Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Henry Shaw: Blogger

It's really pretty amazing how Henry Shaw gets around, considering that he's been dead for 120 years. Every year, on his birthday, the public is invited to his country home, Tower Grove House, for refreshments and there he is, greeting the guests. Oh there's always the usual rumor that it's really an actor dressed in period costume, but the good people of St. Louis ignore the gossip and show up to wish the old fellow "Happy Birthday!" and thank him for his generosity to the city.

And now, he's started his own blog.

Unlike me, he decided to have a real "about me" section on his blog:

I was born on July 24, 1800 in Sheffield, England. On May 3, 1819, I arrived at a small French village on the Mississippi called St. Louis. I owned a hardware store and worked there from 1819 to 1840. In 1840, I retired and traveled around the world. In 1851, after seeing the beautiful Royal Gardens at Kew in London and the Chatsworth gardens in Devonshire, I decided to create my own garden in St. Louis.

Shaw's first blog post was this:

After a preparatory arrangement of my affairs for an absense of 18 or 20 months this day took passage on steamer Fayette for Peru the highest navigable point on the Illinois River and about 300 miles from St. Louis. Was much disappointed in the appearance of the levies and settlements on the Illinois some of which appear rather more going to decay than advancing in prosperity.

The post, dated July 11, 1840, didn't show up online until February 2009. And of course it isn't really a blog post, it is the beginning of a travel journal Shaw kept that chronicled his trip to Europe beginning in 1840. But what a clever idea to publish the journal day by day as if it were a blog.

Although he kept detailed business papers, Missouri Botanical Garden founder Henry Shaw left little personal material for biographers to consider in analyzing his life. One of the few items which remain is a series of five journals. Following his retirement from the hardware business in 1840, Shaw traveled abroad and made notes, recollections, and even sketches in these small bound books. Join us as we chart Henry's journey to Europe and beyond.

If blogs had existed in 1840, Henry Shaw might have blogged his journey just as my friends Megan and Adam are blogging their year of travels.

It was 150 years ago that Henry Shaw began that garden in St. Louis. After selling his hardware business at the age of forty, a business in which he had made a fortune acting as one of the leading suppliers to the fur trade, Shaw invested in real estate and purchased much of Prairie des Noyers, land on the outskirts of St. Louis that had originally been the common fields for the French settlement. The trip that began in 1840 was one of several trips he made through the 1840's after his retirement. Returning from England he began construction of Tower Grove House and began planting thousands of trees on the prairie. He also started to plan a garden.

With the advice of [amateur botanist George] Engelmann, [the director of the Royal Gardens at Kew, Sir William Jackson] Hooker and [Harvard University's Asa] Gray, Shaw was convinced to build a botanical garden rather than merely a pleasure garden. The difference is that a botanical garden has facilities and personnel for scientific research in addition to beautiful grounds and plants. Historically, botanical gardens served the same role in the collection and study of plants that zoos played in the collection and study of animals.

Shaw's Garden. That's what the locals still call it, although everyone else in the world calls it The Missouri Botanical Garden. And although Tower Grove House is no longer technically in the country, it is still surrounded by the garden that Shaw created, as it has been for the last 150 years.

If you live in St. Louis you are bound to hear someone refer to Henry Shaw's Will. On August 25th, 1889, Henry Shaw died at the age of 89. According to the NYTimes, the mayor of St. Louis gave city workers a half day off to attend the funeral or otherwise pay their respects. And no wonder. Shaw had already conveyed 285 acres to be held in trust for the people of the City of St. Louis and used as a pleasure park. Shaw had served on the original board of trustees of the park and overseen development of the park. It still exists today, still with its own board of trustees: Tower Grove Park, a "victorian gem" in the heart of St. Louis.

Under the terms of Henry Shaw's will, he now left the bulk of his property, including his garden, in trust to the people of the City of St. Louis to be preserved as a botanical garden. Not a pleasure garden but a garden dedicated to research.

At 150 years, Shaw's Garden is the oldest botanical garden in continuous operation in the entire nation. Many celebrations are planned for this year, starting right now with the Annual Orchid Show which runs through this weekend. There is a whole calendar of events throughout the year that are planned. And you know what? I bet Henry Shaw will turn up at a few of them. The old guy gets around.

For those of you with broadband, here's a tour of Shaw's Garden including a view of Tower Grove House: