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You get to volunteer at Chinsegut? You're lucky

Various air potatoes, tubers and vines.

Times (2003)

Various air potatoes, tubers and vines.

They are lucky, those prospective unpaid laborers who signed up at the Volunteer Roundup on Friday evening at Chinsegut Hill.

They will have the privilege of ripping out and replacing rotten benches, of scraping and painting the dining hall, of doing for the rest of the hill what the recent $1.5 million state grant will no doubt do for its centerpiece, the 164-year-old Chinsegut Manor House.

They will know that every hour they work will count toward a much-needed $50,000 match for a separate, private grant.

They not only get to be part of Chinsegut's history, but to join it on the upswing, with a chance to help create new days that, for the first time in many years, stand a chance at matching its glory days.

For most of them, this was a meet-and-greet, a time to chat over lemon squares and brownies about what they might want to do for the place, to just have a look around.

But having seen the place before and knowing what kind of work needed to be done, I figured I might as well get started.

The job I had in mind was the one Lisa von Borowsky couldn't help herself from doing the one time she met me up at the hill 21 years ago. For those of you who need a primer on Chinsegut history, Ms. von Borowsky arrived on the hill as an 18-year-old German immigrant and served as the gardener during its heyday, when it was owned by Raymond and Margaret Robins and maintained as a slice of subtropical paradise for themselves and their glamorous, well-connected guests.

Ms. von Borowsky was the one who planted Chinsegut's famous roses, camellias and dahlias.

"Mrs. Robins always wanted flowers, flowers, flowers," Ms. von Borowsky, who has since died, told me in 1991.

She was also the one who helped cultivate the experimental, exotic species, some of which probably shouldn't have been cultivated.

Margaret Robins urged federal scientists at the hill to grow invasive cogongrass, Ms. von Borowsky told me, mistakenly thinking it might be a good for grazing cattle.

Though Ms. von Borowsky's memory wasn't as clear about another notorious species, she said, in her still-strong accent, "I think we might have done the air potato, too."

Its vines and big, heart-shaped leaves and dangling tubers are now everywhere at Chinesgut, unchecked by natural predators or, apparently, by the crackerjack staff of the University of South Florida, which controlled the property for decades.

The vines are draped throughout the woods on either side of the driveway leading to the house. They have swallowed utility poles and blanketed the vast clusters of azalea bushes.

My older son and I spent nearly three hours Friday evening yanking vines from the top of one of these clusters and crawling under them to dig up the vines' roots.

Another volunteer, Myrna Bradshaw, offered to pick up the piles we left around the perimeter of the bushes.

It was a small job and only partly done, but for a while I could say that I reminded my self of Ms. von Borowsky, who kept ignoring my questions in that long-ago interview to pull the skunk vines that wound through the camellias in the front yard.

It's a privilege to carry on the best part of her legacy, and, amazingly, it's free. All you have to do is call (352) 799-5400 and volunteer.

You get to volunteer at Chinsegut? You're lucky 07/02/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 2, 2013 6:42pm]
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