Learning from the Land

By Carol Davit | October 2, 2000
From Missouri Conservationist: Oct 2000

When Rus Goddard hikes, he carries a pair of clippers or a pruning saw and sometimes takes along a chain saw. As he walks his daily four or five miles along the trails at Shaw Arboretum, he clears brush and downed trees. It’s a typical day’s work for 87-year-old Rus, who’s been volunteering at the Arboretum for 16 years.

"I’ve found my niche in retirement," he says. "I like maintaining the trails for anyone who wants to partake of the beauty of this place."

Rus was introduced to Shaw Arboretum in 1931 by its first manager, Lars Peter Jensen. Since the age of 18, Rus has developed a heartfelt attachment to these 2,450 acres of Ozark foothills in the Meramec River Valley.

"Being here," says Rus, "is like a gift from heaven for me."

I spent my childhood on the grounds of Shaw Arboretum, where my parents Bill and Joyce Davit worked, and I share Rus’s affection for this parcel of land. I know it is special, not just because of its natural beauty, but for its history and the opportunity it provides for visitors to learn from this land.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of Shaw Arboretum. Located at the intersection of Interstate 44 and Highway 100 in Gray Summit, it is owned by the Missouri Botanical Garden and named for the founder of the Garden, Henry Shaw. Shaw Arboretum was pieced together from the purchase of five worn-out farms in 1925.

First called "the Gray Summit Extension," this land was intended to display the plant collections of the Garden, which were being threatened by St. Louis air pollution during the city’s soft coal-burning days. Lou Brenner, who worked at Shaw Arboretum in the 1930s and 1940s, grew up in the neighborhood of the Garden.

"You could walk down the sidewalk, stamp your feet and leave sooty footprints," he remembers.

Some years after the purchase of Shaw Arboretum, the air pollution abated, allowing the Garden’s plant collections to remain in St. Louis. Instead of becoming a true arboretum - a formal collection of trees and other plants from around the world - Shaw Arboretum evolved into a showcase of the native plants, wildlife and natural communities of eastern Missouri.

John Behrer, the Arboretum’s director, sighs from behind the paperwork on his desk. Behrer didn’t have administrative chores in mind when he first worked at the Arboretum as a teenager and conducted surveys of white-footed deer mice and built hiking trails.

John has stately 200-year old white oaks outside his window and bobwhite quail within earshot of his desk. He is itching to get outside, but when asked what drives his work, he is steadfast.

"Our mission," he says, "is to help people feel comfortable in the natural world, to appreciate it and understand its importance."

Shaw Arboretum hosts more than 62,000 visitors a year, including 12,000 children and 4,000 adults who participate in its environmental education programs. The Arboretum is a National Environmental Education Landmark, as designated by the Department of the Interior in 1972, and its curricula is shared throughout the Midwest.

In the last 15 years, the Arboretum has become a national leader in natural community restoration and native plant horticulture. The Arboretum’s success is largely due to the dedication and hard work of the 15 full-time staff and numerous volunteers.

"We all love what we do," says Lydia Toth, manager of Educational Services at the Arboretum. "We work in a beautiful place that we never take for granted." Lydia, like half of the staff and many of the volunteers, has been at the Arboretum for more than 10 years.

"To share it, whether by teaching, planting, building or greeting visitors, is a privilege," she says.

While exploring the Arboretum’s 14 miles of hiking trails through forest, glade, woodland, prairie, wetland and river communities, visitors may stumble upon vestiges of the 1926 plans for formal gardens at the property. These early plans, developed by noted St. Louis landscape architect John Noyes, also involved setting aside tracts for native wildflowers.

As visitors arrive at the Arboretum, they encounter the 55-acre Pinetum, a collection of conifers from around the world and, in spring, thousands of daffodils planted in the 1920s and 1930s. Hikers may discover the elegant brick serpentine wall at a site intended for a boxwood garden or glimpse the old greenhouses that once housed the world’s largest collection of cultivated orchids.

Beginning in 1937, Lou Brenner, then a student at Washington University, helped build the trail system through the wildflower reservation. "I carried a double-bit axe, a scythe, a gallon jug of water and a lunch box," says Lou, "and I worked all day long without seeing another person."

During the next two decades, under the supervision of Lars Peter Jensen and, later, August Bielmann, other parts of the Arboretum were used for agricultural experimentation and demonstrations of land management. Nut and fruit orchards were planted, and local farmers were invited to observe their cultivation procedures and results. Bielmann kept bees and established a bee garden, used sewage sludge for fertilizer, purchased a sawmill to produce lumber on the grounds and terraced fields to curtail erosion.

In 1953, under Beilmann’s direction, the Arboretum hosted a pageant called the "Saga of the Meramec," dramatizing the history of land use in the Meramec Valley. The three-day event attracted 30,000 visitors from St. Louis and the Gray Summit area.

The Arboretum also became a testing ground for game management. "There were no deer or turkeys at the Arboretum in the 1930s," remembers Brenner. In 1945, the Conservation Commission designated the Arboretum as a game preserve. The white-tailed deer population grew from two in 1939 to 30 in 1951. Red fox and beaver became abundant, and owl, woodcock and quail numbers increased.

From the mid 1950s to the late 1960s, funding from the Botanical Garden to its "country cousin" was drastically reduced. During this period, essential maintenance was supervised by Frank Steinberg, who worked at the Arboretum for 52 years. Ray Garlick joined the Arboretum staff in 1969, worked until the age of 72, and then volunteered for 12 years. Ray, who was loved by the staff, passed away this year and will be missed.

"Frank and Ray knew how to do things right the first time," says Glenn Beffa, Arboretum maintenance supervisor. "They took care of equipment and tools because there was no money to replace them."

