Because it’s Earth Day

Victory Garden, Kimball and Catalpa, 1942

The history of gardening in Chicago’s North Park community goes back so far and has so many noteworthy characters and interesting stories it easily could fill a book. It all began in late 1856 when Swedish immigrant Pehr S. Peterson purchased 12 acres of land to start a tree nursery on the rich, black soil. Over the years, his property grew to nearly 5oo acres. By 1889, when Chicago annexed Jefferson Township, which included Peterson’s land, Peterson was the single largest land owner in Chicago.


Peterson Nursery had two offices, one at Peterson and Lincoln avenues, and one on LaSalle Street. Peterson built a 22-room home on what is now the northwest corner of Peterson and Kimball. In the 1890s, he had a stable of twenty-five horses and employed more than thirty people, most of whom spoke only Swedish.


Early on, Peterson’s nursery, known also as Rosehill Nursery and Peterson and Son Nursery, provided flowers for Rosehill Cemetery at Peterson and Western. In those days, being close to a cemetery meant a steady source of income for a florist.

But trees, not flowers, made Peterson’s fortune. He became internationally known for successfully transplanting large trees. His trees and shrubs were used in the landscaping of the 1893 Chicago’s World’s Fair as well as for much of Lincoln Park. By 1910, seven-eighths of Chicago’s parks and boulevards were planted with trees from Peterson’s nursery.

Possibly the first tree hugger

In an 1882 article that appeared in the Svenska Tribunen, reprinted from the Chicago Evening Journal, a reporter noted P.S. Peterson seemed to love his trees as though they were his children. There were millions of trees on his grounds and Peterson could identify each type by sight.

He also gave names to some of his trees. According to the reporter, P. S. Peterson pointed to the oldest and tallest tree on land surrounding his house near the corner of Peterson and Kimball and said, “This is George Washington.” Then Peterson pointed to another tall elm, saying, “And this is Abraham Lincoln.” Trees were named for General Grant and General Sherman. His choice of names suggests the successful immigrant loved his adopted homeland.

Mrs. Peterson



While her husband delivered trees, Mary Gage Peterson advocated for green space in Chicago and joined conservation movements leading to the development of national parks. She met with then President Theodore Roosevelt on several conservation projects. Her portrait still hangs at the Chicago public elementary school named for her.

Like father, like son

William A. Peterson, the only child of Pehr and Mary Peterson, followed in his parents’ horticultural footsteps and continued the family nursery business after his father’s death in 1903.  William Peterson was one of the original members on the Plan Committee of 1914 to establish the Cook Country Forest Preserves.

Deep roots

Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium grounds, May 1938

In 1911, the city of Chicago bought about 150 acres of land from William Peterson for the future home of the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium. The property bordered on Peterson, Central Park, Bryn Mawr and Pulaski, then known as 40th Street.

At the time the parcel was sold, about 5,000 trees and shrubs were growing on the site. These plants were saved and transplanted around the grounds of the TB Sanitarium. Some of these trees are still standing. The oldest tree that has been identified by the staff of the North Park Village Nature Center is around 200 years old, predating the arrival of P.S. Peterson.


May 1938, Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium

A Prairie School legacy

O. C. Simonds designed the original landscaping plan for the grounds of the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium. Simonds and Jens Jensen were the best known of Chicago’s prairie style landscape gardeners. Although much has changed, you still can see evidence of Simonds’ naturalistic design principles in the meadows and groves of trees on the site. The rock garden and pond is also believed to be Simonds’ design, though Jensen designed plans for the pond. Simonds worked on the landscape designs for Graceland Cemetery and Morton Arboretum in the Chicago area.

Victory Gardens

During World War II, several Victory Gardens were started in the Hollywood Park area. One was located on the east side of Kimball, on the block between Bryn Mawr and Hollywood. At the time there was only one two-flat (5631 N. Kimball) on the block. Another garden, the one pictured at the top of this blogpost, was located on the corner of Catalpa and Kimball, across from Peterson Elementary School. The two young girls in the lower left corner are Peterson School students Vivian (Anderson) Johnson and Dolly-Ann Klotz.

At the corner of  St. Louis and Foster, a Victory garden on 32 acres served 800 families. This was the largest Victory garden in the country. It was on the grounds of  the Parental School, locally known as the bad boys school. Boys were still working the field until the school closed during the sixties.

Full circle

This year, gardening returns to a parcel of land once owned by the Peterson Nursery. Peterson Garden Project has opened the STARS community garden at Lincoln and Jersey, just about a block north of the former site of the Peterson Nursery office. The tradition of gardening in this area lives on.

Happy Earth Day.

 Updates: Mary Gage Peterson Elementary School now honors its gardening heritage with the Jo Katter Children’s Garden.

I’ve also heard from Brian Sobolak in Albany Park who brought me up-to-date on gardening in his area:

  • “There are a few efforts underfoot to add gardens in the neighborhood.  I run the demonstration community garden in Eugene Field Park named “Feast for Friends” with my wife. We grow lots of vegetables as an educational tool for kids in the summer camp at Eugene Field.
  • We are also working on creating a larger allotment garden at the corner of Springfield and Foster (on the north side, which is park district land) as we’ve found from wandering the neighborhood that many residents “guerilla garden” on the space.
  • And it’s worth mentioning that the current residents of North Park Village have built a huge garden space on the grounds there.”

