A memorial to one becomes a memorial to many
Memorial. What a fitting middle name for Lincoln Memorial Garden. The founders of this gem on the shore of Lake Springfield envisioned a living memorial to honor Abraham Lincoln and his association with Springfield. They succeeded in creating a garden reflective of the landscape that would have been familiar to Lincoln, and many generations of citizens are the beneficiaries of this beautiful garden. What began as a memorial for one is now a memorial for many.
The founders likely could not have imagined that as the garden matured it would become a place where many individuals honor the memory of loved ones. Memorial benches provide a place for contemplation and reflection. Trees planted in memory of loved ones leave a lasting legacy that contributes to the enjoyment by others. And, even a worn out bridge provides a unique opportunity to memorialize a loved one.
Harriet Knudson and Jens Jensen
In 1930 Springfield embarked on building Lake Springfield to address its water supply needs, and civic leader Harriet Knudson had the idea of developing a garden as a living memorial to Abraham Lincoln. She was a breeder of fine gladiolus and founding member of the Springfield Civic Garden Club. Through her dedication, creativity, tenacity and hard work, she was the driving force that led to the creation of Lincoln Memorial Garden. She convinced the city of Springfield to donate land for the garden. She also engaged the Garden Clubs of Illinois to take this on as a special project.
Land clearing started in 1931, and water began flowing into the lake in December 1933. Due to drought, it took 18 months for the lake to fill and the lake was complete in May of 1935. Harriet Knudson invited the renowned landscape architect Jens Jensen, who was 74 at the time, to come to Springfield in 1935. Jensen considered it a great honor to design a garden in memory of Abraham Lincoln, for which he was paid $500. He selected the specific location after walking across the landscape. The 63-acre site he chose was mostly farmland with some intermittent streams, very few trees and gently sloping hills leading to Lake Springfield.
Jensen determined plantings should include only vegetation native to the three states where Lincoln lived. He incorporated oak, maple, buckeye, hickory, dogwood, redbud, crab apple, hawthorn, witch hazel, native plum and much more. Eight council rings included in his design are intended as gathering places within the garden. Groves of oak and hickory trees interspersed with meadows of prairie grasses and groups of flowering trees and shrubs were designed to reflect the landscape of Lincoln’s time. Jensen was a master at using native landscapes to develop outdoor places of beauty and inspiration. He was known for his prairie style design, using open spaces and pathways along with native plants and materials. Lincoln Memorial Garden was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992, a direct result of Jensen’s involvement with the garden.
Oaks were a major element of Jensen’s design, and in the 1930s oaks were not commonly available in nurseries. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts from 28 states collected acorns and mailed boxes of them to Springfield. Women in long skirts harvested plant material from roadsides, railroad rights-of-way and their gardens to transplant at Lincoln Memorial Garden. Scouts planted the first acorns on Nov. 14, 1936, and the garden was dedicated Oct. 4, 1938.
Lincoln Memorial Garden would not exist without Harriet Knudson. In 1963 she received Springfield’s first Copley First Citizen Award in recognition of her civic contributions for Lincoln Memorial Garden, the Springfield Civic Garden Club as well as founding the Springfield PTA Council. She died in 1969.
Another inspiring woman with a profound influence on Lincoln Memorial Garden was Myrtle Walgreen. Through the Garden Clubs of Illinois, Harriet Knudson developed a close friendship with Myrtle Walgreen. Myrtle’s husband, Charles, was the founder of Walgreens. Myrtle was involved from the very beginning and participated in the formative discussions with Jens Jensen and Harriet Knudson. Myrtle was a woman of many talents. She developed her skills in horticulture and gardening after the age of 50, got her pilot’s license when she was 55 and became a notable photographer in her 60s. Myrtle lived in Chicago but visited Springfield on many occasions.
In her autobiography, Never A Dull Day, Myrtle writes about her favorite birthday present. She said Harriet mentioned wishing some garden club would lead in starting a fund for a much-needed bridge over a ravine. Myrtle tells the story that the next day she told her husband that a bridge would make a pretty nice birthday gift, “…and the bridge of stalwart timber and sturdy lines materialized.” Charles Walgreen paid for the materials and the Works Progress Administration constructed the bridge, which was completed in early 1940. The Walgreen bridge is on the popular Shady Lane Trail and has been well used by visitors over the ensuing decades.
Early in their marriage, Charles and Myrtle Walgreen dreamed of having a place in the country. This became a reality in 1929 when Charles Walgreen decided to buy a farm on the Rock River near Dixon. This was no ordinary farm. Hazelwood was one of the oldest and best-known estates on the Rock River and included a century-old cabin associated with many famous people. The estate originally belonged to the businessman affectionately known as “Governor” Charters. Abraham Lincoln is one of those famous people who visited the estate. In 1832 he stayed in the cabin when he gave up his campaign for the legislature to enter the Black Hawk War. Lincoln stayed once again on July 17, 1856, when he made a speech at a political meeting to encourage public support for the nomination of John C. Fremont as Republican candidate for president.
