Hiring the right man for the job is critical if you want a modicum of success. In 1900, Herbert Henry Dow hired Elzie Cote to be his full-time gardener. In 1975, Alden Dow, Dow’s youngest son, hired Doug Chapman to oversee the Gardens. Both Cote and Chapman proved to be “the right man” for the job.
Herbert Henry Dow was 33 years old when he mailed out his order to Mount Hope Nurseries in Rochester, New York, on April 28, 1899. A check for $2,036.00 was enclosed. On May 3, 1899, Dow wrote his father, Joseph, a letter saying, “I planted an orchard yesterday.”
A meticulous notekeeper, Dow recorded his purchases in a small black book that he carried everywhere, writing notes with a short stub of a pencil. He planted 92 fruit trees of 35 varieties. One vine had 10 varieties of grapes. Another had four varieties of lilacs.
The spot that Dow chose to begin his orchard and garden was sandy, and part of it was covered with jack pine. Boys had played softball on the back lot, as Dow called it. But a year later, Dow hired Elzie Cote as his full-time gardener, and the back lot was no longer used for ball games and the jack pine had been cut down.
The relationship between Dow and Cote was to last the rest of Dow’s life. When Dow died in October 1930, Cote continued working for Mrs. Grace Dow, and by now, the apple orchard and the Gardens were large enough to require more men to be employed.
When harvest time came for the apples, bushels of apples were set aside for delivery to the country schools in Midland County – another example of the philanthropy of the Dow family.
In the 1930s, Mrs. Dow had the lawn of the Midland County Courthouse decorated with bushes covered with Christmas lights each year. It was her gift to the city of Midland. Cote, his son Roy and a crew of men went out each year into the countryside, dug up wild huckleberry bushes and brought them back to the courthouse lawn, where they were planted temporarily, to be decorated with Christmas lights.
Roy Cote remembered going with his dad and Dr. Dow to a nursery in Bay City to purchase more trees to plant. Roy said, “Dr. Dow would grab a handful of nursery tags to put on the trees he wanted to buy, and he tagged all the crooked ones we could find. The nurseryman thought we were nuts and didn’t think we knew what we were doing. Dr. Dow liked anything natural, and the more crooked, the better.”
The Dow Gardens were opened to the public in 1930. Later that year, Dr. Dow died at the Mayo Clinic. By now, the apple orchard had spread considerably down Eastman Road.
In 1955, part of the apple orchard was cut down to make room for the Grace A. Dow Memorial Library. In 1968, more of the orchard was cut down to make room for the new Midland Center for The Arts. St. Andrews Road was put through, connecting Eastman Road with Orchard Drive (once called Cemetery Road) and the Midland Molecular Institute.
In late 1922, Dr. Dow and his family had visited the Hawaiian Islands and Japan. They stayed at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo while in Japan. It was a trip that changed the focus of both Dr. Dow and his son Alden. On the ship to Japan, they met a young Japanese man, Paul Tonow (Tono), who had just graduated from Cornell University.
Dr. Dow was impressed with the Japanese style of gardening. He liked their idea of not being able to see the whole garden at one time, and how much they were able to get out of a small piece of ground. On his return from Tokyo, Dr. Dow was filled with new ideas for his Gardens.
Alden Dow also came home with a fresh focus on what he wanted to be. He had been in college working on an engineering degree with the idea that one day he would work alongside his brother Willard, running The Dow Chemical Company. That was out of the question now. Alden Dow wanted to imitate Frank Lloyd Wright, who had designed the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo.
On his return to Midland, Alden Dow told his father that he wanted to be an architect and planned to enroll at Columbia University. His father, who had wanted to be an architect himself when he graduated from high school, agreed to his son dropping the engineering degree and becoming an architect.
In her eight-page “History of Dow Gardens to 1987,” Amy Hurlbert wrote, “The Gardens were in limbo until around 1973, when they underwent major changes.” Hurlbert didn’t give any clues of how long the Gardens had been in “limbo.” But the Gardens were being written about by various publications and newspapers enough that in 1969, Alden Dow wrote a letter to friend Derwin Bass, complaining about the articles that were being written about the Gardens.
Unfortunately, rumors had circulated that Paul Tonow had designed the Dow Gardens. This myth was pervasive enough that Alden Dow was looking for a way to put an end to it.
Part of Alden’s letter to Bass read, “I believe that it was in 1925 when Father hired him (Mr. Tonow) to come back to Midland for the summer and show anyone interested the variety of things they might do with their backyard. The Garden Club offered prizes and Mr. Tonow did much to stimulate interest in the development of backyards in general in Midland, However, during this time he did NO WORK FOR OR IN THE DOW GARDENS. This was strictly the hand of my father and Elzie Cote who got the work done.”
Alden ended his letter with, “I think this garden is a most interesting side of my father’s character and it annoys me terribly to see publications ignoring the fact that he was a great artist in this field. Now, can you tell me how to stop all these publications which stress he bought his surroundings ready-made?”
Major changes to the Gardens came about with the hiring of Chapman. Red bridges designed by Alden Dow were installed in the Gardens. In 1979, the stone bridge that Dr. Dow had designed was torn down, and a new white bridge was put in its place. In 1977, an Information Center was built, and in 1983, it had to be enlarged.
Programs for children began. Summer interns were introduced and continue today. And the 21st century has seen the Whiting Forest, with its fabulous canopy walk, become an extension of the Gardens.
Steve Mannheimer of the Indianapolis Star said it best: “Visitors to Dow Gardens lose the smells and the sounds of the Midwest – burgers, fries and traffic – to find a vision of nature perfected. The back door of Eden has been opened.”