New book looks at the history of the Arboretum

Frank Court’s new book, Pioneers of Ecological Restoration: The People and Legacy of the University of Wisconsin’s Arboretum, is hot off the press—a scholarly yet very readable book, seasoned with anecdotes, and intended for the general reader, but also a serious chronological account.

You can meet Frank and hear him read from his book at a meet-the-author event presented by the Arboretum Bookstore on Saturday, June 23, 2013, at 1 p.m. at the Visitor Center. He will discuss how he pieced together the history of the Arboretum, answer questions and sign books.

Court has a doctorate in English and is professor emeritus of English at Northern Illinois University, where he taught British literature and literature and the environment.

He lives in Madison and began volunteering at the Arboretum in 2007 when he soon became aware of the need for a new Arboretum history—the last book on Arboretum history was A Thousand Ages: The University of Wisconsin Arboretum by Nancy D. Sachse, published in 1965.

Court was asked if he wanted to take on the project. “Once I discovered the wealth of primary resource material—never published— in the Arboretum collections, I was hooked,” says Court.

“The material was fascinating,” Court adds. “I had access to Michael Olbrich’s correspondence with John Nolen; all the Arboretum Committee records from 1932 to today; the entire collection of Bud ‘Colonel’ Jackson’s papers and files dating from the late 1920s; the papers of Ed Gilbert, first chair of the Arboretum Committee; Maurice McCaffrey’s papers (secretary of the Board of Regents during the ’20s and ‘30s); the Longenecker papers; the extensive Leopold collection and much, much more.”

He also had access to taped interviews with members of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC); interviews with Ted Sperry, who oversaw planting of the Curtis Prairie working with the CCC; and interviews with other important players in the Arboretum’s history—Katharine Bradley, David Archbald, Grant Cottam, Greg Armstrong and others.

Court’s book brings the Arboretum’s history up to the 21st century, spotlighting a whole series of leaders who developed the Arboretum into the multifaceted entity we know today. He lets us in on some fascinating stories along the way. And we realize that the Arboretum has become a place where research happily coexists with the more public, park-like aspect; a place where people can come to enjoy—and interact with— the natural world.

The book starts with the ideas mulled over by early 20th-century visionaries John Nolen and Michael Olbrich, who discussed the creation of an arboretum modeled on Harvard’s famed Arnold Arboretum. Landscape architect G. William Longenecker drew up a plan for a Wisconsin arboretum—a museum of trees and shrubs.

In the development of the book, there were surprises along the way. “I discovered loads of unexpected stuff,” Court explains. “I began to realize that the Arboretum history to date needed a considerable amount of clarification. Some dates were off, some way off. People who were most important to the early development of the Arboretum, such as Ed Gilbert and Paul E. Stark, had never been adequately recognized for their contributions to the early history.

“I wanted to correct all of the inaccuracies and particularly to clarify the roles of early members of the Arboretum staff, especially Aldo Leopold, whose real contributions to the Arboretum as the first director of research have never been accounted for in detail. John Curtis also played a much more decisive role than he has been credited with.”

With so much information available, Court soon realized that the most difficult task might be deciding what to include and what not to include. “The need to keep the history comprehensive and yet keep the publication costs down was always uppermost in my mind,” says Court.

A generous gift by Kato Perlman has helped make the publication possible. And while the book is a godsend for the Arboretum’s guides and receptionists, it works equally well as a reference book, thanks to its good indexing. It can answer virtually any question you might have about your Arboretum and its history.