Planting Acorns for Lincoln (2011)

Harriet Knudson planting acorns

Civic leader Harriet Knudson, 1936. Courtesy Lincoln Memorial Garden Archives.

Lincoln Memorial Garden, Springfield, Illinois

In 1936, Harriet Knudson, a native of Springfield, Illinois, and a member of the Springfield Civic Garden Club, envisioned a living memorial to Abraham Lincoln: a garden composed only of plants native to Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois, the three states in which Lincoln lived. Knudson secured the backing of the Garden Clubs of Illinois, and the city of Springfield agreed to donate land. She next commissioned landscape architect Jens Jensen, who was then a vigorous seventy-four years old, to select the site and design the garden. (Jensen, who felt honored to design a tribute to Lincoln, initially waived his fee, but later requested $500, explaining, “I am too poor these days to give the plan outright.”) He chose sixty acres of rolling farmland, a narrow tract that enfolded a cove on the shore of Lake Springfield, newly created by the city.

Jensen’s plan lays out a network of looping trails that link eight council rings located on the higher elevations with views to the four-thousand-acre sheet of water. He viewed council rings, or stone seating circles, as an expression of democracy as well as places for human fellowship amid the beauties of nature; the largest of these, named for Lincoln, is located atop a hill and encircled by various species of oaks planted from acorns by scout troops and garden clubs. The paths are named for native plants—Dogwood Lane, Red Bud Trail, and so on—that he envisioned for those areas: “Certain plants are used in large masses so to emphasize their beauty and give a feeling of greatness,” he wrote about the garden. The trails also outline discrete “rooms” of meadow and woods, aligned to create one of his favorite landscape effects: “a sunlit lane, backed by the deep and mysterious shadows of the woodlands.”

Mr. and Mrs. Knudson with Jens Jensen

Harriet and T. J. Knudson with landscape architect Jens Jensen (center). Courtesy Lincoln Memorial Garden Archives.

Over the years, the plan got stashed in a closet, and the next generation of garden managers unknowingly lost track of the historical spaces and plantings. Then, in the early 1980s, Bob Grese, a graduate student in landscape architecture, rediscovered it while researching his master’s thesis. “Bob visited every intact Jensen landscape he could find, and he documented Jensen’s design characteristics, such as the use of stratified native stonework, the interplay of light and shadow, sun openings—Jensen’s term for a clearing in the woods—and the like,” says Jim Matheis, the executive director of the private, nonprofit Lincoln Memorial Garden Foundation, which manages the garden. Matheis found Grese’s thesis, completed in 1984, to be so helpful that he used it as a management guide until a master plan was drawn up in 1993 (by local landscape architects Massie Massie & Associates).

Jensen’s plan also has helped the garden’s staff reclaim the spatial layout. “Over the years the garden just filled in,” Matheis says. “We had to cut trees in sun openings, and we cleared the understory according to sightlines from the council rings.” As was typical of Jensen, however, the plan noted only the broad placement of species, and Matheis and his team have used their woodcraft to sleuth out which plants were original and which younger ones were compatible with Jensen’s poetically limned vision of succession. “We’d come across clumps of dogwoods and redbuds too young for him to have planted, but the effect and the species were what he would have sought,” Matheis explains. “Otherwise, combating invasive plant species is the main ongoing battle,” he says, citing bush honeysuckle (Lonicera mackii), Japanese honeysuckle vine (Lonicera japonica), and garlic mustard (Allaria petiolata) as the chief noxious plants, which thrive in the sunny clearings.

Lincoln Memorial Garden council ring

Lincoln Memorial Garden council ring. Photograph by Dave Kremitzki.

“That is true in many of Jensen’s landscapes,” says Bob Grese. “The places that were, for him, early experiments in ecological restoration have been particularly vulnerable to invasive exotic species. It’s a lesson in humility, in how such spaces need ongoing management to maintain the design. They’ve done a great job at the Lincoln Memorial Garden.”

Not all the growth here has been undesirable. In the garden’s seventy-fifth year, tall oaks now tower over redbuds. Oaks and maples planted in the 1930s create shade and enclosure around the council rings. “These are the mature effects that Jensen envisioned,” Matheis reflects. “In his memoir, Siftings, he talks about roaming through different wild landscapes, and it’s clear that when he created a design he was picturing those scenes in his mind.” (See related articles on Bob Grese and the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House. Related LALH books: The Native Landscape Reader and A Genius for Place: American Landscapes of the Country Place Era.)

—Jane Roy Brown


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