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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,” http://www.insideonline.com/site/epage/29380_162.htm.
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, http://flps.newberry.org/article/5423404_2_1177
Photo credit: 1938 photographs of the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium courtesy of Dr. Brian Ford.