Published Together: Honoring Emma Jane Cole's legacy during Women's History Month and beyond

In January 2022, the Grand Rapids City Commission adopted a new five-year update for its Parks and Recreation Strategic Master Plan. Developed in conjunction with departments across city government, and with participation by a large number of local organizations and community members, the plan includes many goals and strategies.

As part of the process, four parks, within each ward of the city, with varying qualities, demands and infrastructure, were selected to undergo a master planning process. Among these “Priority Parks” was Ball-Perkins Park, a large, under-developed site with need for greater public access, located on the northeast side between Ball Avenue and Perkins Avenue, south of Knapp Street and north of Leonard Street.

The stated goal for selecting this Park for master planning was to balance the demand for active recreation and environmental preservation.

It is this second goal that led a group of neighbors, environmentalists and local historians to suggest that the park be named in honor of 19th century Grand Rapids botanist Emma J. Cole. 

In 1901, Emma Jane Cole (1845-1910) published "Grand Rapids Flora," a catalogue of the plants growing without cultivation throughout Kent County. She was a teacher of botany at Central High School and curator of the herbarium at the Kent Scientific Institute, forerunner of today’s Grand Rapids Public Museum. She attended Cornell College in New York in 1876, only a few years after they began admitting women.

Emma Cole collected and preserved plant material for her project from 1892-1899, often traveling to the far reaches of the area by horse and buggy and assisted by her students at Central. She compiled a thorough record of plant species within 16 townships, comprising 585 square miles. It remains the only complete flora of the area ever created.

She was assisted in her research and publication by some of the most renowned botanists in the country, including staff at the Gray Herbarium of Harvard University and from Michigan Agricultural College — now Michigan State University. Cole became one of the most popular teachers at Central and a mentor to many students who went on to distinguished careers in botany and other scientific fields.

She was elected a vice president of the Kent Scientific Institute. She was one of the first women active there, was paid for collecting specimens for their herbarium, and became the first person paid for any activity by the Institute.

When her book was completed, Cole continued her studies, traveling all over the U.S., Europe, Mexico and even to Cuba, collaborating with well-known scientists, including Charles Sargent, director of the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University.

Sargent, an internationally recognized expert on trees, named a species of hawthorn for her, Crataegus coleae. He wrote in an article in which the species was first described — “It is a pleasure to associate with this handsome shrub the name of its discoverer, Miss Emma J. Cole of Grand Rapids, Michigan, the author of 'The Grand Rapids Flora,' and a careful and industrious student of the plants of central Michigan, where she has made a number of other important discoveries.”

Sargent visited Grand Rapids several times to follow up on interesting trees Cole had come across and they maintained an active correspondence.

Photo by John Stivers.

When she died, Emma Cole left several significant bequests to benefit the city of Grand Rapids and the study of botany. She left funds for scientific equipment at Central High School and endowed a scholarship in botany at the University of Michigan, a fellowship that is still awarded annually.

She also established a fund for annual flower services at nine downtown Grand Rapids churches, which were held until 1967.

Charles Garfield — a significant figure in the city’s history and to whom the recent "History of Grand Rapids Parks" book is dedicated — spoke frequently at the flower services. In 1934 he wrote in the church bulletin — "[Emma Cole] saw the ruthless destruction of the beauty given us in the wealth of Nature's productions and felt that there was a spiritual significance connected with the responsibility of mankind to maintain the delicately beautiful things so generously placed in our hands for the continuance of the attractiveness of our planet."

Garfield was described in the "Parks" history book as the person who “did more than any other person to shape the course of the physical city [of Grand Rapids] over the forty-year span from 1894 to 1934.”

Emma Cole’s influence has reached well into the 21st century. Her herbarium specimens collected for her book and for the collections of the Kent Scientific Institute, numbering more than 4,000, are now housed at the University of Michigan herbarium, where they are considered a valuable historical resource for students, faculty, researchers and other scientists.

Dr. Edward G. Voss and author Julie Stivers, at the University of Michigan Herbarium, 2005. Photo by John Stivers.In an editor’s footnote to a posthumously published article by Emma Cole in the Michigan Botanist magazine, the late Dr. Edward G. Voss, director of the University of Michigan herbarium, author of the three-volume "Michigan Flora" and internationally respected botanist, noted that “Miss Emma J. Cole [was the] author of the remarkably fine "Grand Rapids Flora" [and] influenced a large number of people in the study of botany.”

Cole has been regularly recognized in exhibits and events honoring significant Grand Rapids historical figures and, in 2007, was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame.

In 2014, the Calvin College botany department began a project to revisit Emma Cole’s collecting sites throughout the county and create a retrospective assessment of the flora they found there.

An article about the project, authored by Dr. Garrett Crow, appeared in the scholarly journal The Great Lakes Botanist in July 2017 and a biographical article about Cole by Dr. Crow and Julie Stivers in the December 2018 issue.

In the January 2019 issue, project participants reported on several sites they inventoried, one of which was Ball-Perkins Park. Dr. Crow and two students visited the area in the summer of 2016 as a study site because they were particularly interested in two species of plants, Goldseal and Green Violet, that were collected in 1892 by Elsie Lowes and included in Emma Cole’s "Grand Rapids Flora."

Ms. Lowes’ family farm — in then Grand Rapids Township — was called Lowes’ Woods, part of which is included in the Ball-Perkins Park boundaries. The two plants are now considered RARE for Michigan, a designation that indicates they are worthy of protection. They were not able to locate the plants, but continue to revisit the park to look for them.

As a result of the Great Lakes Botanist articles, the Biodiversity Heritage Library, an international consortium of natural history and botanical libraries headquartered at the Smithsonian Institution, featured Emma Cole in a March 2019 campaign to highlight Women in Natural History.

It is time to honor Emma J. Cole by putting her name on this valuable piece of open land preserved for the enjoyment of the people of Grand Rapids. 

Julie Stivers and Dr. Garrett Crow will give a program about Emma Cole Thursday, March 10, hosted by the Lowell Area Historical Museum and the Friends of the Englehardt Library in honor of Women’s History Month. The program begins at 1:00 p.m. at the Lowell Township Hall, 2910 Alden Nash SE, and is free and open to the public.
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