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Putting Down Roots: Parks and Horticulture in Early Calgary
by Lesley Reynolds
November 19, 2000

The first parks and gardens in Calgary arrived in the hearts and minds of the first settlers, who longed to recreate gardens they had left behind in older, more established eastern North American or European cities. To these early Calgarians, the establishment of public parks and gardens was an integral part of civic pride.
When the town of Calgary was incorporated in 1884 it was dusty, bare, and virtually treeless, except for the poplars, willows and shrubs lining the banks of the Bow and Elbow Rivers. Not surprisingly, tree-planting became a priority. William Pearce, who served on the Dominion Lands Board and was later president of the Calgary Planning Commission, was instrumental in setting aside lands for parks, preserving land along the river banks, and establishing an experimental farm where he grew many varieties of trees, shrubs, flowers and vegetables.
The first public park in Calgary was built in 1891 at the Canadian Pacific Railway station, but land had been set aside for parks even before then. In 1885 Central Park and the area later to be known as Mewata Park were reserved for park use. The Bow River islands of St. George, St. Patrick, and St. Andrew were acquired in 1889, Victoria Park in 1900. Other lands followed in 1910: Shaganappi Park and gifts of land for parks from ranchers Ezra H. Riley and Frank Shouldice. Tuxedo and Bowness Park were added in 1911. The parks and green spaces reserved during the first quarter-century of Calgary's existence quickly became recreational meccas. In 1924 city parks were used by 124 athletic teams, while St. George's Island was the setting for over 200 picnic parties, and Sunday afternoon band concerts drew an average of 1,500 to 2,000 people.
Horticultural interests were satisfied in public gardens such as that established at Victoria Park, the site of the agricultural grounds. Not only was the area set aside for an annual exhibition, but in 1909 work began on a miniature sunken garden which included grass, small trees and shrubs, flowerbeds, little rockeries and pools, paths and tiny figures in garden seats. This park was designed by H.G. Burrows, one of the four founding members of the Calgary Horticultural Society. In 1913 potted palms and bay trees were sunk in the garden during the summer.
Burrows also laid out the grounds of Central Park, renamed Memorial Park in 1928. The beautiful sandstone library was begun in 1909,and by 1912 over 1400 trees and shrubs had been planted, fountains installed, and a bandstand built. After 1913 long-serving parks superintendent William Reader left his horticultural fingerprints on Memorial Park. Over 1,000 additional shrubs and 2,200 perennials were added in 1914, as well plantings of 18,500 annuals.
Historian Jack Peach reminisced about the "stately white-plastered band shell and pavilion" and the "ruler-straight paths and sweeping circles, two large ornamental fountains, bowers of trees and geometrically exact floral displays." The park also featured lattice-work summer-houses along the south side of the park. Peach recalls these bowers "within which families could listen more distantly to the band concerts or have a picnic meal within sight of the riotously coloured flower beds. I remember the bowers being almost encased in a green pungent cascade of hop vines that helped us imagine, as children, that we were in some almost magical jungle, miles from anywhere."     As Calgary's most important early public garden, Memorial Park was an attempt to recreate the Edwardian garden style many Calgary settlers would have known from a British childhood. The park was patterned in a symmetrical fashion with lawns, paths, geometric carpet beds, and the only example of the British trend of topiary known to exist in Alberta from the Edwardian period. Period photographs show elaborate raised beds, edged and planted in intricate designs which were carefully varied from year to year. Spruce and poplar were closely planted around the perimeters of the park. During his tenure as parks superintendent William Reader added more perennial beds, hardy shrubs, such as chokecherry, dogwood, and cotoneaster, and a large rose garden beside the library.
In 1913 an equestrian statue honouring the soldiers who fought in the Boer War was installed in the center of the park, as well as two circular lawns, originally intended as pools. These lawns accommodated raised carpet beds which, like Victoria Park, featured palm trees during the summer. In the winter of 1915 the first decorated civic Christmas tree was placed in the park. The park was also the site of horticultural celebrations of special events, featuring magnificent floral displays designed to celebrate the coronation in 1936 and the royal visit of 1939.
While Memorial Park was the showpiece, other parks in Calgary were also developed and beautified through planting during the early decades of the city's history. The natural beauty of St. George's Island was enhanced in 1894 by the planting of trees. In 1912, Parks Superintendent Iverson reported the planting of over 7,800 trees and shrubs in Riley Park, complete with an irrigation system. By 1914 hundreds more were added, as well as perennial beds. Parks were also used for growing crops to help Calgary's poor; produce was distributed to the hospital, Red Cross, Children's Shelter, and other charities. Thus, agriculture and horticulture for aesthetic pleasure both had their place in city parks.
While remembered gardens from "home" were reflected in the first public gardens in Calgary, preserved natural areas and rock gardens populated with Rocky Mountain species were also part of the city's horticultural landscape as planned by the parks department.
During his 29 years as parks superintendent, William Reader was largely responsible for the transformation of Calgary from a dusty prairie town to "the garden city of western Canada."
A landscape designer by profession, Reader emigrated to Canada from England in 1908 when he was 33. He became parks superintendent in 1913 and in the ensuing years orchestrated the planning and establishing of many of the parks Calgarians enjoy today. In addition, by 1931 Reader had supervised the planting of 105 kilometres of boulevards with 21,495 trees, including those planted on Memorial Drive to commemorate soldiers killed in World War I.
Reader was keenly interested in introducing new plants to Calgary. He collected plants and corresponded with botanists worldwide in his quest for new species. Many of these plants found a home in the Reader Rock Garden, located at Union Cemetery off Macleod Trail. The garden was started in 1922 and featured alpine rockeries, a marsh garden, waterfall, ponds, and shaded woodland trails. Colourful formal annual beds and perennial borders provided a visual feast to the many visitors attracted to the garden, which in its prime was a horticultural showpiece of world renown.
Reader himself gained an international reputation and impressive professional credits. He was as an officer and member of many distinguished horticultural organizations. Viscountess Byng, wife of the Governor General of Canada, attempted to recruit him to tend her English estate. Reader also landscaped the grounds of the Prince of Wales's E.P. Ranch.
Reader died in 1943, only one month after retiring as parks superintendent, leaving Calgary with an impressive horticultural legacy. Along with other early Calgary parks superintendents, William Reader worked hard to show that while Calgary's climate limited choices it could also liberate gardeners from a complete reliance on older, transplanted ideas and allow them to establish a unique Calgary gardening tradition.


Email: reynolds@ab.imag.net
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