by Beth Bogie, editor of Medford Leas Life
from the April 2012 issue of the newsletter

Lew BartonAs we celebrate the beauty of our Arboretum in April, we can only feel wonder at the vision of Lewis W. Barton, one of Medford Leas’ founders, better known as Lew — farmer, expert horticulturist and man of action. What he accomplished as a horticulturist in Medford Leas’ first decade, 1969-1979, laid the groundwork for the creation of the Arboretum and its beginnings in the following decade, 1979-1989, the period of the Early Arboretum.

In 1969, with the aid of Tak Moriuchi and Tom DeCou, fellow members of the Estaugh Board, Lew, its president, acquired the Mickles farm in Medford — “uncultivated, chest high in weeds, largely wooded, some of it swampy” — as the site for Medford Leas [MLLife, Oct. 2005]. By 1975 the Landscape Horticultural Award of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society was presented to Medford Leas. And by 1979, Lew had turned the completed main buildings and early landscape into a setting that residents today might well recognize.

He managed the transformation because he not only knew plants, he was also an engineer who built water systems worldwide for such projects as golf courses. Nancy Barton Barclay, Lew’s daughter, recalls that he “went all over collecting plants for Medford Leas with nurseryman and farmer Brad Snipes.” And he laid out the roads. One story has it that he was seen riding in the bucket of a front-end loader while giving directions as to the path that Medford Leas Way should take. By 1979, the stage was set for the Arboretum.

In April 1979, Lois Forrest, who had been director of the YWCA in Philadelphia, became executive director of Medford Leas. She immediately caught Lew’s enthusiasm for the landscape and made it her first order of business. Together, they began to seek advice for a way forward. “Although the setting was attractive,” Lois reports, “the plan was unstructured. It became apparent a more detailed and focused scheme was required.” Lois invited her friend Ernesta Ballard, president of the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society, to visit. As they strolled about, Ernesta told Lois, “Medford Leas has the finest landscaping in South Jersey.” She promptly advised the creation of a registered arboretum. She then put Lew and Lois in touch with the University of Pennsylvania’s Morris Arboretum and Paul Meyer, a member of its staff later to become director. Morris Arboretum has one of the country’s top staffs, expertise and collections.

As a result of meeting with Ernesta, the year 1980 saw Medford Leas’ landscape become the Lewis W. Barton Arboretum and a long-standing and valuable relationship begin with Morris Arboretum. The Arboretum Committee of the Estaugh Board was created, with Nancy Barclay as chair and Paul Meyer a member. It held its first quarterly meeting in August l981. From the beginning, it was made up of board members, staff, residents and a representative of Morris Arboretum.

Earlier, in May, Paul Meyer had presented a paper, “The Arboretum of Medford Leas: Guidelines for Development.” That same month, at an MLRA gathering on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Medford Leas, Coles Roberts, a member of the Estaugh Board, was among those paying tribute to Lew’s expertise in achieving a setting that led to the creation of the Arboretum.

That was just the beginning. One piece of advice from Ernesta was to begin recording the species already in place and their location on the campus. Miriam Evans wrote about “Cataloguing an Arboretum,” [MLLife, Jan. 1983], a task she undertook on 5×8 cards, long before there were computers.

She wrote, “By definition an arboretum is a plot of land where trees are grown for scientific or educational purposes, or popular interest. One or all of these purposes make it necessary to keep a record of all the trees and shrubs, including their scientific, family and common names.”

Morris Arboretum divided the Medford Leas Arboretum into quadrants, and quadrants into grids. A chart of each grid listed its trees and their scientific names as well as identification numbers. In explaining, Miriam wrote: “The trees planted this fall along the walk to Midge Ilgenfritz’s daffodils are American Sweet Gums, the evergreens at the south end of Parking Lot A, Oriental Spruce, and the trees in the meadow opposite A and B, Black Gums. These are just three samples of the more than 200 trees in Quadrant 1.”

The launch of the Arboretum led to major volunteering by residents. Tina Mecray, chairman of the Nature Committee, kept everyone doing what they were supposed to be doing. Members of the “Residents’ Arboretum Volunteers” did species labeling and acted as trail and tour guides. On arriving in 1989, Ray and Kitty Katzell were among the very active volunteers. Ray became leader of the tree-tagging effort before computers and the GPS system emerged in the late 1990s and 2000s. Later, Ray and Kitty gave $100,000 for the creation of an Arboretum Fund, to provide for useful projects that could not be justified in the regular landscaping budget. In the 1980s, leaflets with six different self-guided tours were also developed by residents.

Gertrude and Wayne Marshall, who had come in 1987, brought their birding expertise. Wayne, a bird bander since 1929, soon founded the Bird Club and introduced bird censuses. Gertrude, who is now approaching 100, wrote for Medford Leas Life for 15 years about birds and wildlife.

Birders have found that the Arboretum provides a varied habitat for different bird species.

The Nature Committee was the predecessor of today’s Nature Coordinating Committee, which was chaired by Howard Kriebel, a nationally known arborist, in the late 1990s. The Medford Leas GPS system was established in his honor after his death. Don Horton, a paleontologist and naturalist, joined the Arboretum Committee in the 1980s and eventually assisted well-known naturalist Ted Gordon in 1993 in surveying the arboretum. Don headed the Trails Committee, now known as Woodland/Trails.

The impact of the Arboretum has been enormous.

  • Immediately, it gave Medford Leas a wider exposure to the world of horticulture, more than ever imagined;
  • At the outset, the Estaugh Board stated that the open campus space and attractive environment were essential to the quality of life of residents;
  • The unique situation of a Continuing Care Retirement Community in an arboretum has been a major attraction for prospective residents;
  • In the words of Paul Meyer, the Arboretum in a major way has engaged the interest and involvement of existing residents;
  • It has given Medford Leas an opportunity to interact with the wider community – local garden clubs, Burlington County Master Gardeners, horticulture professors and students and distinguished lecturers;
  • It offers residents benefits for a healthier quality of life; enhances their sense of well-being; nurtures them physically, psychologically and even spiritually;
  • It continues the long Quaker interest in plants and nature.

In an article entitled “A Nature Walk by Wheelchair,” in Medford Leas Life, February 1983, Lew Barton wrote: “Let us go out and look at the miracles of plant life which lie right at our feet.” On returning, he wrote, “We’re back in an hour, having noted the colorful greenness of our campus without leaving the pavement…. And there is lots more all over our campus.”