Local History
1:13 pm
Mon August 6, 2012

Liberty Hyde Bailey: The famous Michigander you might not know about

Horticulture is defined as the science or art of growing fruit, vegetables, and other plants. Even though horticulture is smaller scale farming than agriculture, it helps feed people around the world. Liberty Hyde Bailey, considered the Father of Horticulture, was born in South Haven, Michigan. 

Despite the fact that he wrote, edited, and co-authored over 600 articles and journals on horticulture, Bailey is not well known in Michigan today. His legacy is waiting to be rediscovered at the homestead where he was born—also known as the Liberty Hyde Bailey Museum

The farmhouse, graced by four masonic arches, endures quietly on M43 in South Haven. It used to be surrounded by 80 acres of apple, peach and pear orchards. Inside are three rooms filled with artifacts and the stories that go with them, and a library room filled with Bailey's books. Outside, you can walk among wide variety of flowers and vegetables planted around the museum, including a bed of pink dianthus.

When Bailey's mother died when he was four, the young Bailey took over caring for the dianthus. Museum director John Stempien believes this started him on the path to horticulture.

"Bailey Jr kept on tending those pinks," Stempien says. "And I feel, through that loss and grief of losing his mother, that was then, somehow, taken care of through tending these strange little weedy flowers in the front yard."

Bailey chose a field that wasn't well respected at the time. His famous mentor, botanist Asa Gray, advised against it.

'"Why are you going into horticulture, it's a dead field! Why are you doing this? It's not a science!" It was looked down upon, it wasn't seen as something real, it's just people in their back yards doing kitchen gardening and planting and there's no science to it," says Stempien. "Bailey thought otherwise. He thought that you need to bring the science out into the field, and you need to bring the farmers into the laboratory."

Bailey took a horticulture position at Michigan Agricultural College, his alma mater. A self-propelled young scholar, Bailey helped revive interest in the work of Gregor Mendel. At the same time, he tried to give struggling farmers a voice in academia and government.

"His idea is that we need to be connected with the land; that it is something that we come from, it's something that we've also become disengaged with," Stempien says. "And he saw the shift happen; he saw a shift happen in his life. He's born in the 1850s, and then as industrialization started coming forth, he saw the trade-off. He knew you could not stop innovation, you couldn't stop progress -- he wasn't a Luddite -- but he knew that you had to be aware of what the tradeoff was gonna be for the new innovation, whatever it was."

The bulk of his career was spent at Cornell University in New York, where he retired in 1913 as Dean of the college of agriculture. At just 55, he was a poet, philosopher, policy maker, educator, administrator, scientist, and collector. There was even talk his running for governor of New York. During his 41 year "retirement," he was a guiding force in the Nature Study movement, which had a philosophy similar to that of "No Child Left Inside" author Richard Louv, encouraging children to explore nature. He went on plant expeditions around the globe, and continued to write and edit countless books and articles. His 1915 book The Holy Earth continues to resonate with today's environmental activists.

"This man from Michigan realized very early on that we live on a planet that's our inheritance," Stempien says. "We need to be responsible for it."

The Liberty Hyde Bailey Museum is open Thursday through Sunday through September. At the museum, there is a new exhibit of Bailey's photography, strikingly transferred from tintypes by Kalamazoo photographer Mary Whalen.