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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Robert Douglas Horticultural Heritage



For years, I have marveled at a group of 32 glass lantern slides in the museum's collection. They are beautiful slides of plants and flower gardens, hand-colored in spectacular tints, and attributed to G.D. Clarke. (right) Clarke's slide taken in Waukegan, circa 1910, titled, "Sherwin Wright-Edge of the Wild-Aurea-Flavescens." LCDM 93.32.381

When I looked at the slides last week, wanting to share them as springtime inspiration in this blog, I recalled that G.D. Clarke had not been researched. There are a number of individuals in our records who need to be researched to further our understanding of their lives and items they donated, and writing this blog gives me a chance to do that. So, I set to work with my research, and was surprised by an interesting discovery.

The donor of the slides was Mrs. Elam Lewis Clarke. Since the slides were made circa 1910, I looked in early Waukegan city directories, and found listed Elam L. Clarke (lawyer) and his wife, Georgia D, living at 740 N. Sheridan Road, Waukegan. This answered my initial question—"G.D. Clarke" was Georgia D. Clarke (1871 - 1952). Elam Clarke, by the way, was the son of Lt. Colonel Isaac Clarke (1824-1863), hero of the 96th Illinois Regiment.

Next, I looked up Elam Clarke in the census, using Ancestry.com and Family Search. Within minutes I made another remarkable discovery—Georgia's maiden name was Douglas. I didn't want to get ahead of myself, but wondered if she could be related to the nationally known nurseryman, Robert Douglas of Waukegan. Considering that some of the subject matter of her slides were pine trees planted by Robert Douglas, it seemed likely. Sure enough, more census research confirmed that Georgia D. Clarke was in fact Robert Douglas's granddaughter.


Georgia Douglas Clarke photographed these White Pines on the Dead River, Zion, circa 1910 (above). They were planted by her grandfather, Robert Douglas, in the late 1800s, in what is today's Illinois Beach State Park. LCDM 93.32.361

Robert Douglas (1813 - 1897) started his nursery business in Waukegan in 1848, and within thirty years became the largest grower of pines and spruces in the United States. Douglas began the Lake County Fair as an arbor and floral exhibit at the courthouse around 1849. This project turned into the Lake County Agricultural Society, and then into the Lake County Fair Association, which held the first county fair in 1852.

Douglas bought sapling pines from Europe and planted them in the sandy soil north of Waukegan along Lake Michigan (today's Illinois State Beach Park). The land was cheap, and Douglas thought the soil would be good for growing. Some of the saplings were from the Black Forest of Germany, and their descendants can still be seen near the lakeshore at the state park.

In 1888, Douglas, and famous landscape architect, Jens Jensen, began preservation efforts to make the area of the Illinois State Beach Park a regional park. With industry encroaching from the south, sand mining devastating the dunes, and parts of the surrounding countryside succumbing to farm pasture and homes, it looked like the unique beauty and habitat of the area would be lost. Douglas's granddaughter, Georgia, documented the site's beauty in her lantern slides in the 1910s. Legislative efforts to save the area finally began in the 1920s. "Dunes of Lake County" by G.D. Clarke, circa 1910. LCDM 93.32.369


"Prickly Pear Cactus" by G.D. Clarke, circa 1910. Photo taken in what is today the Illinois Beach State Park. LCDM 93.32.355.

Douglas's extensive mail-order business brought him national recognition. In 1896, the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina (home to George Vanderbilt) purchased a large quantity of Douglas's evergreen stock.


"Peony Field" at 703 N. Sheridan Road, Waukegan, by G.D. Clarke, circa 1910. LCDM 93.32.387

The beautiful peony garden above was located down the bluff on Sheridan Road at Grand Avenue. The view is looking south with a potting shed in the background at left and a gas storage tank at right. As early as 1861, this area was designated on plat maps as "Greenhouses," and Grand Avenue did not run east of Sheridan Road until well into the 20th Century.

In the city directory, Georgia Clarke is listed as living across the street from this garden at 740 N. Sheridan Road, but her obituary states that she lived at 703 N. Sheridan Road, the address of this beautiful garden. According to her obituary, Georgia was "known throughout northern Ilinois as a garden expert... Her specialties were iris and peonies and the peony beds at the former family residence at 703 N. Sheridan Rd. were known far and wide."


Another view of the garden at 703 N. Sheridan Road, Waukegan. This G.D. Clarke slide is titled, "Hibiscus Mallow." LCDM 93.32.368.

During World War I, Georgia sold flowers from her garden to benefit Victory Memorial Hospital and the Red Cross.

Special thanks to Beverly Millard at the Waukegan Historical Society for additional information on Georgia D. Clarke and Elam L. Clarke.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Georgia Douglas Clarke was my grandmother and I spent much of by early years living with her.

She was an avid hortiulturalist and could tell you the names of most of the plants in the area by their generic names as well as their latin names. I still have some of her garden tools.

She was also an accomplished artist, was a member of the Waukegan (?) Lake County (?) Art League. We have five or six of her paintings - probably the only ones know in existance.

You are correct - Lt. Col. Isaac Clarke was Elam Clarkes' father - who was killed in the Civil War. Since he was an officer, most of his personal effects were returned. We have his watch, sword, parts of his uniform, original of all the letters he wrote to his wife, Lemira, purse, Bible - which was given to him as he left for the war by the members of the Waukegan Academy - and many other items.

In addition, Georgia was an accomplished poet. We have a book of her poetry - much of which has plants and gardens as subjects.

Lewis D. Clarke

D_Dretske said...

If you have a photo of your grandmother (even a scanned photo) you could share with the museum, we'd be most grateful. The slides she donated to the museum are very beautiful, as you can see. The more I learn about her, the more I wish I could've met her. She sounds like a very accomplished and fascinating woman. Thanks for commenting!

Bruce A Douglas said...

Thank you so much for the information and follow-up by Mr. Clarke. Georgia's brother Robert John Douglas Jr was my great-grandfather. It is nice to learn more about Georgia. I have her birth on 4/1/1871, but no other information.

I have the death of Robert Douglas as 6/1/1897, but conflicting sources on whether his middle initial was R or W. I've not been able to trace his parents from Gateshead, England and would greatly appreciate any information you have in that regard.

I look forward to visiting your museum someday. Any other information or sources you can provide would be great.

Thanks again for the post!

-Bruce A Douglas

D_Dretske said...

In my research, I have never come across a middle initial for Robert Douglas. In 1896, "The National Nurseryman" ran a brief biography of Douglas (no middle initial). It mentioned that he came to the U.S. from England in 1836, and to Waukegan in 1844. This is the only source I have come across with his actual year of immigration.

Thanks for reading and commenting!