Chicago Gardens: The Early History

Chicago Gardens: The Early History

by Cathy Jean Maloney


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Once maligned as a swampy outpost, the fledgling city of Chicago brazenly adopted the motto Urbs in Horto or City in a Garden, in 1837. Chicago Gardens shows how this upstart town earned its sobriquet over the next century, from the first vegetable plots at Fort Dearborn to innovative garden designs at the 1933 World’s Fair.
            Cathy Jean Maloney has spent decades researching the city’s horticultural heritage, and here she reveals the unusual history of Chicago’s first gardens. Challenged by the region’s clay soil, harsh winters, and fierce winds, Chicago’s pioneering horticulturalists, Maloney demonstrates, found imaginative uses for hardy prairie plants. This same creative spirit thrived in the city’s local fruit and vegetable markets, encouraging the growth of what would become the nation’s produce hub. The vast plains that surrounded Chicago, meanwhile, inspired early landscape architects, such as Frederick Law Olmsted, Jens Jensen, and O.C. Simonds, to new heights of grandeur.  
            Maloney does not forget the backyard gardeners: immigrants who cultivated treasured seeds and pioneers who planted native wildflowers. Maloney’s vibrant depictions of Chicagoans like “Bouquet Mary,” a flower peddler who built a greenhouse empire, add charming anecdotal evidence to her argument–that Chicago’s garden history rivals that of New York or London and ensures its status as a world-class capital of horticultural innovation.      
            With exquisite archival photographs, prints, and postcards, as well as field guide descriptions of living legacy gardens for today’s visitors, Chicago Gardens will delight green-thumbs from all parts of the world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226502342
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 08/18/2008
Series: Center for American Places - Center Books on American Places Series , #12
Pages: 464
Product dimensions: 7.30(w) x 10.00(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Cathy Jean Maloney is a senior editor at Chicagoland Gardening.

Read an Excerpt


The Early History


Copyright © 2008 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-50234-2

Chapter One


Surrounded by mudflats, swamps, and squalid cabins, Chicago's founding fathers defiantly dubbed the young outpost a city in the garden, "Urbs in Horto." Call it boosterism, call it bravado, these scrappy leaders nonetheless accurately presaged Chicago's significant contributions to American gardening. In the one hundred years between Chicago's incorporation as a town in 1833 and the city's 1933 Century of Progress World's Fair, Chicago became a national horticultural leader. Chicago's exponential growth serendipitously coincided with the period often called the golden age of American horticulture. During this era, improvements in railroad and automobile travel forever changed the dynamic of market gardening, and as the nation's transportation hub, Chicago was in the driver's seat. Horticultural societies flourished as a means to exchange information, and Chicago, with its central location, was a favored convention city. By necessity, early Chicago horticulturists became innovators when faced with a challenging climate, topography, and soil, and their newfound knowledge was shared with the world. These contributing factors—Chicago at the center of transportation, communication, and innovation—earned Chicago a well-deserved reputation as a horticultural mecca. one

Yet Chicago's early-nineteenth-century gardens were overshadowed by the venerable nurseries and estates of New England and the prosperous plantations of the Old South. Contemporary tastemakers waxed eloquent over the grandeur of Hudson River Valley landscapes, the wonders of New York's Central Park, and the restful beauty of Boston's Mount Auburn; generations of southern gardeners were inspired by Virginia's Mount Vernon and Monticello. Compared with these enshrined garden showcases, upstart Chicago was not taken seriously. Early Chicago settlers were written off as uncouth frontiersmen, incapable of the culture and sophistication needed for fine gardens. Travelogues describing the landscape were often negative, and could hardly tempt a prospective settler. Typical was this 1800s missive from traveler William Keating: "The appearance of the country near Chicago offers but few features upon which the eye of the traveler can dwell with pleasure. There is too much uniformity in the scenery ... unenlivened by the spreading canvass, and the fatiguing monotony of which is increased ... by the equally undiversified prospect of the land scenery, which affords no relief to the sight, as it consists merely of a plain, in which but few patches of thin and scrubby woods are observed scattered here and there."

