An Introduction to Historic Working Landscapes

by David Driapsa, FASLA

El Santuario del Senor Esquipula, Chimayo, New Mexico / image: David Driapsa

The following article highlights the importance of documenting historic landscapes for perpetuity. For the 14th annual HALS Challenge competition, the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) invites you to document Working Landscapes. Historic “working” or “productive” landscapes may be agricultural or industrial and unique or traditional. Some topical working landscapes convey water for irrigation or provide flood control. Please focus your HALS report on the landscape as a whole and not on a building or structure alone. For this theme, the HAER History Guidelines may be helpful along with HALS History Guidelines.

I am pleased to share with you an introduction to documenting historic working landscapes. Working landscapes are vernacular (subsistence and commercial gardening and agriculture), scientific (industrial horticulture), commercial (fishing), educational (the work of producing knowledge), recreation, and others that are conceived, situated, and adapted to the economies which they support.

Chimayo, New Mexico, is an historic village established on the north American frontier of the Spanish empire, situated in the arid Santa Cruz Valley of what today is northern New Mexico. Irrigation ditches known as acequias were constructed to convey water for miles down from the Sangre Cristo Mountains to nourish gardens and fields below in the valley. The working landscape created under this precious water economy was so essential to life that the land was organized with the irrigated crops established on fertile land below the acequias and dwellings occupied the dry slopes above. This land use planning was essential to preserve the land that could be watered for agriculture.

Plaza del Cerro, Chimayo, NM / image: David Driapsa

Mount Lebanon Shaker Village in the state of New York is renowned as the center of the Shaker world in the United States. Now a National Historic Landmark, at its peak in 1860, 600 people occupied 125 buildings and a model farm of 6,000 acres. Established as a working landscape midway up the slopes of Mount Lebanon, the village was ideally situated for both agriculture and industry.

Mount Lebanon Brethren’s Workshop, NY / image: David Driapsa

Water on the mountain was collected and conveyed through a system of channels, ponds, and underground stone conduits that delivered water to garden plots, fields, and animals, and, to turn waterwheels and turbines to power a craft industry that produced chairs, furniture, and many other wood and metal products. A separate source from springs supplied water for the manufacturer of herbal medicine. It was said that when the Shakers were finished with the water it was completely worn out. Then the used-up water was released down the mountain into the swamp below, to foster the growth of the plants used in manufacturing herbal medicine.

Harry Oveson Fish Camp, MN / image: David Driapsa

Harry Oveson Fish Camp is a Visitor Historic Destination Site in Voyageurs National Park that displays the working landscape of commercial fishing. Located on a remote Rainy Lake island, the camp was established for commercial fishing with a cabin and accessory buildings for seasonal occupation. Ice was key to operations, harvested in winter and stored in an icehouse to later refrigerate fish in transit to market. Fresh fish was delivered into the town of International Falls almost every other day by a “fish boat” that would pick up the catch and deliver mail, fuel, and groceries. The fish was sold to local resorts, tourists, and to markets as far away as Chicago.

Banyan tree / image: David Driapsa

Seminole Lodge was the winter home of inventor Thomas Edison for half a century. Located on the south bank of the Caloosahatchee River one mile from downtown Fort Myers, Florida, his estate was a place of respite from a busy life but was also equipped with a scientific laboratory to continue work while in residence. Mr. Edison and his wife Mina (nee Miller) created lovely subtropical gardens along the river. In 1927 their farm parcel across McGregor Boulevard was transformed into a working landscape of the Edison Botanic Research Corporation, established by Edison and friends Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford to experiment in plant hybridization to develop a war-time source of domestic rubber. The nine-acre parcel was divided into 8’ x 12’ test plots, where plants were grown, monitored, recorded, harvested, and taken into the laboratory to test the latex content for suitability in rubber manufacturing. Edison first cultivated the latex producing Ficus trees, before producing a rapidly growing 12-foot-tall Solidago species hybrid that yielded 12 percent rubber content.

Historic Northwest University of Louisiana at Natchitoches entry gate / image: David Driapsa

Historic Northwestern State University of Louisiana at Natchitoches was and continues as a working landscape. Students are the main crop, yet the campus has been a working farm, an orchard, and continues as botanical garden to support the education of students.

Historic Northwest University of Louisiana at Natchitoches landscape / image: David Driapsa

These stories and many more are examples of working landscapes that represent the industry and thrift of American enterprise.

For more information on the 2023 HALS Challenge, Working Landscapes, please see this previous post. Between now and the July 31 HALS Challenge deadline, we’ll be showcasing historic landscapes relevant to this year’s theme or documented for previous HALS Challenges. Stay tuned for more HALS posts!

David Driapsa, FASLA, is a past chair of the ASLA Historic Preservation Professional Practice Network (PPN) and past ASLA HALS Subcommittee chair/coordinator.

One thought on “An Introduction to Historic Working Landscapes

  1. Mayordomo May 9, 2023 / 5:21 pm

    Both the Santuario de Chimayó and Plaza del Cerro are located in Santa Fe County

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