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Moving forward: Reunion to rejuvenate mansion grounds

John Willoughby:

Greene Publishing, Inc.

Since the 1860s, erected by Benjamin F. Wardlaw, the Smith Mansion has stood tall at the corner of Washington Street and U.S. Hwy. 90, in Madison. The two-story structure has served many purposes, but now it is the center of rebirth, renewal and regrowth of America's rural areas.

Reunion is the current owner of the mansion, purchased with the funds donated by partners of Jasper-born and Madison-educated celebrity chef Art Smith. Together with Reunion leader Peter Stein and his team, they understand that rural communities are critically under-resourced and face the greatest barriers to health in America. In response, they are pioneering sustainable rural health programming that not only brings health and hope to rural communities but also brings them together with urban communities, uniting America.

Recently, Stein announced an in-kind contribution for their headquarters in Madison from the partnership with Esposito Garden Center, in Tallahassee, Fla. The donation of goods and services, valued at $100,000, will be used toward rejuvenating the grounds around the historical Smith Mansion, though it will not impact the structure itself.

Stein mentioned Reunion is working with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Earth Systems Inc. on a soil reclamation project for the southeast corner of the property. It will remove three contaminants that are above state limits for healthy soil. "We just needed to make sure that the construction that was going on was both visually and acoustically sound so that while that was happening, we could still operate and host events here," said Stein.

A part of Smith and Stein's vision for the grounds of the Smith Mansion is to allow the property to be open to the general public; "not certified like a park, but open like a park, from dawn to dusk," Stein added, intending to bring in tourism and commerce to the rural North Florida county.

As visitors freely walk through the back gates of the Smith Mansion, one will be able to enjoy the presence of gentle livestock: ideally chickens and goats, as well as rabbits roaming the area, all feeding off of what's fallen from the fruit-bearing bushes and trees that will grace the property. "You can imagine a holistic farm, but not have this be farmland of course. Some parts will be farm like," Stein said. Visitors will also find fruit and vegetables, free for the taking if they so choose, and gardens will continue to be tended to by locals.

In a site plan completed by Esposito Landscape, a division of Esposito Garden Center, the grounds will be graced by a variety of blueberry bushes, as well as satsuma, figs, kumquats, Japanese Maple trees and horsetail rush stems, among a plethora of other natural, organic species.

Adding to the existing news is a white structure, which currently sits beneath the shade of one of the Mansion grounds largest trees. The structure will be the home of a future cafe. "We're still considering partners and receiving applications, both in terms of equipment and café build-out," said Stein.

"It's not just for us," Stein, who joined Reunion in 2017, assured. "It's for Madison. It's for North Florida. It's for Florida and America. We want this to be a centerpiece for what's possible for rural America when it comes to bringing people together. This will draw people off highways; drawing tourism [and] commerce. It's a destination for people that want to see what's possible, but also just the beautiful history and what the natural history of Florida is."

Empowering sustainable community health, Reunion's vision is for all communities to be healthy. This starts in rural communities populated by roughly 60 million Americans. Reunion has done this by hosting culinary programming, accessible food initiatives, group work around health, and farmer's markets, most recently in Madison during the 2019 Down Home Days festival, promoting local produce, beef and dairy operations and others.

Since Reunion's stewardship over the grounds, the history of the Smith Mansion has been preserved and respected. When Reunion purchased the mansion in 2017, Stein mentioned that Smith insisted any item inside of historical value be kept in the same home it's always had, with Smith putting his money down to ensure it happened. Additionally, Stein mentioned Reunion's partnership with Peter O'Neill of famed Fraser James in the United Kingdom, in 2016 installing handcrafting cabinetry that currently serves its purpose in the Mansion's show and production kitchen; the same cabinetry work that adorns the kitchens of British palaces according to Smith. "Everything here is world-class" Stein stated. And we agree.

For more information about Reunion and their mission, visit www.reunionfl.org.

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