The next generation of staff - including John Behrer, who became superintendent in 1983 and director in 1996 - has been unfolding the latest and perhaps most exciting chapter in the Arboretum’s history. Soon after the appointment of ecologist Dr. David M. Gates as director of the Missouri Botanical Garden in 1965, ecological education programs for children and adults began in earnest. After three decades they continue to grow.

In the 1970s, children camped, canoed and explored the Arboretum with all their senses, to become "acclimatized" to nature. Students enrolled in the course, "Living in the 1800s," stayed overnight in a log cabin with no running water and learned to make tools, harvest vegetables and prepare meals on a woodstove.

Through the 1980s to the present, education programs have incorporated scientific inquiry with hands-on activities. For example, the thousands of children who have participated in the Arboretum’s maple syrup class make (and taste!) maple syrup and learn about photosynthesis, transpiration and the water cycle in the process.

Betty Nellums and Nell Menke, a fellow Webster Groves Nature Study Society member, helped begin the Arboretum’s first adult education classes - the Tuesday morning spring and fall wildflower walks.

"We went rain or shine, and we roamed the entire area, said Betty, who volunteered as a guide for 20 years. "No reservations were required, just a love of and interest in wildflowers."

These popular walks, begun in 1974, continue with Arboretum naturalist James Trager and volunteers Dick and Suzy Russell, who lead hikers to orchids, bluebells and scores of other wildflower gems.

By the late 1970s, Arboretum staff and volunteers began investigating ways to restore and develop the Arboretum to its fullest biological potential. In 1980, supported by a grant from the Missouri Prairie Foundation, 48 acres of old pasture were converted to native prairie plants. In 20 years, the prairie has grown to more than 100 acres that support 200 Missouri plant species.

"Broadcasting prairie seed - sometimes in the rain - was exhilarating," says my father, who worked on the prairie project for 10 years and led regular tours to acquaint visitors with Missouri’s prairie heritage. Staff and volunteers, including my parents, collected hundreds of pounds of local seed, from which they propagated tens of thousands of prairie plants.

Not only did the prairie project generate more interest in Missouri’s prairie, but it also helped energize other restoration projects at the Arboretum.

James Trager, who joined the Arboretum staff in 1990, continued the modern chapter of the Arboretum’s restoration history. On the Arboretum’s ridgetops and slopes, he noticed glade plants suffering in the shade of cedars and observed that the same plants fared better along sunny trails. In less than five years, James and a crew of other staff and volunteers have restored about 30 acres of glade and woodland communities to their original open character, using prescribed burns and selective cutting of cedars and other invasive woody plants.

"There are two rules of the restoration movement," Trager says. "Promote biological diversity and involve people in a beneficial way. People like opportunities to do good work, and our volunteers certainly have made a difference here."

In 1993, with funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and private donors, the Arboretum staff reconstructed a 20-acre wetland complex from a former pasture. Now seven years old, aquatic plants, dragonflies, toads, frogs, herons and other animals thrive in what was once a fescue field. A trail, boardwalk and observation blind allow visitors a close-up look at wetland wildlife. Night hikes, led by Arboretum staff, help visitors experience the nocturnal sights and sounds of the wetlands.

To demonstrate how elements of Missouri’s natural communities can be incorporated into human habitats, the Whitmire Wildflower Garden was developed in 1991, under the direction of Scott Woodbury, horticulture supervisor. The wildflower garden features an assemblage of glade, prairie, pine savanna, aquatic and woodland gardens, including more than 600 species of native plants. Recently, a home demonstration garden was added, as well as an Osage garden that displays plants used by Native Americans for medicine and other purposes.

Nearby is the site for a new visitor’s center that will represent future goals of the Arboretum. The center will serve as a portal to educational opportunities and will entice visitors to go outside and explore the natural world.

"The center will also help visitors learn about sustainable living, about how to live more in tune with nature," says Behrer.

The center’s heating and cooling system will be a solar-powered ground-source heat pump. It also will use native aquatic plants to clean water in its septic system. The water will then flow to a woodland pond to support amphibians.

After 75 years of land stewardship, Shaw Arboretum is experiencing a renaissance of natural diversity. More visitors than ever are able to learn about the natural world - and their place in it - by exploring the Arboretum. Thanks to the hard work of the people who have cared for it, future generations will be able to, as well.

Shaw Arboretum is at the intersection of Interstate 44 and Highway 100 in Gray Summit. Hours are 7:00 a.m. to 1/2 hour past sunset daily. The Visitor's Center is open 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays and 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on weekends. The Bascom House is closed Mondays and open 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. (Bascom House hours in January and February are 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.)

Arboretum admission is $3.00 for adults, $2.00 for those aged 65 and over, free for children 12 and under. Admission is free for Missouri Botanical Garden members and Shaw Arboretum pass holders. For more information view missouribotanicalgarden.org and click on Arboretum or call (636) 451-3512.

The Joseph H. Bascom House

The Joseph H. Bascom House is an elegant testament to the history of land use at Shaw Arboretum. Confederate Colonel T.W.B. Crews built the home in 1879 and farmed the surrounding land. Restored in the early 1990's, the building houses the "People on the Land" exhibits, developed in partnership with the Conservation Department, which depict the history of land use in the Meramec River Valley over the last 12,000 years.

"In addition to the exhibits," says Arboretum construction manager Dave Hicks, who oversaw the Bascom House restoration," the house itself helps people understand the history of our use of natural resources." From the restoration of the original transoms, which help rid rooms of hot air in the summer, to the installation of a modern energy-saving ground-source heat pump, the Bascom House features many examples of sustainable energy use.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer