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In The Beginning

In The Beginning (1966-1970)

Excerpts From a History Written by Kelly M. Paulson in 2001 as Her Honors Project

Optimism and a sense of common, lofty goals for a field station characterized the early years surrounding the acquisition of Ordway. The newly emerging field of ecology and the realization that land preservation is important coincided with a generous gift from Katharine Ordway, making the initial land purchase possible, as well as providing for a healthy endowment to keep the area running. The Biology department and Macalester College as a whole believed in the necessity and utility of such a natural history area, for students from Macalester, other ACTC schools, and local elementary and secondary schools. The area was also considered useful for research.

An Early Proposal

Although some sources say that Macalester was hunting for a field station since the 1950’s, the first tangible and dated evidence of Macalester’s desire to do so is “A Proposal to the Charles F. Kettering Foundation for a Field Biology Laboratory for Macalester College,” from 21 November 1966. This five-page proposal aims to secure funding for a field station, and begins by citing the growing need for ecology and environmental study, especially in a college in a metro area. Then it hints that “the college now, fortunately, has an opportunity to purchase 278 acres of land that meet all the needs of a field biology laboratory,” and goes on to describe the unique habitats which characterize this site.


It is not every day an institution has an opportunity to buy such a vast acreage with such a variety of ecotypes, so the hopes for a field station were not easily dashed. Before the Kettering proposal was complete, John W. Seale, the College’s General Secretary, had already spoken with Richard Ordway, the brother of Katharine Ordway and a trustee at Macalester. A letter from Seale states that Richard had asked his sister if she [Katharine Ordway] would make a gift to Macalester, and she indicated that she would. He further stated that he was going to write to her that evening and tell her that President [Harvey] Rice and Al Cole [on the Executive Committee of the Reader’s Digest Association] would be in touch with her about a gift possibility…Dr. Rice wrote to her at once.

In fact, President Rice wrote to Miss Ordway that very day. Evidently, his letter was effective, since less than a year later President Harvey M. Rice was writing to Miss Ordway at a hotel in Tucson, this time to thank her “very, very much” for her offer of $150,000 to purchase 275 acres of land. According to this correspondence, it appears that Ordway had agreed to send $5,000 immediately in order to get an option on the land “and set the necessary steps in motion to purchase it and plan the steps for its use as soon as we can obtain it.”

On 13 February 1967, a memo from President Rice landed on the desks of Dr. Edwin J. Robinson, Jr. (Biology Department Chair), Mr. John Dozier (VP of Financial Affairs at Macalester), Dr. Lucius Garvin (Executive VP of Macalester), Dr. L. Daniel Frenzel, Jr. (Biology), and Professor James Albert Jones (Biology). This memo made known Katharine Ordway’s grant to Macalester to purchase land for a field station. The land, Rice said, had been selected by members of the Biology Department as suitable for its laboratory and conservation potential; President Rice called the budding field station a “great new facility” and even signed the memo in purple pen; clearly the mood of the day (if the color of ink is an appropriate indication) was excitement and anticipation.

Less than two months later, on 3 April 1967, a deed was transferred from J.W. and Ruth E. Hulme to Macalester College. This represented the birth of Macalester’s 276-acre natural history area. Thanks to the $150,000 gift from Katharine Ordway and a later matching donation by DeWitt and Lila Wallace (DeWitt of Reader’s Digest fortune), plus about $4,500 from Thomas Savage (the son of Louise Savage, whose father had been a trustee at Macalester and was of the Cochran family, another big donor family and namesake of Cochran Lounge in the recently demolished Student Union), the area had the funds and endowment that it needed according to the original proposal to the Kettering Foundation.

The Wallace donation was part of a larger College fundraising campaign known as the “Challenge Campaign,” which began in 1963 when DeWitt and Lila offered Macalester $10 million if Macalester could raise an equal amount in ten years. In fact, President Robinson was able to announce the campaign’s successful end over a year early—in less than nine years they had come up with $10,048,751 from 10,858 alumni and friends of the college. Thanks to the nearly $40 million ultimately raised by this campaign (including matching funds), Macalester built a dozen new major buildings on campus (including Olin and Rice, the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center, the stadium, the chapel, and others) and Robinson, obviously touched by the spirit of giving, said at the campaign celebration “the academic program is richer by…a host of supporting facilities and programs from the 280-acre Katharine Ordway Natural History Study Area along the Mississippi River.” Everything was coming up roses for Macalester, and for Ordway by extension, in those first years.

Gratitude and Naming

President Rice wrote to Katharine Ordway on 12 May 1967, thanking her profusely for her “wonderful gift of 500 shares of Minnesota Mining stock.” Rice goes on to overuse the adjective “wonderful,” which ultimately becomes a bit patronizing. The letter closes by asking Ordway if the college might name “this wonderful acquisition the Katharine Ordway Field Laboratory of Macalester College?” Evidently the usually shy and self-effacing Katharine Ordway decided to allow the land to be christened in her honor, since on 6 June 1967 President Rice wrote to Katharine Ordway thanking her for her letter (of 1 June) in which she had indicated

that we may give your name to our wonderful outdoor biology and conservation area which you have made possible for us! We shall call it the Katharine Ordway Natural History Study Area of Macalester College. This will give it a distinction and a definition, and at the same time an identification that I hope will be as pleasing to you as it has to us.

First-Year Usage

Despite the aforementioned disputes over how to run Ordway, Biology Professor Dr. James Albert Jones was named the first Director of Ordway. In the spring of 1967, even before the final boundaries and purchase arrangements had been made, there were about 85 Introductory Biology students using Ordway for lab studies. In the summer of 1967, two seniors carried out independent research projects on River Lake. During the 1967-68 academic year, over 770 Macalester students alone passed through KONHSA, in Introductory Biology labs, Field Zoology, Botany, Ecology, or as independent researchers. It is also quite indicative of the enthusiasm and initiative of faculty and students regarding the potential of Ordway, and it is certainly impressive that E.J. Robinson’s press-worthy prediction of 350 students a year was more than doubled in the first year.

The first person to move into the Ordway building and the Resident Naturalist position was a Biology instructor by the name of Miss Joan A. Sims.

One imagines that enthusiasm and utilization of the area must have been high those first years, probably thanks to its novelty (and the relative novelty of ecology as a discipline) and the publicity Ordway received. Also in 1969, Ordway hosted elementary teachers for a summer institute in field biology. Jones’s report also mentioned that the field station was received with interest and favor in Inver Grove Heights—from groups as diverse as the PTA, bird-watching clubs, and Boy Scout troops.