Library of Congress. Ernest Coe sat, walked, and even slept in the Everglades during the years he crusaded for it to become a national park
Connecticut Woodlands Fall 2012
How did Ernest F. Coe evolve from a New Haven landscaper who cultivated exotic plants for Connecticut’s front yards into the man who fought to preserve South Florida?
On December 6, 1947, President Harry S. Truman stood on a palm-decorated podium in the Everglades, the huge marsh that makes up southern Florida. There, he dedicated Everglades National Park. The government would protect part of the land of subtropical orchids, poisonous trees, alligators, crocodiles, mosquitoes, anhingas and other bright-colored birds, and more, from ravenous plant collectors and developers.
Sitting near the podium was Ernest F. Coe, originally of New Haven, Connecticut, a tall, white-haired landscape architect who before his move to Florida had grown and sold trees and plants and designed residential landscapes. Tom Coe, as he was called, and his wife, Anna, had fallen in love with orchids and the other-worldly acres of saw grass accentuated by tree islands. Mrs. Coe had suggested that only a park could stop the ravenous plant collectors from destroying it, and Mr. Coe had spent two decades convincing state and federal authorities to make the park.
“Had it not been for Ernest F. Coe, there would never have been an Everglades National Park,” wrote Horace Albright, who had directed the National Park Service during most of the decade Mr. Coe lobbied the U.S. Congress. The bill establishing the park passed in 1934, and the state of Florida then spent the next 13 years acquiring the land, with Mr. Coe close behind seeking donors.
By the time the park officially opened, Mr. Coe was so angry that the boundaries had shrunk from his original proposal that he almost skipped the ceremony. But he was introduced that day as “the daddy” of the park, to big cheers. For a while, people forgot his frustration that the park did not include areas to the north he deemed crucial for water to supply the habitat of the southern area.
In 1996, a new visitors’ center at the park entrance near Homestead, Florida, was dedicated in his memory. Anyone who visits the Everglades now walks past a plaque with his likeness—and might wonder who Mr. Coe was. He was a man from Connecticut who’d become a deeper conservationist when he’d moved to Florida. He’d mucked through and supposedly slept in the mosquito-clouded lands among the “river of grass,” as journalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas called it.
He’d become a true believer in preserving a natural landscape in ways his Connecticut life quietly foreshadowed. The Everglades was his largest life project. Why did a Connecticut grower of roses, trees, and plants give up landscaping to argue for an alligator-rich marsh? Why did Mr. Coe go to Florida? Originally, because he loved the warm, exotic landscape and hoped he could make money landscaping new houses in the development boom of the 1920s. The boom soon turned bust, though, and within a few years, Mr. Coe began visiting officials in Washington, pressing that the land be preserved.
The tracks Mr. Coe left in Connecticut are faint, but they do offer some clues to his later conservationist bent. Did Connecticut remain the source and the influence on the Father of the Everglades, as he now is known?
Yes and no. Yes, because Mr. Coe had worked for decades in New England recognizing the particularities of exotic plants as he searched the world for specimens he could cultivate in Connecticut. Yes, because Mr. Coe approached his business as a nursery owner in Connecticut with enthusiasm that certainly remained in Florida. But no, because Mr. Coe and Connecticut severed their ties when he left and, as a result, Connecticut has lost hold of a historical figure who cared deeply about landscape.
The Elm City Nursery
It’s been widely reported that Mr. Coe graduated from Yale’s school of fine arts in 1897. He attended classes there for a year, but did not graduate. No formalized landscape architecture programs existed at that time, but a movement was growing to design outdoor domestic spaces with the same care that architects used to design buildings.
Around the beginning of the twentieth century, Mr. Coe established a nursery in what then was the outskirts of New Haven. The Elm City Nursery covered several city blocks on soil Mr. Coe described in the catalogs as a perfect growing habitat. The nursery thrived just beyond a new Yale University athletic field—today’s Yale Bowl. No traces of the nursery exist now.
Although the landscape architecture field was then a new one, Mr. Coe called himself a landscape architect and offered his design services through the nursery’s artfully designed catalogs.
“Our nursery has been built up rapidly from a small beginning,” Mr. Coe, who also was president and treasurer of the nursery, wrote in the 1906 catalog. He counseled his customers to plant trees and shrubs that would endure from year to year and so create a permanent landscape. He described the growing movement of landscaping parks and parkways. “There is now such a great variety available at a well-equipped nursery to select from that the material for no end of charming schemes can be supplied,” he wrote. “This has come about by ransacking the entire world for the many countries’ most beautiful trees and plants. Japan alone furnishes a most fascinating available collection, and all the temperate zones, both north and south, have contributed their full share.”
The words he chose—“ransacking the entire world”—sound odd in light of what happened when the Coes went to Florida. There, he and his wife went on a trip to Cape Sable, an area where orchids thrived in the wild and were so horrified at the ransacking of plants by collectors that they started talking about the necessity of the government protecting the land as a national park. So perhaps the Tom Coe who brought Japanese shrubs to Connecticut changed.
In 1911, Mr. Coe imported bonsai plants from Japan, which he had visited, according to Thomas S. Elias, who wrote a paper, “History of the introduction and establishment of bonsai in the western world. Mr. Coe grew the trees for several years, using cold frames in the winter. Around the time he moved permanently to Florida in 1925, Mr. Coe donated his collection to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The collection is the basis of the public collection of bonsai, one of the oldest, at that institution.
Sometime after 1910, the Coes bought, or had built, a house at 951 Forest Street in New Haven. This house, a short distance from the Elm City Nursery property, still stands across the street from the private Hopkins School in a wooded, hilly area of the city.
