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Bartlett Arboretum celebrates 100 years of arboreal splendor

It was 1974 when Gus van der Hoeven, a Dutchman just transplanted to Kansas, drove by little Belle Plaine on a tour of his new home state — one that until then had reminded him of Australia and its wide-open spaces.

He was not prepared for what he saw on the east edge of town. Metal gates suspended between stone pillars reminded van der Hoeven of the gardens of estates that he was used to seeing in Europe. The newly hired extension landscape specialist at Kansas State University immediately recognized "a setting which gives you a feeling there is something behind that gate."

And there was. Van der Hoeven could see tall trees, planted in a parklike setting, towering in the twilight. But the gate was locked. So he drove around to the east side of the property where he could sneak inside the fence.

"I walk there, and on the east side is this big row of pines, and I'm just in awe. And the farther I get into it, I'm more in awe."

Van der Hoeven's experience has been repeated thousands of times before and since by others who have gone behind the gate to discover Bartlett Arboretum half an hour south of Wichita.

To enter it even in 2010 — the 100th anniversary of the purchase of the property by its founder, Walter Bartlett — is to slip into another era, a far-away place.

The arboretum's trees —most notably, a stand of loblolly pines planted in the 1920s that sway 60 feet and higher — are out of context in this neck of the prairie, earthbound yet pointing to the eternal, transporting visitors outside themselves.

"It's a draw from the road, and once you get in there it just kind of captures you," says Tim McDonnell, a forester who lives nearby and also snuck in his first time.

Visitors old and new are invited to the arboretum next weekend to celebrate its centennial and to walk the same gravel paths that have led through its landscaped gardens since the 1930s.

The beauty of the arboretum is that the trees were planted "in an arrangement of understanding," van der Hoeven says. And while not all the trees have survived the 100 years, that understanding, almost miraculously, has.

Bartlett Park gets its start

Walter Bartlett brought his love for the botanical gardens of St. Louis with him to Belle Plaine when he set up his medical practice there in 1910 and bought 15 acres that had been the city dump. He planted trees, invited in picnickers and installed athletic fields where kids could play sports. It was called Bartlett Park then.

In the 1920s, the park became an arboretum, and the Bartlett's son, Glenn, took it to another level when he became heir to the property. Glenn was an even more avid plantsman who had been in the service in Europe, where he studied the gardens of France and Italy. The arboretum that had been his father's avocation became his life's work.

It also became the jewel in Belle Plaine's crown, drawing tourists every spring to a floral festival called Tulip Time. Glenn's daughter Mary and her husband, Bob Gourlay, were the next in the family line to take it over, until they put it on the market in the 1990s.

It was then that Robin Macy, a teacher who was driving through Belle Plaine on a trip from her home in Dallas to Wichita, saw those garden gates. She snuck in like van der Hoeven before her, was captured like McDonnell had been, and bought the property for pure love.

"I am just so amazed at what Robin has done," says Mary Gourlay, who lives on the other side of Belle Plaine these days and is still an active part of the arboretum. "It's just boggled my mind. ... When I sold the arboretum to Robin there were so many pines that were dying, and that was just terrible. She's replaced a lot, and she's planting trees left and right."

New life injected

Macy has brought the artistic understanding of a singer to the arboretum — she was a founding member of the Dixie Chicks and still writes and performs songs — along with a deep reverence for its plant life. She's been peeling back the layers of the arboretum's history, staying true to Walter Bartlett's vision while injecting it with new life.

"She embraces the history and the family, and I think that has made the difference in how she has monumentally turned it around and made it a place people want to seek out," McDonnell says.

Macy has championed an army of volunteers — from students at Wichita's Collegiate School, where she teaches geometry, to her Soil Sisters who have adopted various areas of the arboretum. They work side by side with her to remove decades of neglected growth, plant new flowers and trees, rake up tons of leaves, and weed.

Macy has reopened the arboretum to visitors through concerts, horticultural conferences and weddings that help her make ends meet. (She herself got married there last Easter.) Almost anyone who asks to come in gets a "come on in."

Gourlay says changes have been made more rapidly in the past several years than they ever were when she lived there, but she accepts them, even when they involve ripping out plants she's known all her life, because the arboretum is so alive.

"I appreciate everything so much," says Gourlay, who is one of the Soil Sisters.

Bridges to the future

In looking to the future, Macy is taking cues from what's already planted. She plans to add to the collections that the Bartletts started, planting, for example, magnolias around an aged magnolia.

"We're taking our lead from the majesty that's here," she says.

Even those who visit the arboretum regularly will notice changes on the centennial weekend. Old growth has been removed to open windows onto the water, champion trees that are the biggest of their type in the state have blue ribbons attached, and new plant markers tell people what kind of tree they're looking at.

And over the winter a momentous accomplishment took place: A sprinkler system with 32 zones was hand-dug under the landscaped gardens.

"She — they — hauled hoses for 10 years," Macy's father, Phil, says wonderingly. "It's a miracle."

On the horizon: two new footbridges that will allow visitors to make a complete loop around the arboretum, a tree walk that will take people around some of the more notable trees and provide a way to exercise there, a meadow, and — a van der Hoeven inspiration — a treehouse in a loblolly alongside the train tracks.

Caledonian pipes will ring out over the bucolic scene next weekend, and some of Walter Bartlett's great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren will be in attendance for the centennial celebration of what he started.

"The sense of place is what comes through," van der Hoeven says of the arboretum.

"It intrigues me always that it is Belle Plaine's."