Bickelhaupt Arboretum History

Bickelhaupt Arboretum is as close to a Field of Dreams story as one might ever get in real life, and it’s a really good story.

"The first question, you might ask, is how two people without formal education or training in horticulture got started on a project as large and as complex as starting an arboretum." -- Opening words in Frances Bickelhaupt’s book A Private Couple Creates a Public Garden.

"How this man, who once decorated his indoor swimming pool with $200 in artificial plants, became the zealous owner of an arboretum is a story that begins with walking." -- The Iowan Magazine, spring 1982:

Francie Hill talks about the history of her family and the Arboretum
KWQC-TV/Fran Riley News Story

The story is about Bob and Frances Bickelhaupt, retirees who were avid walkers, traversing nearly every hill and corner of their beloved hometown of Clinton, Iowa. In the 1960s, Dutch Elm Disease began to destroy the beloved trees they enjoyed while on their many walks.

With little to no horticulture knowledge of their own, they decided to not let that deter them, that the devastation of Dutch Elm Disease demanded action. Their response was to create an educational arboretum in their own backyard to share with the community.

That’s right, in their own backyard. They continued to live in their home on the property for many years to come after the arboretum opened. The house is now used as the offices and classroom spaces for the arboretum.

To make a long story short, they traveled back and forth to the Morton Arboretum in Chicago where they learned the basics of what they needed to know, hired an arborist to guide the process and devoted the rest of their lives to creating the incredible arboretum that we have today.

The story is best told by Francie Hill, the Bickelhaupt’s daughter who took over direction of the arboretum from them. She told the story during the media conference at which the arboretum was formally transferred to Eastern Iowa Community Colleges. We encourage you to view the video elsewhere on this page.

In 1999, well into the third decade of the creation of this public garden, Frances wrote her A Private Couple Creates a Public Garden book to document the challenges and successes of this environmental project she and her husband, Bob, gave their years of "retirement" to developing. The book is available in the Visitor's Center at the Arboretum for a donation to cover the cost of the printing, which goes directly to the Arboretum.