More than a century ago, an Indiana schoolteacher came to Kansas to conduct a scientific experiment that would eventually involve the U.S. government.
His laboratory was a small acreage in Galesburg Township in Kingman County.
In 1887, John W. Riggs would create what is now one of the oldest and least-known arboretums west of the Mississippi. It was designed to showcase which trees could be grown in Kansas.
Riggs and his wife, Sarah, began planting the trees. By 1901, the U.S. Department of Agriculture became involved.
“The Government has decided to establish an experimental forestry station at Waterloo and Mr. Riggs was appointed superintendent,” the Cheney Sentinel reported on March 1, 1901. “The object is to determine by practical experimentation what kind of trees are best adapted to southern Kansas. About 80 varieties will be planted this spring and reports made from time to time of their growth.”
With assistance from the Department of Agriculture, Riggs began introducing exotic trees from all over the world. From Manchuria came the Encomia; from Nanking, China, the Chinese pistachio; and from Europe, the Loblolly pine.
More than 60 varieties of trees would be planted at his arboretum, including the Yellowwood, Laurel oak, buckeye, red haws, buttonwood and Chittimwood.
Now, 126 years later, four of the state’s tallest trees on record, including one Loblolly pine measuring 110 feet tall and 8 feet wide, stand in the arboretum.
In the beginning, some of Riggs’ requests to the USDA were denied.
At that time, USDA scientists believed non-native trees would not grow in Kansas.
Now, with the success of the Riggses’ efforts, the arboretum still holds some of the first trees of their kind introduced not only in Kansas but in the nation as well.
The arboretum is currently owned by Riggs’ grandson, also named John Riggs.
Waterloo is less than a mile north of the junction of U.S. 54 and K-17, about 35 miles west of Wichita. The arboretum is open to the public by appointment only by calling 785-227-3858.