Friends volunteers follow in the footsteps of Michigan Island keepers and gardeners

Volunteers aboard NPS boat at Michigan Island - Peter Wagner photo

June 13, 2023

It’s a tough act to follow the lightkeepers of old. They were known for tending things – be it brass, the tower light or their flowers. Their gardens at the light stations reflected sincere diligence and pride. Each spring, usually the second week in June, Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore volunteers follow in their footsteps, board a park service boat bound for Michigan Island, and tend to the gardens.

“We always wonder what shape the gardens will be in, who survived, or what plants have multiplied. And then there are the weeds. No matter the condition, I am always amazed at what a team of eight can do in seven hours to ready the gardens for summer visitors.”

Erica Peterson

Project organizer, Friends of the Apostle islands National Lakeshore

As in past years National Park Service rangers join in the transformation. The gardeners were grateful for last summer’s volunteers. Every year the volunteers who manage the light station are tasked with yard maintenance and many take an interest in tending the gardens.

Climbing the Michigan Island stairs - Erica Peterson photo
Volunteers talk gardening plans - Peter Wagner photo

Click to enlarge photos

Michigan Island flower bed - Erica Peterson photo

“I never know if we are truly tending the offspring of over 100-year-old plants, but my reward is in connecting with the lightkeepers, sharing in their pride and keeping their commitment to the island alive, “ says Peterson.

Last year the group found several crops of plants growing in the wild near the forest edge. Surmising they originally came from the gardens they transplanted them to the maintained beds and happily they were blooming when the group arrived. Bachelor buttons, columbine and narcissuses now join members of the daisy family, lilies, iris and peony and hydrangea to name a few.

Michigan Island gardener Elizabeth Lane

Flower gardening was a favorite pastime of many of the lighthouse keepers. Elizabeth Lane raised three children on Michigan Island where her husband, Ed, was keeper from 1902 until he retired in 1938, the longest term of any keeper at a single Apostle Islands lighthouse. Elizabeth Lane was known as a superb gardener.

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.”

Friends has tended the garden since 2016 and find that nearly all transplants have survived. Annuals found in the historical photos have been mostly replaced with perennials to make maintenance easier. The volunteers still stock three raised beds with colorful petunias, pansy, and snapdragons.

Michigan Island gardeners - Erica Peterson photo
Michigan Island flowers - Erica Peterson photo

Click to enlarge photos

Michigan island flowers - Erica Peterson photo

The 13 other beds, all lined with painted white rocks are filled with hardy perennials and some native species like butterfly weed. The volunteers are careful not to bring any invasive non-native species to the islands. Unfortunately, periwinkle, a favorite groundcover of the lightkeepers, has found its way into the surrounding woods.

Circular gardens from above - Peter Wagner photo
Gardening beneath the Michigan Island sign - Peter Wagner photo
Michigan Island shoreline - Erica Peterson photo

If you’re interested in joining us on our next volunteer gardening opportunity, be sure to sign up here. In the spring we send out an e-blast confirming dates and a chance to sign up on a first-come-first serve basis. Note that all trips have plan A and plan B dates to accommodate weather conditions on the lake. This year we were fortunate to enjoy calm conditions and beautiful skies.

– Story by Erica Peterson, photographs by Erica Peterson and Peter Wagner


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