HAZELTON, Ind. (AP) - The gorgeous, blooming shrubs. The winding paths. The secret fairy gardens. The cozy, off-the-beaten-path seats. The Azalea Path Botanical Garden and Arboretum is the Tri-State's very own Secret Garden.
"This is everybody's yard," said Beverly Knight, who owns the Garden and Arboretum in Hazelton with her husband Stephen. It is just an hour from Evansville and is a hidden gem. Yet for people in the know, it's a popular outdoor springtime destination.
Knight grew up in Vanderburgh County living near Cynthiana. She drove for UPS, and on her route enjoyed finding landscaping ideas - and wanted lots of land to implement them. She and her family eventually found a larger plot straddling the Pike and Gibson County line and started building a home and garden.
One of Knight's friends on her route was Dr. Henry Schroeder, a renowned hybridizer of azaleas.
"I loved azaleas, just loved them," Knight said. "When I'd see Dr. Schroeder, he would ask if we were going up to our ground and send a tray of azaleas for me to plant. He was one of the most prolific hybridizers in America."
Knight didn't plan for her home to be a tourist destination at first, but she is located close to Smith's Greenhouse, and when customers drove by and saw her flowers, they'd pull in thinking it was the greenhouse. Then they'd ask to look around a little, and then they'd show up later with friends.
"I figured I should just open to the public," she said.
It was the beginning of something that grew and continues to grow.
Knight's original 15 acres have grown into much more, with 25 acres now landscaped and more sections coming every year. There are thousands of azaleas, paths and statuary. They've added two lakes. Next year she's adding a legacy garden for Dr. Shroeder, and eventually, a creek on the property will be landscaped.
The azaleas will be in full flush until mid-May, but there's plenty to see after that. There are many unusual trees, plants and gorgeous landscaping where weddings are scheduled every weekend during the summer.
There's even a deck with seating, beer and wine where visitors may enjoy a picnic lunch they bring along. Until mid-June, Azalea Path is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily so visitors can come before it gets hot or after work.
Visitors to Azalea Path often make a day of it by stopping in Sullivan's Grocery and Diner, a historic eatery just a couple miles down the road. The building was erected in 1883, and Jeff and Terri Sullivan have owned it for 21 years. Sherri Sullivan is the manager.
"This place was built originally as an Odd Fellows club," Sherri said. "After that, it became a small grocery store where they served cold cut sandwiches for years. When my brother and his wife bought it, they started serving hamburgers, fish sandwiches and tenderloins."
Folks missed the big fish sandwiches that used to be sold at the Gibson County fair so the Sullivans came up with "Tad's Fair Fish" sandwich - a large slab of white pollock in a puffy secret batter, served piping hot on a bun with leaf lettuce and tartar sauce.
Also on the menu are catfish filets, Angus cheeseburgers and appetizers to round the meal out.
Sometimes homemade baked goods are available, and during cold months, homemade soups are offered.
We ran into Sheila Austin of Evansville having lunch at Sullivan's after a trip to Azalea Path. It was her first journey to the area, and she was glad she'd made it.
"When we were at Azalea Path somebody recommended we eat here," she said. "The flowers there were breathtaking, and I liked the idea of eating here because it was an old-time grocery store. The food is great, just what you'd expect from an old-fashioned diner. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves today. This is a hidden gem that a lot of people don't know about; I posted so many pictures and got a lot of comments."
Source: Evansville Courier & Press