy and accomplishments of Robert Jemison, Jr., see Robert Jemison, Jr.: A Man with a Vision, by Elbert S. Jemison, Jr., and Wendell O. Givens.