Boise-born civic leader Laura Moore Cunningham lived the kind of life that seems impossibly elegant these days, and not a little cinematic. Born in 1869, she sailed the world in first class cabins, hosted high teas, employed three gardeners and earned a degree in the art of elocution at Northwestern. Cunningham developed a taste for Chinese design during a brief residence in New York City and was known for having all her linens — all pink — monogrammed “LMC.”
Fortunately for Boiseans, her taste for living well included an obligation to improve her community. Cunningham supported the Red Cross during World War II and served as director of the Children’s Home Society. The president of Boise Junior College, Eugene Chaffee, eulogized Cunningham when she died in 1963 for her support of the institution. Her will bequeathed acreage south of her home on Warm Springs Avenue and Walnut Street to the city of Boise.
In keeping with Cunningham’s love of gardens, the acreage became the city’s arboretum.
To celebrate Cunningham’s patronage, Arbor Day (April 24), and to remind tree-loving residents of an under-the-radar local treasure, the city is hosting an open house at the arboretum on April 20. The event is the first of its kind in recent memory.
“Along with Julia Davis, Laura Moore Cunningham is a great Boise icon, one of the great historical women in Idaho who has slipped away from us over time,” said city forester Brian Jorgenson.
A worn wooden sign bearing Cunningham’s name had marked the arboretum for years. A team of local artists — Stephanie Inman, Ken McCall and Mark Baltes — created a new sculptural sign in metal. It, naturally, resembles a tree, complete with a bird’s nest. The sign features the patron’s name prominently and includes a panel with information about Cunningham’s life. It’s just one element for the public to enjoy during the open house. City foresters will give tours of the grounds and answer questions about trees.
The arboretum is where city foresters grow many of the trees for city parks and public rights-of-way. Close to 1,000 trees, 90 species of deciduous trees and over 20 species of conifers grow in the arboretum. Jorgenson and the other foresters use the arboretum as a testing ground to grow many trees not typically found in local nurseries, including hardy rubber trees, burr oak, white oak, and the giant sequoias native to Southern California.
“We agree the arboretum is a city treasure,” said Bob Bennett, president of the East End Neighborhood Association. The neighborhood recently received a Boise City Neighborhood Reinvestment Grant to complete a neighborhood trail near Coston Street to Quarry View Park. He and other residents have appreciated the arboretum for years as another of the area’s “green and well-tended places.”
While the arboretum has never been closed to the public — even dogs on leash are allowed, said Jorgenson — the city has never promoted it as a destination.
“But maybe it will become one,” said Jorgenson. One or more city arborists are usually at the arboretum on Mondays through Thursdays. The arboretum does not sell trees, but its arborists will freely share their expertise with anyone who wants to learn more about growing trees, or anyone who wants a reminder of the civic generosity of Laura Moore Cunningham.