First public wildflower garden in the United States, thanks to Eloise Butler

Eloise Butler in the quaking bog, 1911, Minneapolis Library Collection.

March is Women’s History Month, and many of us are looking forward to the coming of spring and getting outside in nature. That made me think I should write about a woman who, while she didn’t grow up in Minneapolis, had a big impact on preserving and learning about nature not only here on the Northside, but in all of Minneapolis. Her name is Eloise Butler.

Eloise Butler was born on a farm near Appleton, Maine in 1851. She spent a lot of her childhood exploring nature, like woods, bogs and meadows. She went to teachers college in Maine and graduated in 1873. Eventually, in 1874, she came to Minneapolis, where she began a 37-year teaching career. She taught history and botany at both Central and South High schools.  Although she didn’t enjoy teaching, she was a pioneer of using gardening as a way of teaching science, was an advocate for having greenhouses attached to schools, and was passionate about connecting young people with nature. During this time, she also started taking classes in botany at the University of Minnesota and working with some of the botany professors. Butler discovered three species of algae (including Cosmarium Eloiseanum, which is named after her). She wrote a regular column on city gardening for the Minneapolis Tribune, and also campaigned for natural wild gardens in the city.

In 1883, the citizens of Minneapolis voted to form a Board of Park Commissioners that was independent from the city of Minneapolis. The Board of Park Commissioners, with Captain William Berry as Superintendent of Parks, started to acquire parcels of land including Saratoga Springs-Glenwood (in 1889) which became Glenwood Park (eventually becoming Theodore Wirth Regional Park). There was demand to expand Glenwood Park to include Keegan’s Lake and a botanical garden.

In early 1907 Eloise Butler and others petitioned the park commissioners for a space in Glenwood Park to establish a botanical garden. The park commissioners granted the request and set aside three acres of bog, meadow and hillside for the garden, and also allocated a modest sum for paths and fencing of the area. On April 27, 1907 they announced that the Wild Botanical Garden had opened. It was the first public wildflower garden in the United States.

For years Eloise Butler took her students to the park for botany lessons. For the first four years the garden was opened Butler, who was by then retired, took charge of it as a volunteer. In 1911 the Minneapolis Woman’s Club petitioned the park board to appoint a full-time curator for the garden. They offered to pay a year’s salary for a curator if the park board would retain the position and pay the salary after that. The park board agreed to do this and the person the Woman’s Club recommended to be the curator was Eloise Butler.

Eloise Butler set about collecting wild plants and then protecting, preserving and cataloguing them. She also offered free botany classes. She had created such a wonderful garden that the park board named the garden in her honor in 1929. Eloise Butler died on her way to work in 1933, at the age of 85. Her ashes were spread in the garden and the park board held a memorial service and planted a pin oak tree in the garden in her honor. They noted at the memorial, “Every plant in her garden was her living child, upon whom she bestowed her devotion and care.”

114 years after the garden that Eloise Butler fought to create, and which now bears her name, opened, it is still a wonderful piece of nature right here in North Minneapolis that still peaks the curiosity of both young and old.