The Times West Virginian

April 18, 2012

A day in paradise

By Debra Minor Wilson
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — Every day in their riverfront home is just another day in paradise for Helen “Fee” and Charlie Reese.

It’s so cozy and relaxing, they hate to leave.

“It’s a chance to get away from things,” Charlie said.

Their property is a subtle mixture of greenery, flowers, trees and shrubbery. The only bright blossoms are in flower pots near the front door.

This is what 35 years of careful and loving landscaping, planting and planning will yield.

Helen grew up next door, so she has lived with the splendor all her life.

“My dad grew up here. I used to wash his pony in the river.”

This is the perfect spot for families. They raised their children, Casey and Abby, here.

The river is too shallow for motorboats. At some spots, it’s not even deep enough for a canoe. So there’s no traffic or noise to spoil the quiet. Children can swim all they want to.

“We love it here,” she said. “The river has been a constant for us. It’s quiet and safe.”

Still, Mother Nature manages to make her presence known. Bullfrogs out in the manmade pond croak loudly enough to be heard inside the house. Even the rocks in the river have names: Turtle Rock. Snake Rock. Flat Rock. And Sliding Board Rock, which has a natural tunnel from two rocks leaning together. Kids were forbidden to enter the tunnel.

“But they always did,” she said. “I’m proud to say I’m the oldest person to have gone through the tunnel, at age 60!”

When they bought this former campsite, there was not much landscaping.

But, stone by stone, plant by plant, they have transformed it into a shady retreat for themselves and their family. She worked for several greenhouses and was paid in plants and mulch.

“We both love to work outside,” she said. “It’s an ongoing project. And we did everything ourselves.”

Besides the main house, the little compound includes a workshop, guest house and what they call “the spring house,” a mini cabin big enough for one.

Thirty-seven 100-foot poplar trees provide ample shade, always a good thing in the summer. But this was a challenge, gardening-wise.

“There was so much shade,” she said. “We started out planting a little bit of everything. Now we just stick with perennials and shade-loving plants. We have more than 20 varieties of hosta. They love the shade.”

They also have jack-in-the-pulpit, columbine and astilbe. For annuals, they plant petunias, coleus and impatiens.

Deer have always been a problem but she’s found a solution in a fertilizer called milorganite.

Wild plantlife also adorns their yard, from rhododendrons to wild ferns that grow up to 5 feet tall.

Helen learned to love nature from her grandmother, Helen Dollison.

“She taught me to love plants. She was an avid gardener. She was always outside.”

Between the house and the small vegetable patch (“where we have sunshine,” she said) are a manmade pond and waterfall, home to koi and large goldfish, sometimes snapping turtles, the occasional snake, too much algae and some very loud bullfrogs “who are frolicking before they make little tadpoles,” she said.

“Now this pond was a labor of love,” she said. “It’s beautiful but lots of work. Constant maintenance. Right now, we’re struggling with algae.”

As tranquil as it is, this patch of the Tygart River is much more.

It’s home to beavers and snapping turtles, and is a landing spot for throngs of boisterous Canada geese. Osprey, hawks and even eagles soar up and down the river. Small- and wide-mouth bass provide a tasty dinner.

“It’s so pretty here,” she said. “My brothers and sisters inherited the camp next door. So in the summer they bring their kids and dogs, and things get pretty crazy.”

The yard is filled with nature’s treasures, like the Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick shrub, with its twisted and gnarled branches.

Honeysuckle, kiwi vine and hydrangea vine creep up the trellis at the little spring house, weaving a protective blanket against the bright noonday sun.

One deck leading down to the river is called “The Hobbit Deck.”

“Only a Hobbit could walk down those little steps,” she said.

May apples dot the lawn. Soon they’ll be bearing little apples that will be pretty but completely inedible.

And then there are the fairy houses, decorated with little fairies, gnomes, turtle shells and other gifts.

“They appeared when our granddaughter was born,” she said. “Like magic. They just fell from the sky.”

She got the idea from a poem her mother would read her, “Second Hand Shop,” about a fairy who sells lost items like thimbles and stray marbles.

It’s the go-to place for granddaughter Reese when they visit from Shepherdstown.

“The first thing she does is check out the fairy houses to see if they’ve left presents for her. And she always leaves things for them. Sometimes she’ll leave a note and the fairy will always answer.

“It’s such fun. It reminds me so much of my mother and the poem she read to us.”

There’s a funny story about one of the fairy houses, Charlie said.

“It was a hollow stump and it was too heavy for my lovely wife to carry. So she was flipping it over. Now, when you hear the word ‘actually’ from our granddaughter, you’re gonna be corrected.

“She looked at Fee and said, ‘Actually, Nana, if you roll it, it would be easier.’ And this is from a 6-year-old kid!”

Every Wednesday through June, Take 5 will be strolling through our readers’ lush gardens. To have yours featured, contact Debbie Wilson at 394-367-2549 or

Email Debra Minor Wilson at