Illustration by Anna Bron
Stand today on McKinley Boulevard between Third and Fourth streets and, facing south, all you see is a wasteland of parking lots and gravel. But in that block, once upon a time, was a lush, internationally significant garden with plants from all over Wisconsin – and all over the world – ornamental and useful plants, a little Eden. It’s hard to imagine. But it was there.
We have to go below several eras of rubble to get down to the layer of the lost garden. Below the Sydney Hih complex, torn down recently in a cloud of Cream City dust. Below the buildings demolished for the Park East Freeway, below the layer of brick hotels that flourished there in the 1890s, to the layer of frame buildings hastily put up in the late 1830s using lumber milled a few miles north on the Milwaukee River. This block was right at the center of Kilbourntown.
On this block had been founding father Byron Kilbourn’s house, his land office. On this block, his assistant – canal engineer and naturalist Increase Lapham – built two buildings. One, a little frame house where he lived with wife Ann and their young family; the other, a two-story brick building that he put up for rental income, reserving a second-floor room for his study. All of this was here and is gone, though the large cabinets Lapham had made from the local walnut for that room are nearby at the Milwaukee County Historical Society. You can go see them.
What you can’t see is any sign of Increase Lapham’s garden. Even in 1896, a man identified only as P. W. tried and failed. At the Hotel Bismarck, then on Third Street, he cut through Hubbard’s Alley and found that where Lapham’s garden had once bloomed was an open-air beer hall. No trace of the garden he had seen 56 years before.
From 1838 to 1850, Increase Lapham planted this “home farm,” where he grew not only plants for his family, but carefully collected Wisconsin plants, such as an especially nice gooseberry, which he sent to the famous botanist Asa Gray for the botanical garden at Harvard. Gray sent many of Lapham’s plants on to Kew Gardens near London, where they were distributed to other European cities, even St. Petersburg, Russia. Lapham shipped – via lake steamer and the Erie Canal – native Wisconsin plants such as a red currant, several trillium, a dwarf birch, the shooting star, the little swamp iris, a native phlox, dozens more.
And plants also came to Lapham’s garden, from the East and from Europe. In Lapham’s garden were a tropical scarlet-flowered sage, a rhododendron from Asia Minor, ice plants from the Cape of Good Hope, plants from Greece and Peru – tender plants he overwintered, first near the family’s wood stove, then in a friend’s greenhouse.
Lapham was the first in Wisconsin to grow the geraniums we now see everywhere in summer. He grew not only the familiar red ones, but geraniums with leaves that smelled like nutmeg, leaves shaped like oak and ivy ones, bronze- and silver-edged leaves, geraniums with flowers shaped like storks’ beaks and with names such as Alexandrina, Queen of Scots, Duke of Bedford.
As you stand on the edge of this bleak place at the center of this city, imagine the spice scents on your hands as you brush the geraniums. Imagine the rows of young gooseberries. Imagine the gray-green blades of the iris lacustris. The scent of verbena.
Try to see the small, bearded man in black who tends apple trees sent from New York. See how carefully he labels every plant while his children play nearby.
He turns to you, and you see behind his shy smile the grey-blue eyes that saw more clearly than anyone the future of Wisconsin, a future he was instrumental in bringing about. A future with high schools, libraries, museums, historical societies, well-equipped universities, state geological surveys, a weather service to keep sailors safe on the Great Lakes, the conservation of forests and of water.
He’s there in his garden, and we need to think of him more often. We need to replant his garden, come to know his ideas, and continue to make the future he saw for Wisconsin.