The 250-acre Hazelwood estate is where Myrtle Walgreen honed her gardening skills after the age of 50. The Walgreens proceeded to plant vast quantities of trees, shrubs, wildflowers, roses and much more. They planted many different types of trees, from oaks to flowering trees, sometimes planting thousands at a time. Another massive planting involved 12 bushels of daffodils, at a thousand bulbs to a bushel. Dr. E. J. Kraus, professor of botany and head of experimental gardens at the University of Chicago, was the leading day lily hybridizer at the time. He brought choice specimens to be planted at Hazelwood, including three truckloads of seedlings when he closed his gardens and retired. Hazelwood became the site of the largest private day lily collection in the country. The gardens of Hazelwood were a site to behold.
Poets, artists, painters and musicians all came to visit the Walgreens at Hazelwood. In the late 1940s Myrtle agreed to host garden walks to benefit Lincoln Memorial Garden. These popular walks, held annually, generated needed revenues for Lincoln Memorial Garden. Admission fees included a one-dollar donation for the garden. The first event generated $5,000 for Lincoln Memorial Garden, and over the 20-year history of these popular walks more than $55,000 was raised through the tours. This was a princely sum at the time.
Myrtle considered the Benefit Garden Walk the “crowning event of the year.” The walks were held at different times of the year in order to feature the many varieties of blooming plants. The tours included garden walks, flower arranging classes, a tour of Charles Walgreen’s famous gun collection and an opportunity to see the log cabin where Lincoln had stayed. The last walk to benefit the garden took place in May 1967 when Myrtle was 87 years old. In 1969 Springfield Mayor Nelson Howarth presented her a key to the city, “in appreciation of her many contributions towards the development of beautiful Lincoln Memorial Garden.”
In the 1940s, Harriet Knudson asked garden clubs from each state to donate solid oak, hand-cut benches inscribed with an inspirational quote by Abraham Lincoln. This was the first formal fundraiser, and 33 benches were originally donated. Over time as the benches deteriorated, they have been re-created to preserve the names of the garden clubs and the Lincoln quotations. Visitors enjoy these benches where they can sit in quiet contemplation in a beautiful surrounding.
Over the years, additional benches have been added, donated by individuals as a means of honoring and remembering loved ones. Thus, the garden is not just a living memorial to Abraham Lincoln, but a personal memorial to many individuals. There are now 92 benches scattered throughout the garden, which now covers 100 acres.
A Bridge for Bampa
This year the bridge that began as a birthday present for Myrtle Walgreen is taking on new meaning as a memorial in honor of another leading citizen of Illinois.
Myrtle Walgreen’s bridge “of stalwart timber” was completed in 1939 and renovated in the 1970s and 1988. In recent years, the condition of the bridge has been cause for concern. The garden has a devoted cadre of volunteers, and it was especially helpful that Steve Read, a civil engineer with years of experience at Jones-Blythe Construction Company, served as president of the board. He worked tirelessly to engage other technical experts to assess the situation and identify alternatives. The bridge was ultimately determined to have significant structural deficiencies and was closed in May 2016. Numerous options were evaluated, including replacing it with a new wooden bridge, developing a new steel bridge or leaving the bridge closed due to the cost. In October 2016 the board of directors authorized construction of a clear span, weathered steel bridge with a weathered steel handrail to resemble the double XX pattern of the original wood handrail. This design was chosen to minimize future repair and maintenance.
The garden expected to launch a major fundraising initiative, but fortuitously one day a family took a walk at Lincoln Memorial Garden. They came to a trail-closed sign, and that sparked an idea. This family happened to be the daughter and grandchildren of Walter Hanson, a well-known civil engineer in Springfield who founded Hanson Engineers. Walter Hanson passed away in April 2010 at the age of 93. The family convened in Springfield in the summer of 2016 on what would have been his 100th birthday. The purpose of their reunion was to decide how best to honor the life of the man who meant so much to them, but they weren’t sure what would be appropriate.
According to Karen Pletsch, Walter Hanson’s daughter, they discussed lots of options, but nothing seemed quite right. Hanson descendants drove around Springfield, stopping at places meaningful to their family. For many years Walter and Sue Hanson lived near Lincoln Memorial Garden. They visited the garden frequently, their grandchildren participated in the garden’s summer ecology camp and fall festivals, and they were longtime members of the garden. So on this day the family decided to stop at Lincoln Memorial Garden to visit a place that meant a lot to all of them. They walked the trails, saw the many memorial benches and inspiring quotes and considered donating a bench in memory of Walter Hanson.
Jon Pletsch, Walter Hanson’s grandson, says, “As we hiked the trails of Lincoln Memorial Garden last summer, our family was searching for a suitable location to place a memorial bench in honor of our beloved father, grandfather and great-grandfather, Walter Hanson. But as we came upon a ‘Trail Closed’ sign in front of a dilapidated, out-of-commission footbridge, we knew that Walt, or ‘Bampa’ as he was to us, was leading us toward a much better idea.” According to Karen Pletsch, it didn’t take long after that walk at Lincoln Memorial Garden for the family to conclude how to honor their father and grandfather. Says Karen, “What’s more fitting for a bridge engineer than a bridge? A bridge for Bampa.”
