Genevieve Gillette: First lady of Michigan state parks

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Michigan’s first female landscape architect was a key figure in the design and development of state parks.

Genevieve Gillette was born in Lansing in May 1898 and 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. She did not have many choices in college as women mostly studied home economics and other disciplines that made them “good wives.”

Since these options did not interest Gillette she enrolled in an agriculture course at Michigan Agricultural College in 1916. Gillette was invited by the course instructor to take a botany exam which she scored a 95 on and was admitted to join the botany honor society. She 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. She was paid $25 a week and only allowed to answer phone calls.

Gillette was also involved with the Friends of the Native Landscape and accompanied them on their surveys of possible parklands. In two years she was working at the firm and 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 where she contributed to establishing some of the earliest state parks like 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. 

After Hoffmaster’s passed away in 1951, Gillette took it upon herself to be the champion of the parks system 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.

With the Michigan Parks Association, she began a lobbying effort in 1969 for 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.

Genevieve Gillette passed away in 1986, but it was her last wish that money from her estate be used to purchase ecologically significant property near Rogers City in Presque Isle County. Thompson’s Harbor State Park is Genevieve Gillette’s last gift to the people of Michigan.

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