In this installment of a somewhat regular feature, NYSUFC Board Member, author, blogger and Taking Root editor Jean Zimmerman goes in quest of knowledge about the history of women in arboriculture.

Happy women’s history month!

When I started out as a certified arborist, I began to think about focusing a book on American forests. As I did research, I discovered that while libraries contained descriptions of important trees, texts on the biology of trees, tracts on the benefits of trees, there existed an alternative history of American woodlands.

Behind every tree stood an incredible, inspiring woman. I saw that if I looked at the history closely enough, for every Johnny Appleseed there seemed to be Jane Appleseeds as well. Tree climbers and botanists, preservationists and changemakers.

In Utica, New York, I met a couple of passionate preservationists.

Two sisters, Maria and Rachel Williams, grew up fabulously wealthy at the turn of the twentieth century. Their family had half a billion dollars in today’s terms, in a town that became so rich from textile manufacturing it came to be known as the Knit Goods Capital of the World. The girls’ grandfather amassed his fortune in burrstones (used for grinding grain) as well as Pennsylvania coal fields, steamships and railroads in addition to the aforesaid textiles. Their mother Helen and her brother Samuel added to the wealth by investing in iron manufacturing. They  put up a mansion called Fountain Elms on fashionable Genessee Street.

Now more known for its tomato pies and Utica greens, the town was then the family’s oyster. Sisters Maria and Rachel came of age and married two brothers, Thomas and Frederick Proctor. Neither couple had children. The Proctor men, Vermont natives, made their living as hoteliers and bankers and dabbled in politics, hobnobbing with some of the most powerful elected officials of the time.

So, while their husbands furnished respectability, their wives brought the cash. They gifted the city with farmland purchased to make parks.

Many of the parks were designed by leading landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. — scion of the great one — starting with seven acres that eventually became seven hundred.

I wanted to see the lands Maria and Rachel endowed, so I went to find the Switchbacks at South Woods, created in 1909. The gate admitting entrance at Master Garden Road was locked.

I searched out the trailhead.

Dipping in, I noticed first of all that this urban forest was filled with a surprising amount of noise from the wind circulating through the treetops beneath a scalloped swirl of clouds. Secondly, I saw some beautiful old specimens.

I found a grove of white pines standing on their tippytoes.

Many trees by the trailside had ancient silver tags, a sign of the care taken long ago to inventory them for posterity. One beech was nicely autographed.

I was captivated by character of the old trees there.

It felt good to linger a little among these trees, some of them fully three hundred years old, including bitternut hickory and basswood, green ash and hophornbeam. To quote Thoreau, the nineteenth-century bard of sauntering:” “In my walks I would fain return to my senses.” Black bear once roamed this forest. The place was still rife with habitat. Home sweet home.

How were Maria and Rachel so prescient as to know in 1909 how important it would be to secure this scrap of local forest against a future Utica that they had no idea would be swallowed up by fast food strips, tract housing and pizza joints, where fully a quarter of the population live in poverty? True, some people knew then that the urban poor needed outdoor spaces. Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. told the City of New York in 1872 that the midtown Manhattan park he was building would serve as the “lungs of the city.” It still struck me as amazing that the sisters were aware of just how critical it would be in the future to have a greenspace such as this one preserved.

Thinking to get some answers, I visited their house, an Italianate home now owned by an art museum. Some of the early furnishings still haunt the place, giving a sense of Maria and Rachel’s pampered upbringing.

Some of the wallpaper looked to be original.

Hoping for more intimate knowledge of Maria and Rachel, I entered the hallowed precincts of the Founders Rooms. Here the girls’ early lives were plumbed in photos and placards.

I saw juvenile versions of them in an 1857 painting.

I saw the girls’ intricate dollhouse.

Its legend told me that the miniature world was considered by their mother to be not only for pleasure but also, perhaps primarily, for instruction in proper household organization. Her decree to dismantle the rooms after playtime (not accepted agreeably by her daughters) forced them to place the objects in their proper locations each time they played with them.

I saw their thimble collection proudly on display. Maria acquired 125 thimbles from all over the world.

I saw pictures that show the women to be aristocrats of their age, including one of Maria along with Thomas and Frederick, photographed by Rachel, posed in the Adirondacks in 1910.

At that time, the most affluent Americans had begun to flee cities and rusticate in the wild in deluxe wall tents with picnic baskets organized by the cooks and maids imported to service them on their vacations.

That was as close as the Founders Rooms got to the sisters’ passion for the outdoors.

What about the two sisters as adults, ladies with the foresight to preserve trees?

I found no placard, no legend, no mention. Not one word.

I asked a docent, “Why is there nothing in the museum about the sisters’ funding of the Utica park system?”

“I guess they didn’t really feel it was significant enough, it didn’t rise to the level of their art collections,” he told me.

I then asked a museum Educator. She took issue with my wording. “Well,” she said,” I don’t think they ”bankrolled” the preservation of the woods. I believe it was their husbands who were instrumental.” That line, I knew, was not strictly true. She advised me that the two girls were taught from a young age to donate part of their weekly allowance to charity.

When people think of nineteenth-century naturalist influencers, they might conjure up Muir or Thoreau, Audubon or Bartram. Not a pair of heiresses who could have directed their money towards pretty much anything they wanted and chose to safeguard woodlands.

You have only to track down the grand, over-a-century-old northern catalpas lining the lane to their South Woods to grasp the truth.

“When we walk,” said Thoreau, “we naturally go to the fields and woods: what would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall?” I now see details I missed the first time around. Some tree drama.

Also, a conjoined black cherry with character to spare.

Again, Thoreau: “My walks are full of incidents.”

Thank you, Maria and Rachel, for making it possible for me to return to my senses in your woods. I wouldn’t have missed this walk in the park for all the pizza in Utica.