Saving nature

Community organizing helped keep Charles Garfield’s legacy intact.
A photograph from Charles Garfield's (inset) photo album shows Burton Street in the early 1900s, looking east from the entrance of Burton Farm (at Jefferson Avenue). Courtesy Grand Rapids Public Library

The Burton Heights area looked a lot different 120 years ago, with acres of farmland and dirt roads. Charles Garfield and his wife Jessie lived on the Burton Farm, located south of Burton and Jefferson. Charles was a nationally known horticulturist and conservationist and, more simply, a lover of trees. The Garfields, along with Charles’ cousin, Julia Fletcher, donated the initial 25 acres for Garfield Park in 1906.

Charles Garfield Courtesy Grand Rapids Public Library

Southwest of the park is a wooded area with a walking trail, known as Garfield Nature Center or Burton Woods. In those woods, Charles planted seeds for 10 different types of native trees. He gave the 6-acre woods to the Grand Rapids Parks and Boulevard Association in 1914 and it was later deeded to the city in 1921. Charles’ intent was for the land to remain a forest preserve, but in the 1960s the city commission proposed developing the area and selling it for housing. Neighbors organized a Save Burton Woods campaign and convinced the city to turn the woods into a nature center. The campaign was part of neighborhood organizing that led to the formation of the Garfield Park Neighborhoods Association in 1973, and the Garfield Nature Center remains available to enjoy today.

This story can be found in the May 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox each month, subscribe here

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