When I was a child, one of the places my parents would take my brother and me was Lincoln Memorial Garden on the lake in Springfield, Illinois. A 100-acre site with six miles of interconnected trails, it was the brainchild of Harriet Knudsen. She thought Springfield should have a memorial to Abraham Lincoln and she must have been something of a force of nature: she got the city to donate pasture land along the new lake; convinced the Garden Club of Illinois to sponsor the project; and enlisted landscape architect Jens Jensen to design it.
Jensen was 74 when he began work on the project in 1934. He had spent much of his life developing and promoting the prairie style of landscape architecture, designing hundreds of parks, and collaborating with some of the most celebrated architects of the time, including Louis Kahn and Frank Lloyd Wright. A Danish immigrant, he was part of the turn of the century renaissance of reformers, scientists and artists in Chicago. He believed public parks could improve people’s lives and ground them in the natural environment. Chicago Park District historian Julia Bachrach has written that his use of native plants in his designs reflected “his near-mystical belief in the renewing and civilizing powers of nature.”
Jensen designed the garden with curved paths to be “always new, always revealing new thoughts and new interests in life.” The Garden Club of Illinois and scores of volunteers planted native trees, grasses and flowers to create a woodland and prairie ecosystem that supports diverse plant and animal life and echoes the landscapes of Lincoln’s early life in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois.
I didn’t know any of this as a child walking the paths with my parents. It was simply a wondrous place with bird and animal life and interesting trees and flowers. It still is, with a nature center and a Prairie Center added after I left for college. The paths are relieved by benches, most of which have a quote from Lincoln, and many of which face the lake or some other view.
There are also council rings, which fascinated me as a child. These are large stone circles the height of a bench, with a single entry point. They are used for meetings and can have camp fires in them, though fires and picnics must be arranged with park management. The largest of the circles is the Lincoln Council Ring, which is at the top of the White Oak path. A sign showing the dedication of the ring in 1938 is a good illustration of how the landscape has been transformed in the past 70 years. What are now large oaks were recently-planted saplings at the time.
Last fall, my mother and I walked a path along the lake. As we were leaving we noticed two deer feeding in a clearing. They noticed us, too, but didn’t seem alarmed.
Jensen went on to create The Clearing, an educational center in Door County, Wisconsin that still operates today. Harriet Knudsen devoted 40 years of her life to executing his design for Lincoln Memorial Garden. As a gardener myself, I can understand that passion and expect it also came with a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction. It certainly gives me that every time I go there.