Last updated: December 29, 2022
Flora of the Dunes
A liberated woman and early dunes preservationist, Flora Richardson settled in the rich coastal hills north of Cowles Bog with her husband William in 1910. For 50 years she cultivated her passion for natural history which she passed on through her last will which created the Flora Richardson Foundation, saving her and her husband’s Duneland treasure trove of books and photographs and protecting over 100 acres of flatwoods in LaPorte County.
Quotes by her:
“As [Flora] stated herself, she needed to go to the Dunes, ‘to shake the dust off my soul’”
Quotes about her:
“A strong willed naturalist and a student of the Indiana Dunes”
Flora Richardson Biography:
Flora May Slack was born April 20th, 1871 in Galva Township, Henry County Illinois. According to the 1880 census, that year Flora and her family were living near Rushville, IL in Schuyler County. Her father’s occupation was listed as “physician” and Flora was noted as “at school.” Her father was from England as were her mother’s parents. When Flora was just 16 in 1887, her father, Nathaniel G. Slack died suddenly. In 1890, Ms. Slack began visiting friends in St. Louis. The city was over 130 miles away from home so it is likely she traveled by train.
By 1894, Flora was noted as living in East St. Louis. The following year she entertained at a gathering of the Shakespearean Club in St. Louis. Ms. Slack also gained employment as a “bookkeeper” for the St. Louis Loan and Storage Co. While she was still living in East St. Louis in 1896, within the next few years Flora had moved to Chicago where she likely became acquainted with William Richardson. She met William, or “Billie” Richardson sometime before her earliest, datable, surviving letter from him at the Westchester Township History Museum dated April 4, 1899 when she was in California with her sister. William attended the University of Chicago from 1894-1899, a contemporary of to-be famous Duneland ecologist Henry Chandler Cowles. Unfortunately the letters Flora sent in response are not in the collection.
Although William was recorded living in Chicago with his parents and sister in the 1900 census, his letters the next year in 1901 suggest he was then living in East St. Louis while Flora remained in Chicago.
These early letters in their relationship, shortly before their marriage, reveal scattered interesting and intimate pieces of their lives. Billie often addressed Flora in his letters to her as “Dorothy.” In one letter he asks Flora to meet him when he arrives by train to Chicago, and to have someone work for her “all day” Sunday so they could be together.
He wrote to her:
“My Dear Dorothy– It makes one feel most strange & most glad when I think we are to be married in two weeks – I think this idea the ‘happiest’ one that ever entered my uncertain brain. And this in spite of the fact that I realize that most people would consider me totally unprepared to take such a step. And I am unprepared in a material way – but not unprepared in spirit. Money I have none.”
William wrote to Flora about how his mother had told him of a chemical engineer position that made considerable money, and so he decided to dedicate his studies to pursue this. In another letter he told her, “I would rather be married, broke & happy than single, broke, & unhappy.”
On November 11, 1901 William wrote to Flora on how he eagerly anticipated coming up to see her as well as that he had “Nelson’s microscope down here & am having a good time with it temporarily. Everything is going extremely well, With all my love, Your Billie.”
One letter hinted to some family friction around Flora and William’s mother:
“My Sweetheart, – I am sorry my mother did not have sufficient tact to approach you in the proper way to have you go to our house to dinner. However dear Dorothy if you still continue to be my girl the way I like to have you, nothing else makes any great deal difference to me. Incidentally I am disgusted with my whole family, who shall from now on hear nothing whatsoever of my affair!”
In another letter, Billie alluded to possible tension with Flora and her mother regarding their engagement; “Tell me Dorothy if there is any change in your mothers attitude toward you since she knows we are engaged. I mean will she not make it pleasant for you to stay in Rushville..” He called her “My Royal Clear-Eyed Straight Limbed Sweetheart” in a letter where he professed “And do not deceive yourself Dorothy for I am a bundle of faults & there is little real good in me & I have always thought & said that that little was not of my own designing but comes from you.” A letter reveals he was to take the train up to Chicago to see his “Dorothy” for Thanksgiving of 1901. Marriage records revealed they married in Chicago on Thanksgiving Day.
The 1910 census recorded Flora and Billie living in Chicago with her sister and two lodgers. The city had experienced decades of tremendous growth, making excursions into nature an alluring escape. That same year they boarded the South Shore Line electric train and rode it to the Mineral Springs stop, just north of U.S. 12 and Mineral Springs Road. This same route was used by Dr. Henry C. Cowles of the University of Chicago and would be repeated by countless botany and ecology students and teachers in the coming years as Cowles pushed the Indiana Dunes into the spotlight of the scientific community. Mr. and Mrs. Richardson exited the passenger train that had begun operating just two summers prior, near today’s Greenbelt parking area. With baggage in tow, they headed north on a trail across the Great Marsh and settled into the dunescape. For a number of years, a friend of Billie allowed a group of them to spend the summers camping on property he owned along the coast. Flora and Billie lived out of a tee-pee-like structure they called “Sassafras Lodge,” which even housed Alice Gray or Diana of the Dunes on occasion. Within the next few years they purchased their own property there and built a small cottage among the dunes, about a decade before the area became the Town of Dune Acres in 1923.
