Revitalization and new features shine new light on Friendship Botanic Gardens.
One of Northwest Indiana’s arboreal treasures has a new name and a higher profile that is revitalizing a botanical showpiece that sprung from an idea planted at the Chicago World’s Fair.
Some 80 years ago, Dr. and Mrs. Frank Warren of Michigan City visited the international exposition and took a fancy to a small garden created by Hammond nursery owners Virgil, Joe and Clarence Stauffer. The theme of the garden was “Peace and Friendship to All Nations.” The Warrens asked the Stauffer brothers to create what became the International Friendship Gardens on a 106-acre wooded parcel along Trail Creek, adjacent to the Potawattomie Park residential area developed by the Warrens in Michigan City.
The International Friendship Gardens debuted in 1936 with 21 ethnic gardens, a Symphony Theater and the Theater of Nations that was located on an island in spring-fed Lake Lucerne, a prominent feature of the gardens. In its heyday, thousands of visitors came to enjoy weekly arts programs. The gardens gained international stature when leaders of foreign governments sent seeds and plants to enhance the ethnic gardens, and a number of notables made personal visits.
The International Friendship Gardens peaked between 1945 and the early 1960s, then languished. In the 1990s, it became a nonprofit organization run by a volunteer board of directors committed to restoring the beauty of this natural oasis. But they lacked financial resources.
Today, the gardens are going through an intensive revitalization with a rejuvenated 18-member working board and a three-year development plan. Board president John Leinweber is the energizing force behind the current comeback. The Long Beach resident is a successful business entrepreneur who is applying the same drive to raising funds to enhance what he describes as “a great asset for the community.”
The gardens were renamed the Friendship Botanic Gardens two years ago to promote an expanding role in education and research. This past spring, students from the University of North Dakota volunteered at the site as part of a service-learning trip. Scientists from Loyola University are conducting research on red-backed salamander populations. Educational events are held throughout the year for members of the public.
Visitors can commune with nature by walking the four miles of wooded trails, fishing in Trail Creek, birdwatching, attending outdoor concerts such as the annual Lyric Opera recital, and participating in seasonal events, such as the Maple Sugar Camp, October Beerfest and the Thanksgiving Turkey Walk. The gardens also host wedding ceremonies and receptions.
New features are continually being added. A pathway of streetlamps, called the “Trail of Lights,” now guides visitors through the garden after sunset, allowing events to extend into the evening hours. A nature-themed playground–the first of a three-phase ArcelorMittal Children’s Garden development–opened last May.
The gardens have gained greater visibility with a revamped main entrance and electronic sign signaling its location on Highway 12, not far from the Uptown Arts District and other attractions in Michigan City’s increasingly popular north side lakefront area.
Leinweber says attendance last year topped 18,000–more than the total for both 2014 and 2015–and he anticipates attendance will reach 25,000 in 2017. The Friendship Botanic Gardens are open Wednesday through Sunday from May through October, but Leinweber foresees it becoming a year-round venue with the addition of meeting space and other accommodations that are on the drawing board.
“It’s an extraordinary piece of property and we want the community to use it,” Leinweber says. “We’re trying to make it a destination point for Northwest Indiana.”