Even more discouraging were first impressions from America's horticultural leaders. In 1868, Frederick Law Olmsted, the Father of American Landscape Architecture, described the Chicago environs as "low, flat, miry and forlorn, with a bleak surface, arid soil and exposure to harsh and frigid gusts of wind." Botanist Edward L. Peckham, upon visiting the city in 1857, said, "Chicago, the world renowned Chicago, is as mean a spot as I ever was in, yet." Even Chicago's own boosters were initially downbeat. In a scouting mission to Chicago, the city's first mayor, New Yorker William B. Ogden, decried the region as a poor land investment. John A. Kennicott, Chicago's leading horticulturist in the 1840s and 1850s, admitted in 1852, "Except a very manageable soil, and the glorious expanse of lake, Chicago has few of the natural elements of the garden."

Transplanted East Coast gardeners despaired of taming the windy climate and heavy, clay soils. Transplant shock inevitably occurred when Chicagoans doubted their own ingenuity and tried to slavishly recreate East Coast gardens on western soil. Fondly remembered plants of New England became sickly sticks in the prairie clay. By necessity, Chicagoans soon relearned the art of gardening from the ground up. From truculent soils to treacherous skies, Chicago gardeners redefined the language of the prairie soil. It was this very adversity that challenged local horticulturists to experiment and develop new plants and designs suitable for this strange frontier. With these innovations, and as a popular convention center, Chicago became a hotbed of horticulture, and cross-pollinated ideas from both east and west coasts.


First, Chicago gardeners needed to understand and come to terms with the region's unique climate and growing conditions. Contemporary writers who had only heard about the "barbarous West" painted Chicago's horticulture with a broad brush that included climates ranging from Michigan to New Mexico. In 1849, John A. Wight, cofounder with John S. Wright of Chicago-based Prairie Farmer newspaper, tried to correct these misconceptions for readers of Andrew J. Downing's nationally distributed Horticulturist. He began his article,

In estimating the advantages and disadvantages of our city, Chicago, and its immediate vicinity, for horticultural purposes, it is necessary to put forth in the beginning a word of caution; that is, that this spot must not be compared to any other part of the western country, or supposed to furnish any index to the character of any other part; for, so far as I know, it is a complete exception to all the rest ... And yet, eastern people are in the habit of talking about "the west," as though it was some ten cornered potato patch, not a whit bigger than Rhode Island; as though a description of one part must answer for all.

Chicago had its own microclimate, and newcomers soon learned to address its particular challenges in soil, wind, topography, and plantings. With these challenges, Chicago settlers had to adopt an entirely new horticultural vocabulary. Learning to translate the floral code didn't happen overnight, but rather through extensive trial and error. Timely combinations of progressive people, plants, places, and prairie pastimes accelerated Chicago's progress in the horticultural and agricultural world.

Ground-Level Differences

As pioneers moved west, they had to leave behind favored acid-loving plants such as azalea and rhododendron. Heavy clay soils and native prairie plants, with their extensive root systems, resisted plowman and plow alike. As early as the 1840s, horticultural leaders sent away soil samples for analysis, to identify the best means of soil augmentation. New systems were developed for underdraining the soil to render swampy fields productive. Farmers and gardeners were urged to adopt more aggressive methods of turning the soil. An article in the 1846 Prairie Farmer magazine noted, "Our present mode of gardening, so far as is reduced to system, has been derived from our English neighbors, with whom the very mention of a plow in the garden is the rankest heresy." England's smaller properties required only the use of spades, but heavy-duty plows were the tool of choice on the prairie. Yet old habits died hard. "A great many people plow as if they were afraid of breaking through the earth and disturbing the Chinese. This kind of carefulness will not do in a garden," warned the Prairie Farmer.

Gardeners struggled with tough prairie sod and the many variants of wet and dry prairies. The challenge to develop prairie-worthy plows consumed many local tinkerers and entrepreneurs. In 1833, John Lane, a blacksmith from Lockport, Illinois, claimed title to the first steel plow, although John Deere's Self-Polishing Plow, invented in 1837 in Grand Detour, Illinois, clearly got more recognition. Noting the importance of better planting and harvesting technology, Cyrus H. McCormick moved his famous reaper factory from Virginia to Chicago in 1847. Breaking up prairie soil became a booming business.

Winds of Change

Chicago's exposure to blustery winds posed additional problems for the gardener. John Wight bemoaned the perils of fierce winds for successful gardens, and his 1850s lament rings a familiar bell with Chicago gardeners even today.

