Chicago’s Historic Gardeners

The Chicago Flower and Garden Show has been ushering in Spring in Chicago since 1847–ten years before the city was incorporated. This year, as we celebrate it’s 170th birthday, lets take a look at how gardening has made elegant an otherwise industrial city.

The Gardener Mayor

Chicago’s first mayor in 1837, founder of the Chicago Board of Trade, and President of the Union Pacific Railroad, William Ogden, may be known more for black soot and railroad ties. However, he was one of the early prominent Chicagoans to take advantage of the fresh Lake Michigan water and keep a private garden on his property that spanned multiple city blocks. Ogden used his vast wealth to build a Greek Revival style home where he entertained politicians like Martin Van Buren and Steven A. Douglas. They would stroll both indoors among the flowers of his glass enclosed greenhouse and outdoors through his roses, dogwoods, and wild vines. In his home, he housed an Austrian-born gardener along with his personal secretary, coachman, and five domestic servants.

A shrewd and ruthless businessman, Ogden had a soft spot for gardening.

When the great fire of 1871 burned his home and every building in downtown Chicago, Ogden said, “Never before was a large and very beautiful and fortunate City built by [a] generation of people so proud, so in love with their work, never a City so lamented and grieved over as Chicago.”

Worlds Columbian Exhibition

Chicago twice founded a Chicago Horticultural Society. The first one was started in 1847 by William Ogden with the son of one of the city’s first American citizens, John Kinzie, as its president. Then it was re-founded in 1890 and hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition Chrysanthemum Show of 1893. Taking advantage of the international attention Chicago was garnering from hosting the World’s Fair, the show was a hit. However, like the two Worlds Fairs that Chicago hosted, the Chrysanthemum show was followed by international depression and turmoil. The Chicago Horticultural Society didn’t recover until 1943.

1892 at the Regiment Armory

The Worlds Fair of 1893 itself was a gorgeous display of flora the likes of which the world had never seen. The Horticultural building–designed by the inventor of the skyscraper, William LeBaron Jenney–covered more than 4 acres of the fair grounds and 8 different greenhouses and the various state buildings brought their own native flowers and fruits. The Midwest exhibit had a building made from corn-on-the-cob and Missouri created the St. Louis Bridge entirely out of sugar cane.

A Century of Gardening

Over the last hundred years, Chicago has been growing its gardens indoors and out. In 1908, the Garfield Park Conservatory was constructed, the Chicago Botanical Gardens broke ground in 1965, and Chicago’s Park District has followed suit with a multitude of public gardens and green spaces. Just last year, Northerly Island reopened as a natural prairie space that takes you back three hundred years to the untouched natural landscape of Chicago’s past.

Garfield Park Conservatory covers 4.5 acres of land.

So when you stroll through more than twenty indoor gardens at Navy Pier this weekend, take a moment to stop, look around, and smell your place in the lineage of gardening enthusiasts in Chicago.