“The Lady Who Saved The Prairies”–And Her Brother

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

Katharine Ordway was born 3 April 1899 to Lucius Pond and Jessie Gilman Ordway. She was their only daughter, and the second youngest of five children. At the time of her birth, her 37-year old father was already on his way to fortune working for a plumbing and heating firm, of which he eventually became President. By 1905, he was nearly a millionaire. Together with a friend, he bought sixty percent of the stock of a struggling mining company, Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (now more commonly known as 3M), which went on to multiply his millions.

Growing up in St. Paul, MN, Katharine enjoyed the sea of tallgrass prairie that still existed at that time, and was saddened to watch the prairie slowly disappear over her lifetime. She attended the University of Minnesota, and graduated cum laude with degrees in Botany and Art. Katharine Ordway also attended Yale Medical School before dropping the idea of a medical career. Later in her life, she went to Columbia University to study biology and land-use planning. Her studies are early indications of her interests in ecology and land conservation.

When her father died in 1948, she and her four brothers, including Richard Ordway, were left an $18.8 million estate. Finally, in her 50’s and 60’s, she had the resources to reinforce her beliefs in land protection, and eventually became one of the greatest private contributors to natural area conservation in American history, second only to John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Katharine was described by a friend as a quiet, delicate woman—“a bird fallen out of the nest.” She was a reserved woman, and modest: the fact that she was the donor who helped the Nature Conservancy purchase the large Konza Prairie reserve in Kansas was not revealed until after her death. Katharine Ordway donated money that ultimately helped to save over 31,000 acres of Great Plains prairies (as well as land in other parts of the country). Alexander Hill, who knows the Ordway family quite well, said that Katharine Ordway was a very “forward-looking person” with respect to her early sense of need for land preservation. According to Christman’s understanding, she was quite frail and weak towards the end of her life, when she came to visit her namesake in Minnesota. She died in 1979.