Remembering the bloody harvest
September 17, 1862, was the bloodiest day in American history, with more than 23,000 dead, wounded, or missing in a daylong battle that raged along Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland. The carnage began at dawn, as Union and Confederate troops hacked and blasted at each other among the tall, unharvested stalks of a cornfield, and then it boiled across the surrounding landscape. Antietam was set aside as one of the first Civil War memorials in 1890, but it wasn’t until a century later that key sites—the corn field, the west woods, the sunken road—were acquired and donated to the American people by the Richard King Mellon Foundation of Pittsburgh. Started in 1947 by the nephew of longtime Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, the foundation has dedicated tens of millions of dollars to protecting many of the hallowed grounds on which the American Civil War was fought.
A mound of giving
South Dakota’s newest state park, established in 2013, preserves one of the region’s oldest human sites: a pre-1700 Indian burial-mound complex. Just outside of Sioux Falls, Good Earth State Park is barely developed but has already attracted 20,000 visitors in its first year. Hiking trails and a visitor center are coming soon, the latter courtesy of a $2 million gift from Sioux Falls philanthropists Bob and Rita Elmen. “A state-of-the-art visitor center that would do justice to Good Earth would cost more than the state of South Dakota anticipated,” explained Bob. So he and his wife stepped forth as individuals to make sure the rich Native American history would be interpreted as it should be for visitors.
One for the history books
Today a quaint and artsy Oregon town of 10,000 at the mouth of the Columbia river, Astoria was two centuries ago a vital strategic outpost of the young republic. Founded by John Jacob Astor’s fur traders, Astoria was the first permanent American settlement on the Pacific and, for a time, a bulwark against British claims in the northwest. In 1925, Astor’s great-great-grandson Vincent Astor paid $20,000 to erect a tribute to the town’s monumental past. Situated at the top of a steep hill, the 125-foot-tall Astoria Column anchors a lush park and offers views of the town, the Columbia, and nearby farmland and mountains. Wrapping around the column is a sgraffito frieze depicting Robert Gray sailing up the Columbia, the Lewis and Clark Expedition (which ended at nearby Fort Clatsop), the journey of the Astor men, the arrivals of overland settlers and the railroad, and other scenes from Astoria’s history.
Four corners of ancient history
A pair of unrelated donors are responsible for the Yucca House National Monument, which preserves a large, henceforth unexcavated ancient Pueblo Indian site. Located in far southwest Colorado, not far from the famous Mesa Verde dwellings, Yucca House incorporates two pueblos encompassing hundreds of rooms and kivas, or common spaces. The first donation, which included most of the main dwellings, came from Denver landowner Henry Van Kleeck in 1919. In the late 1990s, local resident Hallie Ismay gave the second gift of acreage surrounding the original site to protect the ruins and expand opportunities for research.
“Do you want Wolf Trap?”
“You have many parks for recreation, but you have nothing in the performing arts,” Catherine Filene Shouse told the Secretary of the Interior in the early 1960s. “Do you want Wolf Trap?” Heiress to the Filene’s department-store fortune and a loyal booster of her adopted home in the D.C. area, Shouse offered her northern Virginia farm plus the funds to build a 6,800-seat open-air theater. Congress accepted and the facility opened in 1971, just in time to capitalize on the massive expansion of Washington’s suburbs and become a favorite cultural venue for the growing region.
A garden in a quarry
Andrew Hodges had an eye for what could be. A conservation-minded lumberman and landowner in rural western Louisiana, Hodges rallied a new generation of foresters to replant pines across the south, and then manage the woods sustainably. To demonstrate the concept, Hodges acquired an abandoned quarry with a gently flowing creek and used it as a lab forest. Enchanted by the quarry, he and his wife, Nona, created a manmade lake and ringed it with lush gardens in the stone nooks and terraces. The queen of the garden was that pink southern beauty, the azalea. Operated by a nonprofit, the gardens opened to the public in 1957. A half-century later, the Hodges Foundation donated 948 lushly landscaped acres to the state, making it the newest member of Louisiana’s park system: Hodges Gardens State Park.