But oh the spring! We may as well say we have none. We make numerous attempts at one annually; but every notch we get forward has its offset of a slip or two backward, till somehow or other it gets to be summer. These northern gales frown down on us, reeking with the breath of polar bears and icebergs, for days together, blasting our tender plants, and our hopes together ... First, come two days of south wind,—the mercury rapidly going up to 75° and 85° Fahrenheit, calling forth the tender leaves prematurely,—the ground yet as cold as November. Then, short as the crook of your elbow, are six days of north wind,-the mercury falling to 38° and 45°. Oh, horror! Now look to your starting vegetation. But this is not all. The north wind brings a rain. The water comes in an avalanche, and the fine soil drinks and holds it with the eagerness of a toper. Now come two days more of south wind and heat. Your poor tree stands with its feet in the ice, and its head in the fire. If it, or its ancestors, have been crossed with the northern seal, and the salamander both, it may live.

Chicagoans had to find other ways to cope with the inescapable wind. Unlike New England, no sleepy hollows or valleys protected plants or people from the gales. Groves of trees were few and far between. Windbreaks made of evergreens became the solution of choice, with belts of arborvitae or Osage orange popular landscape elements. The Midwestern landscape was transformed from an endless, undulating plain to checkerboard farms bound by walls of trees and evergreen hedges.

Level the Playing Field

Chicago's topography, its utter flatness, was both foreign and frightening to visitors. Comfortable with the rolling countryside of the South or the mountains of New England, emigrants to Chicago were unnerved by the vastness of the plains. Pioneer Juliette Kinzie, riding on horseback in the 1850s near what is today the western suburb of Riverside, had an unobstructed view for ten miles to the Kinzie homestead on Lake Michigan. "We could look across the extended plain, and on its farthest verge were visible two tall trees, which my husband pointed out to me as the planting of his own hand, when a boy. Already they had become so lofty as to serve as landmarks, and they were constantly in view as we traveled the beaten road." This flat terrain had a profound effect on landscape design. The fledgling town of Chicago was a prime candidate for the surveyor's typical grid system. Civil engineer James Thompson platted the town in military squares in 1830, and this pattern grew geometrically to outlying suburbs. Without mountains or craggy coasts to intervene, streets and properties were drawn in neat, regular boxes. Today, finding evidence of horticultural talent and creativity is easy, given this checkerboard land. Simply look for a curve that breaks out of the box. Neighborhoods including Lake Forest, Riverside, Clarendon Hills, Highland Park, and Norwood Park, all laid out by landscaping professionals, are readily identified by their unique curvilinear streets. Curves in Chicago are neon signs blinking "gardener lives here." Witness the efforts of ardent early horticulturist the Reverend Simon James Humphrey, who insisted that his street in Oak Park be curved. Today, Elizabeth Court remains the only curved street in otherwise gridlocked suburban Oak Park.

Flat ground necessitated innovations in garden technology and design. Water did not drain properly, and much of the Chicago area was marshy. Many Chicagoans made their fortunes in developing tiles (i.e. Hinsdale's William D. Gates), or in creating pumps (i.e. Oak Park's H. W. Austin) to drain the swamps.

In New England, water lines often originated on hillsides and flowed downward to fuel ornamental garden fountains. In Chicago, artificial hills had to be created, or pumping mechanisms installed. Windmills were also used to pump water to irrigate the plains (see plate 1). Indeed, instead of celebrating Chicago's unique level plain, early landscape designers such as John Blair, William Le Baron Jenney, and Frank Calvert, and later designers such as Frederick Kanst literally made mountains out of molehills in their designs for public and private spaces. Lakes and ponds were scooped out of prairie soil, and mounds and hillocks created. The incongruity of artificial mountains on flat prairie land escaped the impressionable public, who sought trendy, gardenesque features.

Barbed-wire fencing, while utilitarian, was another important Chicago-area technology because the flat plains provided no natural boundaries separating livestock from garden fields. The scarcity of wood on the treeless plain also created a market for the new barbed-wire fencing. Once utilitarian, the ubiquitous garden fence became a strong element in garden design, even when livestock no longer roamed the plains.

Perhaps the most overlooked effect of Chicago's flat surface was the democratization of garden design. Unlike New Yorkers, who could hide their privileged sanctuaries in the hills and hollows of the Hudson River Valley, Chicagoans displayed their gardens right out in the open. Any farmer taking the plank roads to Chicago could see the fine city gardens of William B. Ogden, George Snow, William B. Egan, and others. Garden trends and taste initiated by Chicago's wealthy were very much in the public domain, and were rapidly assimilated by the working class.

Treasuring Trees

In an era where trees were highly valued for fuel, shelter, shade, fruit, and windbreaks, the prairie's lack of trees was a significant concern for new settlers. Most pioneers staked their claims near precious groves, often located eastward of rivers and streams, beyond the threat of westward-blowing prairie fire. Today, many outlying Chicago suburbs have a "Grove" suffix, reflecting the overriding importance of these early oases. Research into suitable trees for the prairie was an ongoing concern for every Chicago homeowner. In 1868, Prairie Farmer editors recalled the treeless prairie in its early days: "Twenty-seven years ago no one could have dreamed so wild a dream as is now realized. It was then doubted whether clover could be grown, and orcharding was not thought of. If forest growth had been natural to the prairie, why had it not been clothed like Ohio and Indiana with the thick leaved forest? Of course, the soil was at fault or we should have timber, ergo: fruit trees cannot be grown."

Proper tree culture was a subject of intense debate in many western agricultural papers. Growing "western" trees and plants became a matter of civic pride, as well as common sense. Western nurserymen railed against the false claims of eastern "tree peddlers" whose unscrupulous sales tactics besmirched the profession. As late as the 1870s, Illinois nurserymen complained about eastern tree salesmen selling roses grafted on willow stock at high rates. This 1879 diatribe from the Horticultural Society of Northern Illinois is typical: "There was considerable discussion upon the subject of the nuisance of the omnipresence of the tree-peddlers and many instances recounted of their rascally cheating ... Some members thought there should be a law to prevent such outrages; others contended that licenses should be demanded for tree-peddling, with heavy penalties attached; and that no one should be allowed to sell without a certificate guarantee from some responsible nurseryman." The solution, as agreed at this convention of nurserymen, was to educate the public about using locally grown trees. Nurserymen established thriving businesses growing trees suitable for the Midwest climate, such as evergreens from Robert Douglas or David Hill and P. S. Peterson's trees and shrubs, and these businesses were staunchly endorsed by local newspapers.


Chicago's horticultural progress is best examined in tandem with the city's key historical milestones. The city's incorporation in 1837, the great Chicago Fire of 1871, and the world's fairs of 1893 and 1933 each marked dramatic evolutionary periods in Chicago's horticulture.

Fort Dearborn and First Florists, 1803–36

We have no remnants of Chicago's very first gardens, those of the nomadic Potawatomi, Chippewa, Ottawa, and other Native American nations who lived here in the early 1800s and prior. But when Fort Dearborn was built in 1803 to protect the strategic harbor of this new territory, growing vegetables was a matter of survival. Provisions from the federal government arrived sporadically by slow boat, so it behooved the military to raise their own produce. From the moment they set foot on shore, soldiers at Chicago's Fort Dearborn began digging in the fields. A map of the fort drawn in 1808 by Captain John Whistler shows a large officers' garden and several smaller gardens. The drawing, reproduced in many history books, indicates a simple geometric garden design, with paths separating symmetrical beds. Around the edges of Whistler's sketch, the woods surrounding the fort are depicted much more loosely, indicating perhaps the untamed nature of the native forests.

The original fort burned and was rebuilt in 1816, and by the 1830s included well-tended fruit trees. The banks of the Chicago River that bordered the fort were "occupied by the root-houses of the garrison." One historian recounted the challenges of gardening at the fort:

It was impossible for the garrison, consisting of from seventy to ninety men, to subsist upon the grain raised in the country, although much of their time was devoted to agricultural pursuits. The difficulties which the agriculturist meets with here are numerous; they arise from the shallowness of the soil, from its humidity, and from its exposure to the cold and damp winds ... The grain is frequently destroyed by swarms of insects. There are also a number of destructive birds of which it was impossible for the garrison to avoid the baneful influence, except by keeping, as was practiced at Fort Dearborn, a party of soldiers constantly engaged in shooting at the crows and blackbirds ... But, even with all these exertions the maize seldom has time to ripen, owing to the shortness and coldness of the season.


Excerpted from CHICAGO GARDENS by CATHY JEAN MALONEY Copyright © 2008 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents



1 Introduction

2 Growers and Sowers: Planters of the Plains and Parkways

3 Planting the Prairie: Defining the New Plant Palette

4 Chicago by Design: A Blank Canvas for Cultivated Gardens

5 Suburban Sojourn: Gardens in the Country

6 Fairs and Flowers: Chicago Hosts a World of Fairs

7 Prairie Pastimes: Entertaining in the Garden

8 The Next Century

Appendix 1 Plant List by Time Period

Appendix 2 Chicago Plants

Appendix 3 Key Names and Groups in the Garden City, 1833–1933




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