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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

Camp Polk brought tanks to Raleigh during WWI. It would later become the Raleigh Rose Gardens and Raleigh Little Theatre. Image courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina.

— 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.

An aerial view of the Raleigh Rose Garden and Raleigh Little Theatre still shows the outline of the original State Fairgrounds. Image courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina.

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 brought tanks to Raleigh during WWI. It would later become the Raleigh Rose Gardens and Raleigh Little Theatre. Image courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina.

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.

Raleigh once had a NASCAR super speedway right near Millbrook. The remains of the speedwaycan still be seen in Raleigh, although our NASCAR roots have faded.

If you have a piece of history or a mystery you'd like to see explored, email hleah@wral.com to share your ideas!

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