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.
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 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).
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.”
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!)