Who Was Eloise Butler?

“For a full quarter of a century, her useful life has been spent in a labor of love…” Theodore Wirth, Superintendent of the Minneapolis Park System

My visits to the Eloise Butler Wildflower and Bird Sanctuary this summer had me wondering, who was Eloise Butler? It turned out that Eloise was originally from rural Maine. Born in 1851 near Appleton, it’s theorized that her interest in botany began due to her family’s knowledge of local plants and herbal remedies.


She took up teaching after graduating from high school in 1870 and eventually settled in Minneapolis in 1874 where her career really began. Her primary focus was botany and while she taught, she continued attending classes at the University of Minnesota, worked for professors and took botany trips – several to Jamaica and even to a new research station on Vancouver Island.


As early as the1880s, residents of Minneapolis understood that the development of the city was endangering native habitat and the brand new Minneapolis Park Board was lobbied to preserve areas for future generations. One of these areas is now known as Theodore Wirth Park. Eloise Butler and her colleagues sought permission from the Park Board to set aside a portion for a garden in 1907, it was soon known as the “Wild Botanic Garden.”


From the Garden’s official opening in 1907, Eloise became its most prominent advocate. By 1909, she was spending each growing season there and by her retirement from teaching in 1911, she was appointed Garden Curator by the Park Board. She would rescue plants from development areas, sourced native species from other locations, and even tried importing plants not native to the area –  under the future leadership of Martha Crone, it was established that only native plants should be present in the garden.


In her efforts to raise public awareness of the Garden, Eloise gave Garden tours and for several years had an exhibit at the Minnesota State Fair in the horticulture building. She also wrote articles and had a weekly series about native plants for the Sunday Minneapolis Tribune (a link to these articles can be found here).


Eloise spent the growing seasons in the Minneapolis garden and her winters in Maine with her sister. In 1929, the Minneapolis Park Board officially renamed The Wild Botanic Garden the “Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden” and in 1968 added “and Bird Sanctuary.” By 1933 her health was failing and it is believed that she suffered a heart attack on her way to the Garden. Popular legend states that she died in the Garden, but she was at her summer residence. Her ashes were scattered in the Garden as she had requested.


She had a circle of supporters at the time but like so many, it seems that Eloise Butler’s accomplishments were seen even more clearly after she died; especially 80 years later as I walk through this beautiful garden which is here because of her passionate efforts.


For more information on Eloise Butler and to see images of her at work (my favorite is “Eloise in full dress and hat using a downed tree to navigate”) visit this site. It was also a primary source for this blog post.

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