Friends Volunteers Tend Historical Gardens

Imagine tending something that is 112 years old. Three volunteers (limited due to COVID safety protocols) recently joined two National Park Service rangers with shovels and watering cans to tend the gardens at Michigan Island.

Flowers bloom in front of the old Michigan Island Lighthouse – Erica Peterson photo

“We are the keepers of the light” is a tune often sung at Big Top Chautauqua. Michigan Light was first built in 1856. Lighthouse families there kept gardens to supplement both their food and leisure life. Volunteers from Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore helped the park restore the 16 garden beds in 2016 and continue to tend them each spring.

“Last year we transplanted dozens of narcissus discovered along the edge of the forest and placed them in the beds,” said Erica Peterson, one of the volunteers and Friends board member. “They were a joy to see when we returned this year; all had survived and were in full bloom.”  The volunteers have also discovered bachelor buttons and columbine, presumed escapees from years past. Each year they add new plants or divide ones that are thriving.

Michigan Isalnd gardens in bloom – click to enlarge – Erica Peterson photos

The original flower beds and some of the remaining plants most likely were planted by Elizabeth Lane. She and her husband Ed tended the light station from 1902 to 1938. Photos of her garden in 1910-15 helped “Friends” and the park choose appropriate plants that mimicked the landscaping in the photos as much as possible. 

Coast Guard Chief Walter Parker, who knew the Lanes, said of Elizabeth, “How she used to love to get up to that island and get at that garden of hers. That whole station was one mass of flowers.”

Historical photos of the Michigan Island gardens and people who tended them. Click to enlarge.

Today volunteers and returning visitors feel the same. Snapdragons, panzy and petunias grace the raised flower beds lined by white painted rocks. Foxglove, lavender, sunflowers, black-eyed Susan, iris, daisies, hydrangea, and lilies lend color all season long.

Elizabeth was known as a superb gardener. “I wonder if she ever imagined her garden would still be here,” says Peterson. 

Both the 1856 and 1929 lighthouses are open seasonally for visitation. Stroll through the gardens, play a game of croquette and you’ll simultaneously feel a connection to the past. It cannot be helped. Or add your name to the Friends volunteer list and join us another year.

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