Katharine Ordway’s Peaceful Preserve

Katharine Ordway was one of those very wealthy, very impressive, semi-mysterious people who lived quietly among us, back in the day.

Her father bought 60% of the stock of a struggling mining company later known as 3M — not a bad career move. She graduated cum laude from the University of Minnesota with degrees in botany and art, and later studied biology and land-use planning at Columbia.

Katharine Ordway was equally at home in social settings and outdoors.

Katharine Ordway was equally at home in social settings and outdoors.

After inheriting part of an $18.8 million estate — real money in 1948 — she became (according to Macalester College) second only to John D. Rockefeller, Jr. as “a private contributor to natural area conservation in American history.”

The quiet woman  helped save over 31,000 acres of Great Plains prairies, a few Hawaiian islands, and land in many other parts of the country. She is revered by the Nature Conservancy for her philanthropy, commitment and foresight.

She lived for decades in a beautiful home off Goodhill Road in Weston. Today, 62 acres behind her estate comprise the Katharine Ordway Preserve. It’s wooded, riparian (the Saugatuck River runs through it), and very peaceful.

It’s also a secret. Though it was opened in 1979 — the year she died — even some neighbors don’t know it’s there.

A spirited group of nature-lovers do, though. Working with the Nature Conservancy’s Connecticut chapter, they’ve contributed hundreds of man (and woman) hours to the preserve. They’ve cleared brush, removed invasive species, planted specimen trees, created a 2-acre arboretum, and cleaned trails.

Now they want local residents to enjoy the fruits of their labors.

The view from a trail high in the Ordway Preserve.

The view from a trail high in the Ordway Preserve.

The other day, Westporter Bob Fatherley invited me to hike the preserve. We were joined by a few others, including Alec Head of Westport; the Conservancy’s David Gumbart, and Mark Mainieri, the property’s steward.

I learned about the legend of Fred Moore. He was Katharine Ordway’s estate caretaker — as well as Weston’s tree warden and fire marshal.

As we walked, the men talked about the many contributors to the restoration of the preserve. They spoke with pride of the 20 trees donated by Weston Gardens, and the pro bono work provided by Weston Arborists (owned by Fred Moore’s son Jeff).

Hiking the Ridge Trail.

Hiking the Ridge Trail.

The arboretum is particularly impressive. Now rid of high brush and invasive plants, it’s a serene habitat for birds and butterflies. (The preserve also hosts deer, coyotes, and plenty of wild turkeys.)

They talked reverently of Katharine Ordway (who endowed not only this preserve, but also Devil’s Den). “She was a woman of means, but also a woman of the earth,” Bob said. “She was one of the first people to take private capital, and make it work for open space.”

“This is a spot of spiritual refreshment,” Bob added. “It is humbling to take care of it.”

A plaque honors Katharine Ordway.

A plaque honors Katharine Ordway.

Katharine Ordway’s ashes were scattered at her favorite site — a place she visited every October, to enjoy spectacular foliage. It’s high on a hill surrounded by mountain laurel, near a large boulder that bears a plaque. Soon, the Nature Conservancy hopes, a small bench will allow hikers to sit and honor the woman who worked so hard to preserve this land, and hundreds of thousands of other acres around the country.

Katharine’s imprint on the American conservation movement remains large. And — although most of us don’t know it — it is especially strong in the town Katharine Ordway called home.

Literally, in her own back yard.

(The Katharine Ordway Preserve is located at 165 Goodhill Road in Weston. It is open from dawn to dusk — no bikes or pets, though. Note that the base of the entrance is severely rutted!)

Some of the preserve's most ardent supporters, at Kay's Trail. From left: Bob Fatherley, David Gumbart, Lou Bregy, Dave Thompson, Alec Head and Mark Mainieri.

Some of the preserve’s most ardent supporters. From left: Bob Fatherley, David Gumbart, Lou Bregy, Dave Thompson, Alec Head and Mark Mainieri.

5 responses to “Katharine Ordway’s Peaceful Preserve

  1. Jamie Walsh

    I cannot speak highly enough regarding Bob Fatherley’s commitment to Nature as a whole! As well as being a great neighbor, married to an equally wonderful wife, we serve together as stewards of various ALT Preserve’s and what a job he does! Alec and his wife are also great neighbor’s as well and are incredibly knowledgable about plants and trees! As for the rest of the gentleman…I am sure your connection and commitment to the Katharine
    Ordway Preserve runs equally deep!

  2. This is just one example of many connections throughout Westport from her and her family, from Ralph Glendinning & MBI (who made Westport the marketing/promotions capital of the world), Twin Bridges/Schine Preserve (the first Aspectuck Land Trust donation), Earthplace, Devil’s Den…Westport would be a whole different place without her and her family. – Chris Woods

  3. hallie stevens

    I grew up walking the trails at Devil’s Den. I never dreamed I would have an 18 year dream job with the Nature Conservancy in Florida. Katherine Ordway did more than her gifts in Connecticut. She made a huge gift that allowed TNC to establish a revolving land fund to acquire environmentally sensitive lands throughout the country. She was a visionary and people in every state should be thankful to her and her generosity. (And
    I still love walking in Devil’s Den and hope I can visit this new preserve the next time I am in Westport.)

  4. Sharon Paulsen

    Wow, I love this! I just spent an hour or so perusing the Nature Conservancy’s website and learned so much today! I used to hike Devil’s Den and many other trails in CT – still do! And now I have a historic dialogue to go along with my hikes.
    I wonder if Singing Oaks in Weston was a part of a conservation group? It was a beautiful day camp, which I attended back in the 1970’s. Now it’s a residential “community”. Such a bummer.
    Anyway, thanks Dan for this wonderful post!! Enjoyed every morsel of it!

  5. Sally Campbell Palmer

    Thanks for this post, Dan. You think you know all about your community and then get wonderful information like this!