Neatly trimmed and mulched trails are a signature feature of the Garden and a yearlong labor of love for the 18-member volunteer Grounds Crew, led by Head Gardener Larry Miller and Staff Gardener Chuck Allen.
“Chipping trails is a very big job,” says Miller, who has led the crew for the past 27 years. “The wood chips last eight to nine months, so it’s an ongoing job that we do most every week when the weather permits.”
Miller is very particular about wood chip sources, which explains why the trails are so beloved by runners and walkers of all ages. The chips are small in size and come from two private sources that don’t bring along trash with the load. Sangamon County also has permission to bring wood chips to the Garden.
More modern equipment, purchased with donations to the Garden, makes the job easier than it was in the past.
“When I started, we had a wagon pulled by a tractor, and I hand-loaded it every trip,” recalls Miller. “It took 1,000 pitchforks to fill the wagon.”
The job is four times as fast now, says Miller, with three Kubota tractors. The crew can get in 16 to 18 loads a day with one driver and two people spreading out the chips.
What else does the crew tackle?
There’s summertime mowing of the Garden’s 17 acres of grass, pruning branches along its four miles of trails, plus removal of trees that fall across the trails and could be hazardous for visitors. (Dying trees that fall away from the trails are left alone to provide insects for birds and nutrients to go back into the ground as they decompose.)
The Grounds Crew also repairs and rebuilds bridges in the Garden. A major project in 2017 was creating the access road to deliver the new 70-foot-long Walgreen Bridge along the Shady Lane Trail. The crew also helped build the gravel walkway to Cawley Meadow.
“I’ve got so many great volunteers who have different backgrounds,” says Miller. “We have retired doctors, attorneys, several CPAs, engineers and people that work for the state.”
He adds, “What they have in common is love for the Garden, and they are here to work. We don’t talk politics or religion. Just being part of it all and knowing they’ve had a hand in making the Garden what it is today.”
What does it take to be on the Grounds Crew?
“It takes a person who enjoys being outside and doing work,” Miller says. ‟I try to match a person’s skills and experience with the jobs so that I don’t set someone up to fail.”
Crew members work three days a week from 8 a.m. to noon and as needed for special events such as the fall festival or a big planting. Some will come one day a week, others more.
Lori Reardon joined the Grounds Crew after she retired in 2015.
“I started at the front desk and noticed a fun group of people drinking coffee in the back of the Nature Center and I thought, I wanted some of that,” says Reardon. “I asked Larry after a couple months, ‘What do I have to do to work on the Grounds Crew?’ He said, ‛Show up on Tuesday at 8 a.m.’”
Five years later, she still serves on the Grounds Crew and also volunteers at the Greenhouse, serves on the Lincoln Memorial Garden Foundation Board of Directors and co-manages the Split Rail Gift Shop.
Reardon says, “I think the biggest thing I get out of it is knowing I’m part of something that is so special for our community. Once you love the Garden, you love the Garden; there’s no going back.”
She adds, “When you’re working on the trails and you hear the kids laughing, school groups going through, it fills up my heart.”
Tom Wilkin, a past president of the Lincoln Memorial Garden Foundation, has been a member of the crew for nine years and has the reputation of coming five mornings a week plus weekends. He and his wife, Cyndee Wilkin, play a major role in the look and quality of the grounds for the annual fall festival in Cawley Meadow. Recently they redesigned the Nature Center and the executive director’s office.
His first year on the crew, Wilkin parked cars at the festival. Year two, he was asked to chair the event. Cyndee creates many of the hand-painted signs, themed wooden spools and butterfly features.
“I do like the various garden projects,” says Wilkin, retired in 2011 from the University of Illinois at Chicago. “I prefer those activities that have a positive purpose that supports the Garden’s mission. I like the many opportunities to be creative that the Garden offers.”
He and the Grounds Crew literally blazed trails for the festival, including the immensely popular Fairy Woodlands and last year’s new Troll Trail.
Wilkin first got involved at the Garden as a Master Naturalist and Master Gardener for the University of Illinois Extension.
“The work ethic of the crew is unbelievable,” says Wilkin. “With a won’t-quit attitude and ongoing commitment in support of each other, whether it’s 10 degrees or 100 degrees, rain or shine, they work no matter what the conditions.”
What draws him to the Garden five days a week or more?
“To me, there’s a spirit about the place,” Wilkin says. “I love the feel of it. I love its history and everything it does for people. You can see it on their faces when people enter the Garden, a sense of peace.”
April is National Volunteer Month
Lincoln Memorial Garden has many ways to get involved as a volunteer. In addition to serving on the Grounds Crew, volunteers are always welcome for shifts at the annual fall festival and the Nature Center Split Rail Shop. If you’d like to volunteer at the Garden, contact Executive Director Joel Horwedel, 217-529-1111 or joel@LincolnMemorialGarden.org.
Thank you to our many partner organizations
Lincoln Memorial Garden receives countless hours of volunteer expertise, gardening labor and assistance from the Springfield Civic Garden Club as well as from the Master Naturalists and Master Gardeners of the University of Illinois Extension Logan-Menard-Sangamon County. Volunteers from both organizations will be on hand during the plant sales to help answer your gardening questions.