Regular contributor Howard Glantz reminded me of the Victory Garden along the Chicago River between Ainslie and Argyle. Howard recalls they took sludge from the banks of the river to enrich the dirt, a process that resulted in amazing crops. Another Victory Garden was located on the site of the swimming pool at River Park.

References: “Plan of Parental School Buildings and Grounds at Bowmanville.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922): 5. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune (1849-1987). Dec 13 1900. Web. 6 Dec. 2011 .

“Family Tree Project Links Schools with Their History,”

Chicago Gardens: The Early History, Cathy Jean Maloney.

Urban Naturalist, quarterly newsletter for the North Park Village Nature Center, January 2005.

Svenska Tribunen (The Swedish Tribune, Chicago) October 25, 1882,

Photo credit: 1938 photographs of the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium courtesy of Dr. Brian Ford.

, , ,

17 Responses to Because it’s Earth Day

  1. Bonnie McGrath April 19, 2012 at 11:48 pm #

    the picture of the sanitarium?? was that peterson’s house by any chance previously??

  2. Frances Archer April 20, 2012 at 6:01 am #

    No, Peterson’s house was a few blocks away from the grounds of the sanitarium. There were no “improvements” of any kind on the site, other than plantings, when purchased by the city.

  3. jm April 20, 2012 at 8:52 am #

    Peterson School is keeping the garden legacy alive to this day!

  4. Frances Archer April 20, 2012 at 9:29 am #

    I noticed.There is a garden on the school property along Catalpa. I’d like to know more about it. Send me an email via the contact form if you have any information to share. In addition, today’s generation of Peterson School students know more about Mary Gage Peterson as a result of last year’s PTA sponsored Founder’s Day program, where kids learned about her love for nature. We never knew anything about Mrs. Peterson while attending the school named for her. Thanks for your comment.

  5. Deb Sampson Boogaard April 20, 2012 at 12:33 pm #

    I never knew who Mary G. Peterson was. Very interesting!

  6. Frances Archer April 20, 2012 at 1:10 pm #

    Deb, that is what I find so funny about all this. We had a front-row seat at learning something about Chicago history, and none of us ever learned about Mary Gage Peterson.

  7. John Erickson April 21, 2012 at 8:39 am #

    This is great entry, Frances. I certainly learned from it. We lived in that lone 2 flat at 5631 Kimball with the “prairie” south of it to the Bryn Mawr stores the site of the one garden. (There were two 3-flats north of us near Hollywood).

  8. Richard Alcalde April 21, 2012 at 9:25 pm #

    Oh my God I love this historical stuff! I attended Peterson School from 76-84. To see Peterson School in 1942 before they enlarged it and added the west wing is incredible. To now know there was a victory garden across the street is amazing. Please post more pictures of Peterson School from the 20’s on! Mary G Peterson wrote Nature Lovers Creed and i went to high school at Stephen T Mather off of Lincoln Ave and he was the first national director of the US Park Service. I quote Mary G Peterson, “I have never seen a poem………as beautiful as a tree.” Catalpa Ave…………….did you know a Catalpa is a tree? Thank you to all who contributed to this latest posting. You have all made my weekend! God bless you all. Mary G and Pehr Peterson………………Thank you and may you both rest in eternal peace.

  9. Frances Archer April 22, 2012 at 4:19 pm #

    Thanks Richard. I was trying to find the words to Mary Peterson’s poem the Nature Lovers Creed, but couldn’t find it online. Do you have the whole poem?

  10. Frances Archer April 22, 2012 at 4:20 pm #

    John, it seems like such a coincidence that you lived in that building. Also, knowing that 5631 was the first helps with dating the development of the area. Next time I’m in the area I will photograph it. Thanks!

  11. John Erickson April 24, 2012 at 10:28 am #

    I think that I shall never see
    A poem lovely as a tree.
    A tree who’s spreading branches rest
    Upon the Earth’s sweet flowing breast
    Poems are made by fools like me
    But only God can make a tree.

    (This poem was set to music. I can
    only recall the early an final lines.

  12. Frances Archer April 24, 2012 at 10:53 am #

    John, thank you. Does this mean you learned the poem as a student at Peterson? That tradition was dropped by my day.

  13. John Erickson April 24, 2012 at 8:56 pm #

    I have no idea where I learned it & frankly wasn’t aware that Mary Peterson wrote it. There are many many old songs swirling in my head that pop into my consciousness from time to time.

  14. Harriet Berger Miller April 25, 2012 at 5:52 pm #

    Wonderful article as always! Thanks again Frances!

  15. Frances Archer April 25, 2012 at 6:36 pm #

    Harriet, thanks for your continued support. Although we have met in person, I feel like you’ve become a good friend since we discovered you worked with my childhood friend, Chris. We’ll all have to meet next time Chris is in town.

  16. marty marcus June 19, 2012 at 9:44 am #

    Just read this chapter of the blog. The author of those lines of poetry is Joyce Kilmer, in the poem “Trees.” I learned that poem at Peterson.

  17. Howard Ex October 25, 2012 at 11:35 pm #

    I do remember having to memorize that poem by Kilmer. I’m not sure if this rings true but, I think the teachers name was Mrs. Sheridan? It’s all fuzzy now, although I can visualize the room, with a table in the front and, off to the side toward the door, near the teacher. As I look back on it, she was determined that we could repeat every word of the poem.

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes