Anyone who has ever spent time enjoying the beauty of Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit — hiking its trails, posing for photos amidst the spring daffodils, enjoying a picnic at Pinetum Lake — can thank the air pollution of St. Louis in the 1920s and ’30s for making the 2,400-acre extension of the Missouri Botanical Garden possible.
Back then the soot and coal smoke was so bad it was threatening the lives of the Garden’s valuable orchid collection and other plants.
“Already all the conifers that Henry Shaw had collected in his travels during the later 1800s had been killed by the air pollution,” John Behrer, director of Shaw Nature Reserve, told visitors and volunteers gathered last week at the Adlyne Freund Center for a brief history of the reserve as part of the “Inside Look at Shaw Nature Reserve” series being offered.
Previous programs in the series included a tour aboard the reserve’s Wilderness Wagon to behind the scenes in several of the old buildings and a “History of the Bascom House” which told the history of the land and a tour of the Bascom House and the Whitmire Wildflower Garden.
It was 1925 when the Garden purchased 1,300 acres in Gray Summit with the intention of relocating the orchid collection and other plants to protect them from the air pollution, said Behrer, who has been working at the Reserve full time since 1978 (and even before that he worked summers there). An additional 323 acres along the south side of the Meramec River was purchased the following year.
These purchases, known as the Gray Summit Extension, were a smart decision since it would be more than a decade before St. Louis’ damaging pollution was under control. One of the worst air quality days came in the fall of 1939 on a day known as Black Tuesday.
The streetlights were turned on at noon that day because the air pollution was so bad that people couldn’t see, Behrer noted. Some 38 miles away in Gray Summit, things were far better.
“Garden staff kept monthly records of the hours of sunshine at the Garden in St. Louis and at the Reserve in Gray Summit,” writers Cindy Gilberg and Barbara Perry Lawton note in their book, “Shaw Nature Reserve, 85 Years of Natural Wonders.”
“In 1925-1930s, the Reserve recorded 200 hours more sunlight during winter months than the Garden. By 1942 . . . the excess of sunshine hours at the Reserve over the Garden was only 22 hours.”
A master plan done by a famous landscape architect in St. Louis at the time, John Noyse, featured formal gardens, conservatories, orchards and overall more showy plantings, said Behrer.
“This is what the plan was in 1925 when they thought they would be moving the whole horticulture aspect of the Garden out to this site,” said Behrer. “Fortunately, they cleaned up the air pollution in St. Louis and never did this, in fact, did very little of it.”
The first thing that was done was to protect the Garden’s massive orchid collection. Second was protecting the conifers by creating the Pinetum area.
More than just beautiful, the Garden’s orchid collection was a lucrative business, said Behrer. It sold orchids to St. Louis florists bringing in as much as $69,000 at its peak in 1946, Gilberg and Lawton note.
So the first thing they did was build greenhouses. By 1943 there were 12 greenhouses at the reserve protecting some 20,000 plants, mostly orchids.
With the dangerous air pollution in St. Louis becoming a thing of the past by the 1950s, the orchid collection was returned to the Garden and the greenhouses were abandoned. However, one greenhouse was used for years by the East Central College horticulture department, Behrer noted.
What’s There, What’s Not
Looking at an aerial photo of the Reserve taken in the early 1930s, Behrer is struck by the things he sees and doesn’t see.
“This is Long Glade with lots of cedars. In fact, all the glades, you can see the cedar invasion had already started to occur in the 1930s,” Behrer remarked.
“But the interesting thing is when I look at Brush Creek, I see a very thin strip of trees. All the land along Gray Summit Road is clear. The only vegetation is in the ditches.
“What’s really interesting to me is how much ground was totally clear, and how thin the strip of trees were along the creek,” he said.
“There was a lot more cleared ground than you would ever guess.”
The Pinetum, an approximately 60-acre area near the main entrance, was the second project (after the orchids) taken on at the reserve.
Between 1925 and ’27 a collection of pine, fir, spruce, cypress and juniper from regions across North America, Europe and Asia was planted around a 3-acre lake that served as a water reservoir for the greenhouses.
A sign identifying the collection described the trees as “hardy,” and one of the reasons they were was that they watered them with sewage sludge because it was such good fertilizer, said Behrer.
In the 1970s, Pinetum still had healthy groves and lots of evergreens, but today things have changed. Now these trees are being phased out because 80 percent of them have died and the Reserve is following a more native path, said Behrer.
Honeysuckle Culprit Found?
Another early project at the Reserve was to put in nurseries, said Behrer, noting one was near what is now the Bascom House gravel parking lot.
“We’re convinced this is probably where the honeysuckle came from because they were planting lots of things that weren’t native,” Behrer told his audience.
Removing this invasive species from the SNR grounds is an ongoing project.
The Bascom House was built in 1879 by Confederate Col. Thomas Crews who was married to Cuthbert Jeffries’ daughter, Virginia, said Behrer.
Jeffries had purchased the property in the 1830s. Crews and Virginia moved there in 1862 after he was paroled as a prisoner during the Civil War, and they lived in a one-story frame house until he built the Bascom House.
Today the Bascom House features a two-story addition off the back, which Reserve staff discovered in 1993 during a restoration project, was the location of the original one-story frame house.
“The story always was when they built this (one-story house) they built it on this end (of the Bascom House) . . . a number of years later they either tore it down or put on a second floor.
“When we were doing the restoration of the Bascom House (in 1993), we gutted the two-story addition part and what we saw on the back edge on the brick was the old roofline of that one-story frame house. So to us that kind of proved the story all along. It showed where the one building had butted against the other one.”
Other Interesting Details
Shaw Nature Reserve has had several names over the years. It began as the Gray Summit Extension. In 1932, it was renamed the Missouri Botanical Garden Arboretum. It was tweaked to Missouri Botanical Garden Arboretum and Nature Reserve in the late ’60s. The name was shortened to Shaw Arboretum in 1974 and then Shaw Nature Reserve in 2000.
The Civilian Conservation Corps or CCC did do work at the Reserve but not on the projects many people think.
“They did not built the Trail House and they did not build the Visitors Center, as some people think,” said Behrer. “They did do a lot of road grading, and they might have done some of the concrete work on the culverts.”
Mules were used to haul gravel to build the roads. “They had a drag line and a big crane, and the mules would pull that bucket out and drag it up into piles and load the wagons,” said Behrer.
The reserve was not originally open to the public. It wasn’t until 1940 when they built bridges over Brush Creek and opened the Trail House Loop Road that people could visit, said Behrer.
During August Bielmann’s tenure as manager of the reserve (1941-’56) he held an event called Saga of the Meramec where “they tried to show good farming practices, had equipment there, talked about terracing and all sorts of good land use practices.”
He also oversaw several building projects in his time, including the Trail House (1942), which he designed himself, and the Serpentine Wall (1946), which was built using a design by Thomas Jefferson as shelter for a boxwood garden.
“The wall is still there. The boxwoods are not,” Behrer remarked, noting they didn’t do well in that location because of poor drainage.
Along with building projects, Bielmann also was known for his engineering skills.
“There was a tornado that came through Engelmann Woods, a state natural area in Labadie that had been donated to the Garden many years ago,” said Behrer. “There were some big trees on that property, there still are. So a tornado came through, and Bielmann figured out a way with an intricate cable system to pull these huge logs up out of this deep valley.”
They used the wood to build a sawmill and a lumber shed, which still exists, Behrer noted.
The Barn Road is called that because of the barn-like structure that used to be at that location. “In the 1930s, the barn housed botany students studying corn genetics . . . later Washington University ecology students were part-time residents until it was demolished in the 1980s,” Gilberg and Lawton write in “85 Years of Natural Wonders.”
“During the Depression, they used it to bring out young men from St. Louis who didn’t have jobs and didn’t have anything to do, the WPA (Works Progress Administration) did, and they did all sorts of projects around the Nature Reserve, planting daffodils and other things,” said Behrer. “We had an engineer come in from California . . . he had been very successful, and he said this is what saved him from not making it. They gave these kids and young adults the opportunity to do something rather than just sit around.”
Glade, Prairie Restoration
Glade restoration projects began in the early ’90s. Glades are open areas with few trees where “a diverse and colorful garden of wildflowers” grow naturally. They are marked by “thin, rocky topsoil with outcroppings of shallow bedrock.”
Glades at the reserve were unrecognizable before the restoration project. They were overgrown with invasive species and cedar trees.
“These glades were much more open in pre-settlement times with Native Americans using fire for thousands of years before we arrived, and that kept them open,” said Behrer. “Cedars would not have been found here. You would have had much bigger glade areas with all sorts of wildflowers.
“So we started cutting cedars . . . We’d cut and burn the brush, get the logs out, and use the logs for lots of projects . . . all the porches at Dana Brown are made out of it, the glade boardwalk . . . it’s just really exceptional wood.
“It seemed a little drastic to some people at the time, and we got a lot of flack for doing this kind of work (removing the cedar trees),” said Behrer, “but now nobody questions it, and everybody’s doing it.”
The first prairie tract to be restored was a 45-acre tract in 1980. The Department of Conservation provided help, and the Prairie Foundation provided money to buy seed.
“When we put that first 45-acre prairie in, there was no place to buy seed, like there is now,” recalled Behrer, “so we collected seeds along railroad tracks and rocky places.
“When we seeded this, there were only three species of grass and maybe six species of forbs. When we do plantings now, we have upwards of 80 species that go into our plantings. But there was no way to get that kind of diversity then, so what we did was create areas, patches throughout the prairie, where we actually went in and planted seedlings. Talk about a lot of labor involved. In our greenhouse, we grew thousands of prairie plants and put them out there thinking they would spread out through the prairie.
“Nobody had been doing prairie restoration, so we couldn’t just go out and get books on it,” said Behrer. “We were cutting edge.”
To read more about the history of Shaw Nature Reserve and its projects, the book “Shaw Nature Reserve, 85 Years of Natural Wonders” is available in the gift shop at the Visitors Center.
To learn more about other programs, events and activities at Shaw Nature Reserve, people can visit www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/visit/family-of-attractions/shaw-nature-reserve.aspx and click “Learn & Discover at Shaw Nature Reserve” on the left side. Fliers also are posted on the bulletin boards at the Nature Reserve, or stop in at the Visitors Center and ask.