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historic photo of Genevieve Gillette

Genevieve Gillette: A champion for state parks

Genevieve Gillette, born in Lansing in May 1898, was a trailblazing landscape architect who spent her life trying to expand Michigan’s state parks system.

Raised on a farm, Gillette enjoyed a close relationship with nature from a young age. When it came time to enroll in college, Gillette did not have many choices. At the time, women mostly studied home economics and other disciplines that made them “good wives.” Yet, Genevieve was not interested in these topics. In college, her professors suggested she enroll in agriculture and chemistry classes, and so she enrolled in an agriculture course at Michigan Agricultural College in 1916. 

Gillette was invited by the course instructor to take a botany exam to join the botany honor society. She didn’t think she could pass, but scored a 95, and was admitted into the society, which was composed of people significantly older than herself. Gillette graduated from Michigan Agricultural College in 1920, becoming the first female landscape architect in the state. 

After graduation, Gillette accepted an offer from the famous landscape architect Jen Jensen in Chicago. Being paid $25 a week, she was relegated to answering phone calls. However, Gillette was involved with the Friends of the Native Landscape and accompanied them on their surveys of possible parklands in the two years she was working at the firm. Jensen even encouraged her to consider getting involved with the state parks system in Michigan.

At the time, P.J. Hoffmaster was appointed as the first superintendent of state parks in Michigan. Gillette met Hoffmaster through a mutual friend. Hoffmaster relied on Gillette’s expertise and advice, as a volunteer. She contributed to establishing some of the earliest state parks, including those at Hartwick Pines and Ludington. Hoffmaster especially relied on Gillette’s detailed reports and thorough research in his quest for an expansive Michigan state parks system. 

As instrumental in helping set up parks as she was, Gillette continued her work as a landscape architect. She undertook landscaping projects for the Detroit Parks and Recreation Department and the West Acres Housing Project, located near Pontiac, as well as the city of Lakeland in Florida. Some of her larger commissions included Ferris State University, the Starr Commonwealth for Boys and Albion College. 

Hoffmaster’s sudden death in 1951 took Gillette by surprise. She took it upon herself to be the champion of the parks system after Hoffmaster and began working with other active citizens and conservation groups to bring attention to the state of the parks system.

Gillette traveled the length and breadth of the state in her efforts to mobilize public opinion to save parks. She was at the forefront of citizens’ activism during the Porcupine Mountains mining controversy in the 1950s and founded the Michigan Parks Association.

In 1969, Gillette, along with the Michigan Parks Association, began a lobbying effort in the Michigan Legislature to pass a $100 million bond to rebuild the parks system over a decade. The successful passage of the bond issue bolstered her efforts and passion. Gillette also was involved in the effort to create the state’s motor vehicle permit, an early form of the Recreation Passport, to secure more funding for state parks. She went on to serve on President Lyndon Johnson’s Citizens’ Advisory Committee on Recreation and Natural Beauty. 

In 1976, Gov. William Milliken dedicated the E. Genevieve Gillette Nature Center at Hoffmaster State Park as a tribute. When she died in 1986, tributes poured in. The Detroit Free Press called her “a saving angel to Michigan’s natural beauty.”