Walter Hanson – a bridge engineer committed to service
Hanson Professional Services, Inc., is a well-known engineering firm in Springfield, founded by Walt Hanson in 1954 as W.E. Hanson and Associates, a civil engineering firm focusing on bridge design. Walter was a highly respected civil and structural engineer who was engaged in a wide range of civil engineering projects all over the world.
The bridge spanning the Mississippi River at Dubuque was his first experience in bridge design in the early 1940s. After teaching and going to graduate school at the University of Illinois, he left academia to become the bridge engineer for the Illinois Division of Highways in the early 1950s. He was responsible for all the bridges in the state, from bridge design to approval of bridges designed by private engineering firms.
In 2005, when Walter Hanson was 89, the family established the Hanson Family Fund through the Sangamon County Community Foundation, now the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln. This is a donor-advised fund, with Karen Pletsch and grandchildren serving as advisers to the fund. At the time it was created, Walter said, “We can bring the whole family into the giving decision. It’s very important to make it a family affair. It’s a good way to leave a legacy that involves children and grandchildren. I’m enthusiastic about the idea.”
Walter Hanson would no doubt be enthusiastic about the Hanson family decision to help replace the bridge at Lincoln Memorial Garden. Says Jon Pletsch:
The journey that began that day has been as extraordinary and inspiring as Walter was himself. Our family has been truly humbled by the hard work and dedication of all those involved in giving life to this beautiful bridge. Along the way, so many of these individuals have shared stories of how Walter had touched their lives. Our family has always known what a great and honorable man he was, but it gives us tremendous joy to hear how he seemed to inspire everyone he met in the same ways that he inspired us. It was an honor to have Bampa in our lives, and it has been an honor to be a part of such a special, collective effort to carry forth his legacy.
“Determine that the thing can and shall be done, and then we shall find the way.”
– Abraham Lincoln
Lincoln Memorial Garden has always been a place where the contributions of many make things possible. Myrtle Walgreen once quoted Abraham Lincoln in describing Harriet Knudson’s contributions: “Determine that the thing can and shall be done, and then we shall find the way.” This quote is as applicable to the garden today as it was when boxes of acorns were shipped to Springfield years ago.
Lincoln Memorial Garden received a significant donation for the bridge project to honor the memory of another prominent Springfield citizen, Molly Becker, who died in 2016. Molly was a longtime volunteer and passionate supporter of Lincoln Memorial Garden. Born in Springfield, Molly was an avid volunteer related to many Lincoln-related endeavors, including the Abraham Lincoln Association, restoration of the Old State Capitol as well as Lincoln Memorial Garden. She was a naturalist and enthusiastic birdwatcher. Her son, Bruce, chose to honor her memory by designating a portion of her estate to Lincoln Memorial Garden for the new bridge.
Karen Pletsch, daughter of Walter Hanson, is the first to say it took many people to make this project possible. She credits board president Steve Read for his tireless work. The project was even more meaningful since Steve Read and Walter Hanson were friends, through the long association between Jones-Blythe Construction Company where Steve Read worked for many years and Hanson Engineers.
Steve Read is quick to credit many others who answered the call and donated their technical expertise and services for this project. These included Kent Massie and Neil Brumleve of Massie Massie and Associates, Norm Brown of Brown Engineers and Gary Clack of Hanson Professional Services. John Blythe of Jones-Blythe Construction and Mike O’Shea of O’Shea Builders donated the majority of the construction labor and equipment. Martin Equipment of Illinois and Selvaggio Steel donated other services and materials. Lincoln Memorial Garden volunteers provided many hours of labor to complete the project. Donations were also received from a number of Lincoln Memorial Garden members. The new bridge was fabricated by Anderson Bridges LLC in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and delivered to the garden on May 16.
A formal, public dedication of the new bridge will take place at Lincoln Memorial Garden at 1 p.m. July 18. This is more than dedicating a bridge. It is celebrating future generations having the opportunity to fully explore and enjoy the trails at Lincoln Memorial Garden. Walter Hanson’s autobiography includes a quote by Richard G. Weingardt from the book, Engineering Legends, that seems appropriate for the occasion: “The products of an engineer’s work are uplifting to the human spirit.”
Want to go?
Lincoln Memorial Garden
2301 E. Lake Shore Drive, Springfield
July 18, 2017, 1 p.m.
Karen Ackerman Witter has a master’s degree in ecology and served in leadership positions in natural resource agencies during her career in state government. She is a longtime member of Lincoln Memorial Garden. Her 99-year-old father, Ray Ackerman, took a class from Walter Hanson at the University of Illinois. Both were civil engineers, and they enjoyed a long and pleasant association through the Illinois Society of Professional Engineers. Her son, now a civil engineer, completed his Eagle Scout project on Shady Lane Trail with the help of his grandfather.