Tanks and WWI camps: The hidden history of the Raleigh Rose Garden
Posted May 23, 2020 12:02 p.m. EDT
Updated May 23, 2020 3:08 p.m. EDT
Raleigh, N.C. — The Raleigh Rose Garden is a popular place for romantic dates and beautiful spring and summertime outings, especially when the roses are in full bloom over the old cobblestone arches. However, visitors may not realize that before this wonderland was filled with roses, it was filled with WWI tanks.
The second site of the NC State Fairgrounds
In 1918, neither the Raleigh Rose Gardens nor Raleigh Little Theatre filled this space. From 1873 to 1925, this land served as the second location of the NC State Fairgrounds, as stated on the historic marker that oversees the area.
Even today, the ghost of the State Fairground's old racetrack can be seen in the oval footprint of the rose garden and theatre.
According to history written on the Raleigh Little Theatre website, "By 1920, there were numerous structures and finally not one, but two racetracks. The addition of the second track, at the suggestion of Mrs. Edith Stuyvesant Vanderbilt of Asheville, then President of the Agricultural Society, proved a disaster."
Camp Polk WWI Army Tank School
During WWI, Raleigh became a national training ground for soldiers, with Camp Polk setting up an Army Tank School at the second location of our NC State Fairgrounds--which later became the rose garden.
Evidently, the terrain of the land around the fairgrounds was ideal for practicing maneuvers in military tanks.
According to the State Archives of North Carolina, "the installation was named for William Polk, Revolutionary War colonel and prominent Raleigh resident."
The military gained use of the grounds and buildings with a lease that began in 1918.
Old photos show the temporary camp site filled with tents for the soldiers. The site also had classrooms and barracks. Photos also show military tanks rolling over a landscape of steep hills and dirt--an unusual sight to envision on the same land that now brings whimsical flowers and theatre shows to Raleigh.
A live exploration of the rose garden and theatre
Explore more hidden Raleigh history
Did you know Raleigh once had a roller coaster theme park near Five Points? Although it was closed by 1912, the remains of Bloomsbury Park can still be seen today.
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