The Everglades Quest
Mr. Coe was not the first advocate for Everglades National Park. The National Park Service, established in 1916, first considered making a park out of portions of the Everglades in 1923. Four Floridians carried the torch for this idea, but did not pursue it. Mr. Coe, who took this torch and ran with it, had enthusiastically relocated after visiting by railroad for winter vacations, according to Robert Blythe, who is writing a book about the park’s beginnings. Mr. Coe opened a landscape architecture office near his Coral Gables home, but he did not keep it long because of the development slump that hit around the time he arrived.
Michael Grunwald writes of Mr. Coe in The Swamp (Simon & Schuster, 2006), “Sixty years old and unemployed, with no outlet for his boundless energy, he began sloshing around the Everglades in canvas sneakers, often wrapping himself in a blanket and sleeping in the middle of the marsh. Coe fell madly in love with this ‘great empire of solitude.’”
Mr. Coe, quoted in 1940 in the obituary of his wife, Anna Neumann Coe, credited her with coming up with the idea of preserving the Everglades as a national park. Mrs. Coe was interested in orchids and presided over the Coral Gables Garden Club for years. “At the breakfast table in the spring of 1928, Coe told his wife that a neighbor had invited him to make a trip to the Cape Sable section to collect a truckload of Florida orchid plants. The couple discussed the ravages against the plant by such collectors. Mrs. Coe inquired, “Were the region a national park, would they not be protected?”
The obituary went on: “From that thought grew the idea for a national park. Mr. and Mrs. Coe discussed it for months before presenting the suggestion to authorities in Washington. A national park association was formed and Mrs. Coe was one of its most faithful workers.”
Mr. Coe thought the Everglades was “the Land of the Fountain of Youth.” He started an advocacy group. He persuaded the U.S. Congress to study the Everglades, drew up boundaries for a park, and became the head of a Florida state commission formed to buy the land for the park. This is the way national parks were formed in the settled East. “The blaze that had been lighted in him, the purpose and the power of the idea, would dominate his every moment for the rest of his life,” wrote Ms. Douglas.
Mr. Coe, who had penned brief letters to customers of the Elm City Nursery, now wrote thousands of letters pushing for the Everglades as head of the state commission to acquire the land. Mr. Grunwald said Mr. Coe’s “moral fervor alienated as often as it persuaded, especially in frontier towns like Chokoloskee and Everglades City.”
In all the thousands of letters he wrote, Mr. Blythe said, Mr. Coe never mentioned anything about his work in Connecticut, or the Connecticut landscape. His past did not consciously turn the gears of the Father of the Everglades’s brain. But he was still much engaged with the north. Every summer, Mr. Blythe said, Mr. Coe drove to Rhode Island for vacations on a family compound. Between 1928 and 1934, he also stopped in Washington, D.C., to confer with officials about the park proposal.
Fish Out of Water
Mr. Blythe said Floridians didn’t know what to do with Mr. Coe’s brand of enthusiasm. “He was admirable and high principled and stubborn,” Mr. Blythe said in an interview. “He had this patrician New England manner, and when he got in with the good old boys in Tallahassee, there was a culture clash. When I was in the state archives, I came across this letter; the governor of Florida wrote to his aide and said, ‘I spent a half hour with Mr. Coe; he gives me the jim-jams.’”
Mr. Coe had another plan in mind besides just a park. Mr. Blythe said some thought Mr. Coe would be hired to design a landscape for the park, and that he had sketched a “landscaped parkway” that, if built, would have disturbed the flow of water and would have ruined the ecosystem.
“U.S. 1 runs from Miami down to the [Florida] Keys,” Mr. Blythe noted. “His landscaped road would leave 1 somewhere south of Homestead, line the coast, and go back up the Gulf Coast to Everglade City. It would have been disastrous, because you would have had to bring in fill to have anything to build the road on, because it’s all marsh.”
It’s an amazing thought that Mr. Coe—who threw a tantrum when areas that would provide more water to the park had been initially left out of the boundaries north of the park—dreamed of building a road around the land where this water met the ocean.
The parkway never came to be. And Mr. Coe, who headed the first state commission to buy land for the park in the 1930s, found himself pushed out of that job several years before it finally all came together in a smaller park.
Mr. Coe had threatened not to attend the 1947 Everglades National Park dedication, but he changed his mind. He must have been happy at the cheers that greeted him there. The next year, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society awarded him its George Robert White Medal of Honor for his work to establish Everglades National Park. The Massachusetts society described itself as the “largest and most active horticultural organization in the United States.”
To those who only know Mr. Coe in Florida, his life seemed to coalesce around one goal: preserving the unique habitat of South Florida. That life started in Connecticut, where Ernest F. Coe promoted the act of designing the home landscape using plants. The president of the Elm City Nursery counseled people to change their landscapes using plants from far away. The Father of the Everglades eventually learned that the natural landscape sometimes tells you otherwise.
He grew and changed in the land of alligators and poisonous trees. He learned a deeper respect for the natural landscape. That lesson was hard-won, through arguments and disappointments. Let’s take what Ernest F. Coe learned in Florida and bring those lessons to bear in his home state.
About This Article
In October 2011, I co-led a tour of Everglades National Park for the Society of Environmental Journalists. David Fleschler and I visited the park ahead of our colleagues and during all of the planning, I read that the Ernest F. Coe Visitors’ Center was named after the man from Connecticut who had championed the park’s establishment starting in the 1920s. Connecticut? Where I live and thought I knew every major conservation personality? I had never heard of Ernest F. Coe. But I learned that he had run a successful landscape architecture and nursery business in New Haven for many years. And that began my research. I found traces of his life in New Haven, as you see in the article. I owe a special thanks to Robert Blythe, who is writing a book about the park, and who generously shared Anna Coe’s obituary and other articles.