5 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Green Bay Botanical Garden

By Rachel Mueller, Marketing & Communications Coordinator

If you haven’t heard… we’re celebrating 25 years of Green Bay Botanical Garden this year! After a challenging 2020, let’s just say we’re extremely excited to get the celebrations underway for this historic milestone, to reminisce on where we’ve been and to look ahead to the next 25 years and beyond.

The Garden has a rich, storied past. Our roots as a nonprofit organization go deep and many plant lovers in our local community are the reason we’ve been able to become a place for everyone to connect with nature.

Here are five things you probably didn’t know about the Garden and how it started:

An idea for a community garden started in the 1970s.

The Garden was a garden without soil for the better part of 20 years. Journalist Ray Pagel, a sportswriter with the Green Bay Press-Gazette, was the first to bring up the idea of a community public garden in the late 1960s. In 1968, he joined Ernie Ehrbar (Brown County Extension) to organize the Gardeners Club of Green Bay. This club met regularly to talk all things horticulture.

In the 1970s, Gardeners Club members Robert (Bob) Mongin and Paul Hartman continued pursuing the idea of a public garden. A committee was eventually formed to discuss things further and act on building a botanical garden in Green Bay. Participants included several of the Garden’s original founders and staff: Jerry Landwehr, Jim Beard, Roger Murphy, Dave Parsons, Sister Nivard Schaefer, Tim Lang, Glenn Spevacek, Lee Hansen and Gail Fischer.

men and women posing for photo
An early board portrait. Seated left to right: Gene Eisch, Gail Fischer, Glenn Spevacek, Sandy Hassler, Bill VandeCastle. Standing left to right: Bob Mongin, Jerry Krueger, Lee Hansen, Marilyn Crawford and Lawrence Krause.

After some setbacks in the late 1970s (we’ll be digging deeper into these turning points in next few months), it wasn’t until 1982 that Green Bay Botanical Garden, Inc. incorporated, much in part due to guidance from Spevacek. From there, the founders worked tirelessly to secure a spot for the Garden and raise enough money to start construction.

We looked at more than 30 potential sites.

The committee mentioned above ended up visiting more than 30 sites in search of an ideal location for a botanical garden in the Greater Green Bay area. They had to consider several criteria for a potential location: size, ease of access for the community, transportation options, topography and availability.

“We fell in love with the site when we saw it, because of the rolling hills, the old apple trees and its character.”

Jerry Landwehr, First Lead Horticulturist for the garden

At the time, it was ultimately determined that a 90-acre site owned by the Northeast Wisconsin Technical Institute (now Northeast Wisconsin Technical College – NWTC) was the best choice.

We lease the land from a local college.

men and women in meeting room
Final lease signing. From left to right: Jerry Krueger, Bill VandeCastle, Glenn Spevacek, Allen Ellingson, Bob Mongin, Dr. Gerald Prindiville, Gail Fischer, and Sandy Hassler.

Knowing that NWTC owned the land, the committee worked out negotiations with their Board of Trustees in the mid-1980s to create a leasing agreement for 60 acres. Originally, it was a two-year lease, which would renew at yearly increments at $1 a year.

In 1992, NWTC agreed to a 99-year lease for 30 acres with the support of NWTC President Dr. Gerald Prindiville, but the Garden had to successfully raise $1.4 million in their capital campaign. The remaining 30 acres was held by NWTC until 2000 when their Board of Trustees believed the Garden’s staff proved they could maintain the first 30 acres of land. In this final lease agreement, the Garden is currently allowed to maintain and develop 47 acres with the other 13 held by the college. Today the College uses the 13 acres within the Garden’s fenced area for its Horticultural Landscape & Sustainable Agricultural programs.

Larsen Orchard Spring
Larsen Orchard Remnant

The Garden sits on a historic part of Green Bay.

old photo of william larsen
William Larsen

This 90-acre site owned by NWTC was originally occupied by First Peoples of the Menominee and also housed displaced members of the Oneida Nation, which were forced from their home in New York State. By 1891, the land became part of a large farmstead (120 acres) owned by Isaac Antone.

In 1911, William Larsen of the Larsen Canning Company bought the Antone farm and planted hundreds of apples trees for his business. In the late 1940s, the company began to turn much of its business practices over to production instead of farming. The old orchard was open to the public for anyone interested in picking apples. You can still see a few of these old apple trees in the Larsen Orchard Remnant.

We officially broke ground for construction on June 4, 1994.

people digging into ground with shovels
From left to right: Bob Mongin, Glenn Spevacek, Dar Stumpf, Gail Fischer, Jerry Landwehr and Paul Hartman.

After several years of successful fundraising ($1.7 million was raised through the community) in the 1980s and early 1990s, we broke ground in 1994 and the first structures to be built were the Fischer Visitor Center (1995), the Donor Gate (1996) and the Mabel Thome Fountain (1996). The Garden officially opened to the community in 1996 and many of its early structures and gardens (Schierl Wellhouse, Vanderperren English Cottage Garden, Stumpf Belvedere, Kaftan Lusthaus and others) were built between 1997 and 2002.

This is just a simple snapshot at how the Garden started. 25 years ago, Green Bay Botanical Garden was the dream of a few local, determined and passionate plant people. With their help, the Garden has grown into a safe, outdoor space where everyone can experience and admire nature in any season. Check out a timeline of our history for more!.

To commemorate our 25th anniversary, we’ll continue to reminisce about the past and our journey to today, and also look to the future, from throwback articles, photos and poems to monthly giveaways and a community birthday party in September. Make sure you follow along on our website, on our Facebook page or sign up for our weekly e-newsletter for more every week!

*Information for this blog post was pulled from “A Place for Everyone: The History of Green Bay Botanical Garden” by Lee Somerville, 2016