Georgia Martin climbed a steep rock path to a lookout bench high above her home.
"This is my retreat," she said, looking out on her landscaped paradise. "No matter how bad my day was, I come back here with a cup of tea and sit, and it makes my day better. God knows, I have worked so hard on it."
Georgia bought her Caseyville hillside property in 1983, then put everything she had into turning the 1 3/4 acres into what local people call "Caseyville Botanical."
She did it all over in 2003 after an F1 tornado tore through.
Downed trees landed in the pool, came through the home's roof and leveled the gazebo. Her glass sunroom was destroyed. So was the deck.
"Everything was tore up so badly," said Georgia, 62, a commercial asphalt sales manager. "We lost fifteen 100-year-old oaks. It used to be completely shaded, but now I have sunlight. There used to be a gorgeous laceleaf Japanese maple here. ..."
"Three years before that, we had a microburst," she said. "I was sitting on a chair in my bedroom talking to my sister. A tree came within this much of killing me. ... Now, when I hear the words 'severe' or 'tornado,' I just panic."
Georgia's husband Ron was by her side for most projects, but no more. They recently divorced.
Strong-willed Georgia won't give up on the challenging property.
"Over the years, I slowly but surely put things back," she said. "It's nice. No one knows it's back here."
Except raccoons and opossums.
"Now, I have someone's pet rabbit."
Georgia and Ron were living in a no-maintenance O'Fallon duplex in 1983 when her dad showed her the overgrown property off Illinois 157.
"Dad at the time had a jeep," said Georgia. "We couldn't get up the driveway, it was so bad. I asked him, 'What are you going to do with this?' 'Throw paint on it and rent it out.' I said, 'I want it.'"
Contractors tried to warn her off.
So did her husband.
"Ronnie wasn't for it. He said the same thing as the other contractors: 'Don't buy it. It's a dump.' But I always wanted something on a hill with a nice view. I visualized what I could do with it."
A few years after the Martins moved in, they acquired the land next door, once separated by a tall wood fence.
"People were homesteading there," she said. "Motors were hanging out of trees. We were getting ready to go on vacation (in 1990) and, as we drove by, we saw they were hammering a for sale sign. We slammed on the brakes and said, 'We will buy the lot.'"
It was another big project.
"We hired this company to come in. They hauled away 14 tractor trailers of trash. We leveled it and started from scratch. We started making plans on napkins."
A steep asphalt drive leads from the road to the garage that's beneath guest quarters.
"Remember Murphy beds?" said Georgia. "We put them in so they can pull out for guests ... This is where I put people when I don't want to give up my bedroom."
French doors that open to a patio. There's also a bar area. A spiral staircase takes you down to the garage.
Georgia's house with its glass block windows is a walkway away over a shaded wooden bridge. An inground pool and little waterfall are just behind it.
Step onto her rubber roof -- yes, the property is that steep --and look to the west for a view of the St. Louis skyline. Look to the East and you'll see the results of Georgia's handiwork, a rolling landscape of plants, shrubs, trees, sculptures and a rock stream.
Ivy, ajuga and periwinkle cling to the steep slopes.
"You need something with a deep root to keep the hillsides from moving," she said of the perennial ground cover.
And you need something to keep the water from moving too rapidly. An erosion and landscape expert confined the natural water flow with a retention area that keeps the house safe and dry.
"You can't change the natural waterway on top of a hill," she said. "You can slow it down. By the time it gets here, it is a trickle."
The Asphalt Lady
Georgia's property led to her career, too.
Reese Construction was doing an asphalt project in Caseyville at the time she was buying her house.
"I went down and talked to them. I told them my problem. I couldn't get a loan until I had access to the house and property. I asked if they could put a (asphalt) driveway in."
They could and did.
"I had all kinds of people leaving notes: 'Who did your driveway?' I talked to Jack Hayden, owner of Reese Construction. I gave him names and numbers. I asked him, 'Do you have somebody that takes care of the commercial asphalt business for you?' He said, 'No, do you want to try it?'
Reese did state and highway work. Georgia got the commercial business. Now, she sells asphalt and consults for Keeley and Sons Inc.
"That's how I got to be the asphalt lady. Today, we're doing a church in Waterloo and the Walmart in O'Fallon."
The job takes her all over the area. She always has her eye out for items that will enhance her landscape.
Near Pinckneyville, she met a guy who restored old gas station pumps and gauges. She liked their looks and bought a few. They're conversation pieces on her deck.
Same for the flying geese sculptures that soar down the rock stream.
Georgia was on an asphalt job in Highland paving at the high school when she spotted metal birds on the grounds.
"I love art," she said. "I am an art person. I went, met the art instructor and asked, 'Can I buy some geese and butterflies?' I thought they'd be great for here. I placed the geese (above the rock stream) like they were coming in on a lake."