The Cultivated Beauty of Cantigny Gardens

The Great Irony

“I felt a curious thrill, as if something had stirred in me, half wakened from sleep.  There was something very remote and strange and beautiful behind these words, if I could grasp it, far beyond ancient English.” – J.R.R. Tolkein – English Author, (1892-1973)

Can beauty be drawn out of the repulsive battlefields of the dreariest wars the world has ever known?

Can a country that was founded to end aristocratic rule produce aristocrats?

Can enemies on opposites sides of a battlefield work to achieve the same goal?

How can the Garden be designed and natural at the same time?

While walking the grounds of Cantigny I have been asking myself these questions. How can the same horror of The Great War that inflicted carnage and destruction upon millions of people around the world also inadvertently produce the sublime garden which is named after one of the Battles?  How can two men who fought for opposing countries be woven together in the tapestry of life to produce something so beautiful that even the most amateurish eye can see that it needs to be preserved for posterity? Is the aristocracy evil?  Without accumulated wealth, this place could certainly not have existed.  These are the questions that tickled my curious mind as I strolled through stunning gardens on a perfect day.

The Battle of Cantigny

“We live in a trench and it is a mercy it don’t rain otherwise we’d be washed away. The fighting just lately has been terrible. Our shells knock the enemy all ways and the sight in the trenches that we take is awful. We wear our respirators because of the awful smell of the dead. I’ll never get the sight out of my eyes, and it will be an everlasting nightmare. If I am spared to come home, I’ll be able to tell you all about it, but I cannot possibly write as words fail me. I can’t describe things.”  –  Thomas Harold Watts – British Soldier, (1884 – 1953)

Cantigny (73 of 89)

The Battle of Cantigny was fought on May 28th, 1918 between the combined forces of French and American troops against the German forces that occupied the village of Cantigny in Northwest France.  The battle was the first major battle in which the Americans fought.  Colonel Robert Rutherford McCormick (1880 – 1955) commanded the 1st Battalion, 5th Field Artillery Regiment (nicknamed Hamilton’s own after Alexander Hamilton).    The Americans took the village of Cantigny and General John J. Pershing gave the order that not one inch of ground would be surrendered to the impending German counteract.  3000 men from all sides were either killed or wounded fighting over a scrap of land that they probably never had any knowledge of before the war.

500 Meter Aerial View of devastation of artillery at Battle of Cantigny


This was the first major engagement of the war for the Americans, this proved to the French that the Americans could be counted upon to hold the line, and to the Germans that Americans were willing to go on the offensive and be stubborn in their defense. Colonel McCormick received the Distinguished Service Metal for his efforts at Cantigny.

From Plow to Patrician

“Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from a corn field.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower – 34th President of the United States, (1890 – 1969).

Cantigny (32 of 89)
Robert R. McCormick Muesum
Cantigny (31 of 89)
East Lawn Terraces
Cantigny (30 of 89)
South Pool

The United States of America does not have an official aristocracy, such as the Ancien Régime  that ruled over France until the the Terror of the French Revolution guillotined most of the lords, or a House of Lords that is found in the United Kingdom that was completely gelded through a series of reforms during the  20th century that resulted in the same loss of power, yet not the same loss of life.   But, the United States does have an unofficial aristocracy in which one does not find admittance through traceable bloodlines, but through an exquisitely large bank account.  In a county that has no aristocrats came a man that was both aristocratic in bearing and wealth.

The McCormick family became one of America’s wealthiest families through the  invention of the McCormick reaper by the Patriarch Robert McCormick, Jr. (1780 – 1848).  This invention would be later patented by his son Cyrus McCormick (1809 – 1884).  Cyrus McCormick founded the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company which grew and eventually became International Harvester Company.  At the time of his death, he had a net worth of $11 million dollars ($253 million today) or the equivalent of 1/1072nd of GDP of the USA.  The family’s wealth grew through subsequent generations.

Robert Rutherford McCormick (1880 – 1955) was born to parents who both came from wealthy families.  His father Robert Sanderson McCormick (1849 – 1919) was a distinguished diplomat that served as Ambassador to the Austria-Hungary Empire in 1902, and was later appointed as Ambassador to the Russian Empire.  His maternal grandfather was Joseph Medill (1823 – 1899) who was Mayor of Chicago from 1871-1873, and owner of the Chicago Tribune.  In 1911 the Tribune needed a new publisher.  McCormick was a staunch Republican and anti-socialist which made him qualified to take the helm of his families legacy.

Cantigny (66 of 89)

As the Publisher of the Tribune, he spearheaded the resistance to Franklin Roosevelt’s new deal.  “Of course you know who Col. R.R. McCormick, Editor of the Chicago Tribune is and you know he is a partisan Republican and one who never misses an opportunity to skin the Democrats” wrote the Democratic National Committee Chairman James A. Farley to Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was known to be cold, aloof, and pugnacious.  He was seen to be dogmatic in his view of Isolationism, he deeply adhered the advice of George Washington to keep America out of foreign involvements, and he saw the destruction of war first hand.  His death was the end of any major Republican activity in the City of Chicago.

But, McCormick was not only interested in the art of slaying Democrats, he also was keenly interested in agriculture.  He established a experimental farm at his estate in Wheaton, IL in which he called his “laboratory” with an intent to be able to help improve the lives of the family farms that were so common in that time.  To celebrate and inform the public about the successes he made, he ran a weekly column in the Chicago Tribune called “Day by Day Stories of the Experimental Farm.”  On his death his will created the McCormick Foundation to preserve the estate “in perpetuity.”

Cantigny (3 of 89)

Cantigny (6 of 89)
Exedra – Resting place of Robert R. McCormick and Amy McCormick
Cantigny Plaque (1 of 1)
Exedra Plaque

From Prison to Prarie

“What is a weed?” A plant whose virtues have not been discovered.” Ralph Waldo Emerson – American Philosopher, (1803 – 1882)

Cantigny (15 of 89)
Idea Garden

Cantigny (10 of 89)Cantigny (12 of 89)Cantigny (11 of 89)

After the death of Colonel McCormick, the Board of Directors of the McCormick Foundation hired Franz Lipp (1897 – 1996) to change the focus of Cantigny from agriculture to horticulture.  Lipp was born in Leipzig, Germany in 1897.  He joined the German Merchant Marine, and was captured off the coast of Australia during the war.  It was in this time period that Lipp first learned about horticulture from other German detainees.  After the war he studied in Potsdam, then emigrated to the US to study at Harvard University Arnold Arboretum.

Lipp was drawn to Chicago by his admiration of the work landscape Architect Jens Jensen (1860 – 1961) who was famed for his Prairie style.  Franz Lipp would build on the foundation that Jensen established.

Construction of the gardens started in 1967 and were completed in 1977.  Lipp had many important designs over his long career, but Cantigny Gardens with its stunning naturalistic look is his magnum opus.  Lipp would continue to visit Cantigny until his death in 1996.

Cantigny (21 of 89)
Pergola West of the Rose Garden

Cantigny (20 of 89)Cantigny (18 of 89)

Cantigny Gardens is free to enter.  I highly recommend visitors who are in the area to visit the very serene sanctuary.

Even the turkeys enjoy Cantigny!


U.S. Troops Score Victory at Cantigny. 2009. Web. August 24, 2017

Cathy Jean Mahony. 2008. Chicago Gardens: The Early Years.


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