In March 1942, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall wrote to Burpee Seed Co. to buy vegetable seeds for the garden of his Leesburg home, Dodona Manor. It was a time of uncertainty, just months after the United States had entered World War II, and Marshall was hoping to find a temporary peace with a shovel and a plot of soil.
"There is nothing I would so much prefer to do this spring as to turn my mind to the wholesome business of gardening rather than the terrible problems and tragedies of war," Marshall wrote David Burpee, the company's president.
Marshall, who built and directed the largest army in history, often retreated to his garden to make big decisions, said Anne H. Horstman, executive vice president of the George C. Marshall International Center, which was founded to preserve Dodona Manor.
Marshall wasn't a great gardener, but the lush landscape and serene atmosphere provided an escape from his hectic life, Horstman said.
"It served as a great place of repose for him," she said. "He liked to [putter] around in there."
On Thursday, the center began a year-long, $850,000 restoration project of Marshall's garden and the four-acre grounds on which the manor sits.
"You rarely have such a quiet place in the busy area in which we live," Horstman said. "It will be a quiet place to enjoy a beautiful place."
The restoration is being funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration. Landscape architects have re-created the grounds in sketches by referring to letters, photos, family recollections and magazine articles. In the spring, they will re-plant the vegetable garden, an orchard and the rose garden, which was tended by Marshall's wife, Katherine.
The Marshalls lived at Dodona Manor from 1941 to 1959. During that time, Marshall was Army chief of staff, secretary of state at the beginning of Cold War and secretary of defense during the Korean War under President Harry S. Truman. In 1947, he wrote his famous Harvard University speech outlining a plan for European economic recovery after World War II, known as the Marshall Plan. In 1953, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the first professional soldier to receive the honor.
Marshall probably mulled over some of his great ideas while pruning peach trees and planting corn and tomatoes, Horstman said. He would often entertain guests on the grounds, taking them for strolls as they discussed business.
"He and President Truman walked the grounds. We can only imagine what they talked about," Horstman said.
Produce from the garden also helped maintain diplomatic relations: In 1945, Katherine Marshall sent a package of corn and tomatoes through the War Department to the Potsdam Conference in Germany, which was attended by Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.
"They were a treat beyond words, and [George] was a proud farmer among diplomats and military commanders," Katherine Marshall wrote in her autobiography, "Together: Annals of an Army Wife."
In 1959, Katherine Marshall entertained Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the wife of Nationalist Chinese president Chiang Kai-shek, on the grounds. The women planted daffodil and tulip bulbs, Horstman said.
When George Marshall died later that year, his widow left the house, saying she would never return. Katherine Marshall's daughter from her first marriage, Molly Winn, lived at Dodona Manor and maintained the grounds until 1993. After that the property was untended for a time: Flowerbeds became overgrown, poison ivy covered the remaining trees and the garden walkways disappeared, Horstman said.
In 1995, the Marshall center bought the 18-room house and grounds for $2 million. In 1999, it began a $2.5 million restoration, which included replacing the roof and repainting the brick, with money from donations and government grants. The original wallpaper was re-created, and mirrors, chairs and art donated by Katherine Marshall's grandchildren were returned to the manor. In 2003, a geothermal heating and air conditioning system was installed in the basement, out of public view, to help preserve the house.
Horstman said the Marshall center hopes the grounds will serve visitors in the same way they served the Marshall family -- as a calm retreat -- when they are opened to the public in the fall of 2006.