Flora continued to pursue club life and her artistic and cultural interests. On March 5 1911, she led the discussion on the paintings of Spanish artist Joaquín Sorolla art for the Chicago South Side Club at Hyde Park. She became treasurer for the club that April. By 1913, Flora and Billie were members of the Prairie Club of Chicago, likely through associations William made within social and academic circles of the University of Chicago with individuals like Professor Henry Cowles landscape architect Jens Jensen, sculptor Lorado Taft, and future first Director of the National Park Service, Stephen Mather. The Prairie Club was a group of nature-loving individuals led by landscape architect Jens Jensen that evolved from an outdoor walking club to a leader in the initial effort to secure a national park in the Indiana Dunes. The same year, Flora and William became members of the newly formed Friends of Our Native Landscape, another early conservationist group with strong ties to Jens Jensen.
That October, the Prairie Club celebrated the opening of their new beach house on the lakeshore. They performed a masque that personified the Spirit of the Dunes and her relations to the four winds. Flora would have been thrilled about the performance. Billie performed the role of the East Wind, channeling a passion not unlike his early letters to “Dorothy”:
In Sooth, not idle have I been since first
I knew that there thy dwelling place should be.
I’ve stormed and raged across the waters blue
Till, panting ‘neath me rose the swollen waves,
In anguished labor broke against the shore
And brought forth grains of purest golden sands
To make for thee a worthy couch, my queen.
And then again with moaning sound I rose
To drive before me all those gleaming grains
That make these wondrous shifting hills thou seest,
So thou shouldst never weary grow nor sad
With gazing on a never changing scene.
A newspaper article wrote of the evening:
Following the masque, everyone retired to the lake shore, where great beach fires were lighted. The odor of frying bacon soon mingled with the savory aroma of boiling coffee. Nothing but dark grey Lake Michigan reminded one that it was not the middle of August, instead of October.
Flora was an “incorporator” for the “Dune Pageant Association,” a group associated with the Prairie Club as well as Friends of Our Native Landscape and the Chicago Historical and Geographical Societies. The association was in charge of putting together the presentation of “The Dunes under Four Flags,” a flowery pageant that reflected their version of the history of the Dunes through performance, song, dance, and poetry. Bess Sheehan was also a part of the association, taking the role of a production trustee. A collection of nearly 1000 people involved in the production, after a date change due to rain, put on a dramatic representation of the history of the dunes for thousands of onlookers who came in support of the national park. William’s records at Westchester Township History Museum reveal he was a skilled artist, photographer, and naturalist. Flora grew to become a naturalist in her own rights as they continued living in Chicago and frequently taking long trips to the Dunes. She was remembered as energetic and loved life; she found her own enthusiasm and more than kept up with her husband through thickets and swamps in restrictive women’s clothing of the day.
While national park efforts fizzled due to World War I, nature-lovers had been made. Dune-goers like Flora began to educate others on early preservation practices. She was a member of the Wildflower Preservation Society. Another fellow Dune Pageant Association incorporator, Prairie Club member and popular local artist Earl H. Reed criticized Chicago flower shops for selling rare orchids and other flowers only found at the Dunes. Notes from Prairie Club Walks in 1921 reveal that members would frequently educate fellow hikers and dune-goers on their tramps on why not to pick wildflowers.
The Richardson photograph and slide collection show that “Sassafras Lodge” and their later cottage was a center for social activities; “Flora is seldom pictured alone.” Mr. Richardson’s reputation continued to grow in Chicago and beyond. He became the chief chemist for meatpacking-giant Swift Company. In 1924, newspapers across the United States printed William’s recommendation on eating a variety of foods A friend of Flora would later recall, “Billy lectured all over the country and world- brilliant chemist; ‘hobnobbed’ with U of C people who called him Dr. out of respect.”
Flora was a member of the Illinois Audubon Society. She recorded her observations from outside her home in Indiana on the evening of Thursday, August 6, 1925:
“At 9:45 daylight savings time I sat watching the ‘silvery black silvery blue’ of the lake when a bat flew by[;] a few moments passed and a strange note or at the time seemed strange came from near by. By thoughts was I never heard a bat make bat sound. It was repeated at intervals of 6 or 7 seconds. Upon creeping, noiselessly out and locating the sound to my astonishment it came from one of the top branches of a dead white pine the back of the bird was toward me crouched & swaying head like that of a snake before it strikes.
