John Gurda Explains the Planting of Milwaukee’s Urban Forest

This photo of Estabrook Park is just one example of the parks system’s Depression-era expansion.

Parks, by definition, are green spaces. Urban parks, in particular, are usually viewed as tree-studded oases that offer city-dwellers leafy respite from the expanses of concrete and asphalt surrounding them. However unconsciously, we tend to think of the mighty oaks and graceful maples in those oases as landscape features that have always been there.  

Well, think again. Most of Milwaukee County’s parks began as farmland that had been sheared of its forest cover and devoted to the production of crops and cattle. Newly acquired land was typically as innocent of trees as the rawest subdivision in Germantown or New Berlin, and turning it green was the work of decades.



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This photograph offers a rare view of the urban forest in the making. Taken during the mid-1930s in Estabrook Park, it shows a mature hardwood tree going into the ground on the new Milwaukee River Parkway. Most of the county’s plantings were saplings grown in the system’s nurseries in Grant and Whitnall parks, but specimen trees were planted at strategic locations. Uprooted from less conspicuous spots, they were balled and burlapped and then trailered to their final homes during the winter months, when their root systems were dormant.

As painful as the 1930s were for most citizens, the decade was a period of steady growth for Milwaukee County’s park system. Federal work relief programs, notably the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), employed thousands of Milwaukeeans who had lost their jobs, and the greatest number worked in parks. By the time the Depression eased with the build-up for World War II, the development of Milwaukee’s park system, including its tree plantings, was a remarkable 15 years ahead of schedule.

  • The barely visible baseball backstop suggests that the camera was pointed northwest, toward Estabrook’s riverside playfields.
  • Thick cables kept the truck from slipping during the lift.
  • It’s likely that at least some of the workers in the photo were employed by the WPA or the CCC. Note the lack of safety equipment.
  • A heavy pulley was used to raise the tree to a vertical position for planting.




This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s February issue.

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