History of the Boerner Botanical Gardens
Charles B. Whitnall served as Secretary of the Milwaukee County Park Commission from its inception in 1907 until his retirement in 1941. As Secretary, he was a strong proponent of public land acquisition along Milwaukee County’s lakefront and waterways. A longtime dream of Mr. Whitnall’s was to locate and set aside a large tract of land as a haven for city dwellers; a place people could go to enjoy lakes, streams, wildlife, flowers and trees. In 1924, he found the ideal parcel and, over the following five years, advocated its purchase. Milwaukee County eventually purchased the parcel (1929-1930). Originally dubbed Hales Corners Park, the property was later (1932) renamed Whitnall Park in honor of its visionary, Charles B. Whitnall. After his death in 1949, Mr. Whitnall’s ashes were scattered over his beloved Whitnall Park.
In 1929, when Whitnall was 70 years of age, he led the effort to create a magnificent park space for his fellow citizens. His partner in this project was a young man, 26-year-old Alfred L. Boerner.
Alfred L. Boerner was born in 1900 in Cedarburg and studied the very new field of landscape architecture at the University of Wisconsin.
He became the landscape architect for Milwaukee County in 1926 and was appointed General Manager of the system in 1952. His philosophy, which included displaying plant material appropriate for home owners, business, industrial and municipal sites continues to guide the ongoing development of the Gardens.
Boerner died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1955. In 1957, the Gardens were named for the landscape architect who designed the original five formal gardens, Alfred L. Boerner.
Whitnall Park originally consisted of 606 acres. Purchased at a cost of $376/acre, this expenditure left County coffers with little money for park development. The advent of the Great Depression further stymied the park’s completion. Laborers from Depression Era government work relief programs were eventually recruited to do the job. The two primary programs were the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). CCC workers were generally 21 years of age or younger, frequently from families on relief. They lived and worked on-site, transforming farmland into parkland for $30 a month, $25 of which was sent directly home to their families.
A CCC camp was built in Whitnall Park under the direction and leadership of the US Army.
A remnant building from the CCC encampment exists on-site and is used today as an educational facility.
WPA workers lived off-site, traveling to work at Whitnall Park via interurban rail. Among their ranks were artisans and craftsmen whose handiwork can be seen today in the hand-split native fieldstone on the exterior of the Garden House; the hand-carved figures in its interior lintels, beams and fireplace mantle; and the sculpture artfully placed about the Gardens and grounds.Stone for the statuary in the Gardens came from the quarry in Currie Park and was carved by the WPA artisans.
“…you may not believe it, but this place was all fields, mostly corn stubble.”
– William Ragio, CCC member, describing Whitnall Park as it was in 1933