WAYNE, NJ – The Friends of Laurelwood are celebrating the 70th year of Laurelwood’s founding this Saturday night at the Festival of Friends fundraiser held at Laurelwood Arboretum in the Knippenberg Center for Education.
Laurelwood, The Beginning
“In 1949, when Dorothy and john Knippenberg first created this wonderful place, it was called Laurelwood Gardens and was a commercial plant nursery,” said Elaine Fogerty, the Executive Director at Laurelwood.
Nancy Fadynich became a founding member of the Friends of Laurelwood, a non-profit organization that partners with the Township of Wayne to maintain the now public park. “I bought a lot of plants from her,” said Fadynich, adding: “Some of them are still alive today: fifty years old. A lot of plants around Pine Lake came from Dorothy’s nursery.”
“Dorothy went to the Pratt institute and she was a designer. Her and John owned a lot of property around here and she took this part and started working on it,” said Fadynich. “Using her creative design, it turned into a rhododendron hybridizing spot. She grew azaleas. She was selling to all kinds of different companies all around. She is still well known in the rhododendron organizations around the world.”
Fadynich speaks fondly of Dorothy and in her tone, you can sense the respect she has for her. “She always had a vision. She would always be with a piece of paper. She’d be looking and saying, ‘I think that bush needs to come down. Its out of scale. It’s way out of scale. Or, ‘I think that needs a little white in that garden’. She was the artist and Laurelwood was her canvas, and I think it’s being kept up in her vision. That’s why I’m still here,” Fadynich said with a laugh. “To make sure.”
It was over the course of fifteen to twenty years that Dorothy changed the commercial nursery into the Arboretum it is today.
“John and Dorothy never had children, so they worried about the future of their property,” said Fogerty. "So, they’d given the garden to Wayne with life rights to continue to garden here and, on their deaths, the property would turn over to the township. They really had this property in the public interest and started cutting back on the production of Rhododendrons and began turning this into beautiful gardens. As I go around here and see the plantings, you can see gorgeous placements of plants. Dorothy would find the latest and greatest in the plant world and bring them here. She had quite a good eye for landscape design.”
A lot of the lawn areas that you now see in Laurelwood were former fields of Rhododendrons that were planted out. “There were thousands of them before Dorothy began cutting back,” said Fogerty.
The birth of the Friends of Laurelwood.
Fadynich remembered talking to the Mayor of Wayne when Dorothy was in her nineties. “I asked him: ‘Would this place remain secure as Dorothy’s Arboretum? And, he said to me: ‘Nothing is secure.’ And I was distraught because Dorothy’s husband, John had passed at the time and Dorothy was alone, and she was doing this all herself.”
She went home and spoke with her husband, saying: “We have to do something. We have to secure it from greedy hands and people and money.” Fadynich held a meeting in her home and those that gathered became the original board of the Friends of Laurelwood. “My husband was President,” said Fadynich. “I was the Treasurer, and somebody came to my door and said, ‘I understand there’s a meeting.’ And, he became the Vice President. It was very small in the beginning and it grew and grew, and here we are.”
Dorothy Knippenberg passed away in 1996. “I think, probably, two days before she died,” said Fadynich. “I was sitting with her on her balcony overlooking the Arboretum and I said to her, ‘Dorothy, I see light at the end of the tunnel. I think it’s going to be okay, everything is going to work out with the town and your garden will be preserved.’ And, she died two days later.”
Fadynich spoke of Dorothy’s last experiences with Laurelwood: “In the time before her death, Dorothy would get in her car, and one of her workmen would drive her around the gardens and she would look around and loved it. She was always involved up to the end. If we had a plant sale, she would come down in her wheelchair and be with us.”
“Dorothy would look into a flower and see the magic of that flower; the wonderment of that flower. At ninety-five, she still was looking and seeing that wonder.” You can hear the wonder in Fadynich’s voice as she spoke these words.
“People come here and are amazed. Because it is so welcoming and not so contrived. Nothing is in rows and boxes. It flows and has nature’s feel to it. The town didn’t know what they were getting, but it worked out because friends of Laurelwood have taken over the responsibilities and they are keeping Dorothy’s vision alive,” finished Fadynich.
The Festival of Friends is this Saturday evening from 5:00pm – 7:30pm, please visit the Laurelwood website for more information on the event, raffle prizes and other ways to donate to help keep Dorothy Knippenberg’s vision alive.