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HISTORY SPEAKS FOR ITSELF
The Early Days
This section based on an interview with Harvilee Harbarger, ASLA, and contains her reminiscences and historical research on the early days of the Huntsville-Madison County Botanical Garden.
Public gardens spring to life in many ways; some are lucky enough to receive endowments, others receive gifts of land with stately buildings. This was not the case for the Huntsville Botanical Garden. Our Garden began as a seed in the minds of fourteen visionary Huntsvillians who emphatically refused to ‘Dream no small dream.’
In December 1979, fourteen people met with the sole purpose of establishing a botanical garden in Huntsville, Alabama. Then, as now, the City and County were experiencing tremendous growth through the Space Program, Redstone Arsenal, and associated high-tech industries. But it wasn’t all rocket science—these folks had their feet, aspirations, and later hands firmed rooted in the red soil of Alabama. They wanted to grow something beautiful in our community—a garden of the people, by the people, and for the people.
First order of business—this little band had to get organized. In January 1980, the first official meeting of the Huntsville-Madison County Botanical Garden Society took place. County Extension Agent Gary Murray was elected chairman, by-laws were drafted, and working committees were established. Not having a ‘home’ they met in kitchens, churches—any available spot, and they schemed! According to Harvilee Harbarger, they attended every council meeting, silently filing in en masse, always polite yet insistent. Harvilee says, “We imagined we could almost hear members of the City Council groan, ‘Oh no—Not them again!’
Persistence paid off. In Harvilee’s words, “The Council thought they were giving the little old ladies in tennis shoes enough rope to hang themselves! The Society was given 35 acres and three years to raise $200,000, which the city generously said they would match, to start the garden. We schlepped concept drawings around town to raise interest, and more importantly, funds from the community. Imagine the Council’s astonishment when the seemingly unreachable goal was raised in only six months!” And that was the beginning of something wonderful.
In 1982, Grady Kennedy was elected President of the Society. “He was wonderful dealing with the Army and all the red tape associated with leasing the land,” says Harvilee. In January 1983, the Society recommended to the City of Huntsville that the future Botanical Garden be established on the property leased to the city from the Alabama Space Science Commission. And so it was.
Development now entered a phase that would produce the early foundations of the Garden. The original plans and perspectives were given as a gift to the Garden in September 1983, by Harvilee Harbarger, ASLA; Julie Harbarger Stephens, ASLA; and local artist and draftsman, John Martz.
In late 1984, Evelyn Lucas became President of the Society. Mrs. Lucas served two full terms in office, and during her tenure the Garden really moved from the dream phase to the doing phase. From the front of a road grader supplied by the Madison County Commission, Julie Stephens and Gary Murray directed where the roads would be in the initial phase. A volunteer crew of self-named “Bushwhackers” brought chainsaws, axes, and gloves from home, and like early Madison County residents, began to hack through undergrowth to clear the land.
In the short span of five years, a dream became a reality. On a sunny day in October 1985, Huntsville Mayor Joe Davis, Madison County Commission Chairman Mike Gillespie, representatives from the U.S. Army, and Garden Society members gathered on the site to plant a Southern Magnolia to dedicate the new Huntsville-Madison County Botanical Garden. It would be remiss not to mention that the City Council and County Commission have been generous with dollars, labor, and equipment from those early days up to the present day.
The Garden owes much to those fourteen early pioneers and to the first volunteers. They had a vision for a garden that would be a place for recreation, learning, and celebration. They had persistence in the face of resistance and doubt. And, they worked with their hands and strong backs to develop and grow a beautiful garden that Madison County residents are proud to call their own. Our debt to these early visionaries and volunteers is great indeed.
Bill Snoddy recalls that the trial period of 1987-1990 was crucial. Negotiations by Butch Damson and Bill Snoddy led to then Mayor Steve Hettinger and the City Council approving the long term lease for the 112 acres. Another major step during this next phase was to formally accept the challenge of developing not just a Botanical garden, but a garden that “will achieve world class recognition.” A Master Plan from Environmental Planning and Design was soon approved by the City of Huntsville, the Alabama Space and Science Exhibit Committee, and the General in charge of Redstone Arsenal. All possible Garden stakeholders throughout the community were involved in this process and with the plan unveiled in 1991, everyone had ownership. These stakeholders were far from daunted by the $50 million total implementation cost. The Master Plan and the work done to develop it garnered community-wide support, cultivating the dreams of the early society members and volunteers into what is now the touchstone of Huntsville.
THE STORY CONTINUES
Plans for the Future
By Paula Steigerwald, Chief Executive Officer
The Huntsville Botanical Garden is proud of the growth that has occurred since our opening in 1988. We operate from the premise that we are truly the “community’s garden.” We strive to be responsive and proactive by taking a leadership role in environmental issues such as sustainability. To effectively expand our community commitment, we continually review on our future growth. It is critical that our direction and priorities be guided by those who are committed to our mission. This physical master plan is focused on providing a memorable experience for the visitor. Through direct conversations, we gain valuable information to incorporate into our programming and event planning. The Education mission of the Garden was solidified by establishing a timeline for expanded classroom facilities. We strive to be good stewards of our resources and approach each growth phase responsibly by assessing our ability to appropriately operate. In regards to “funding the growth,” it is our intent to maintain high standards for day-to-day operations, while preparing to move forward. Some of the changes will be subtle, while others more dramatic. We are proud of the plan and the effort spent on evaluating where we are and how we got here.