This[,] together with the strange sound coming every 6 or 7 seconds into the loneliness of the hour, made a very impressive picture[;] I had decided that bird was a long eared owl. When to my astonishment it wheeled around & faced me[,] then great golden orbs were fixed on me[,] the swaying stopped for a few minutes… then both were resumed but the eyes were not taken off of me… the light was sufficient to get the full fire of those marvelous eyes continued.”
In 1929, Mrs. Richardson was still involved in the Chicago Women’s club; that year she headed the committee on combating hay fever by eliminating ragweed. A few years later in 1932 Flora was president of the Chicago Outdoor Art League; whose motto was “Leave The World More Beautiful Than You Found It.” The same year she gave a speech at a newly planted maple tree in Homewood, Illinois at 183rd and Governors Highway.
In 1933 Flora held the Chicago Outdoor Art League’s first meeting of the year in the Horticulture Building at Chicago’s Century of Progress World Fair.
William’s success as a chemist brought himself and Flora sight-seeing to the Western U.S. and across the world, as is represented in their extensive photograph collection of the husband and wife. Flora wrote in a 1935 diary of going to the “Middle East,” a trip she took without Billie to Egypt that ended poorly. Her friend would later recall, “She and a Lebanese U of C professor went to the Middle East; she had kidney trouble while there; the couple sort of abandoned her there; she finished the trip alone, came back rather ill and had the kidney removed against her wishes when she got back.”
While Flora recovered, Billie began to suffer from an unknown illness. In May of 1935, Flora wrote of Billie’s health, “Drove to Turkey Run Floyd. Billy walked to ravine cottage first walk he has taken since illness.” Flora’s scattered and limited entries in December of 1935 reveal William’s decline, “Billy Dressed went out as far as front step too icy[;] made a great effort, but could not,” she wrote in her calendar book. William died on January 14, 1936 at their home in Chicago, and was later buried in Niles, Michigan.
Flora had said that she needed to come to the dunes to “shake the dust off my soul.” In the summer of 1938, she participated in the dunes summer camp at the direction of Friends of Our Native Landscape alongside Jens Jensen and Dunes painter Frank Dudley. Flora contributed to nature study with the students around the dunes as a “specialist on mosses.” On another visit the following spring, she noted in her journal, “Went to the Dunes, found hepaticas just in blossom[,] one inch huge buds beautifully colored.”
In the 1940 census, Flora was recorded as a “lodger” with a husband, wife and daughter; in Woodhull, IL.
Shortly after, she decided to move back to their home in Dune Acres to live where she had made so many fond memories with Billie. Flora first met her neighbor Edith “Ede” Kilbourn in 1941. They became loving friends, and Ede, who was a generation younger, would end up helping Flora carry on hers and William’s legacy; she also provided many details from Flora’s life.
“Sadly, my first encounter with “Richie” was a disaster. She was on the path to her cottage, at dusk, making no sound, when suddenly one of my dogs bit her on the arm. I wanted to take her to the doctor but she wouldn’t hear of it. I cleaned up the wound and took her to her cottage and followed it up every day….A firm friendship was immediately established.”
Flora was an inspiring mentor:
We trudged the Dunes seeking out the plants and birds. I was a novice and she the best teacher. These Dunes were bright with lupine and the Arbutus had their secret hiding places and Bear-berry covered most the bare spots. When West Road was to be built, we kept ahead of the bulldozer taking up the plants that would be lost and planted them on her “Dune.” Even after long, hard days she never seemed to tire…”
Flora continued the lifestyle she lived with William. Ede remembered Flora being “intensely involved with poetry, literature, and art…” They enjoyed “Sunday afternoon rum & tea sessions,’ and would even dance!
Flora and Ede rode the train into Chicago to catch shows at the Goodman Theater. Flora maintained flourishing gardens where she experimented using organic pest control and fertilizers. While Flora and William never had children, Flora and Ede’s bond was so strong that Flora even wished to adopt Ede; however, since Ede’s mother had already passed, Ede felt it would be disloyal.
Flora’s extensive poetry collection reflects her passion, and occasionally she wrote her own:
“Call not that roadside common
That wears with simple grace
Upon its dusty shoulders
White drifts of Queen Ann’s Lace.”
Ede recalled that as Flora grew older, she increasingly considered the Richardson legacy, “More and more, as years went by, she talked about establishing the Wildlife Sanctuary and a Library for ornithological students and biologists…” Flora approached universities and local libraries, but could not find a place that would take their collection as a whole. It was Flora’s wish to establish a public nature preserve and research library to share her irreplaceable collection of natural history books and photographs.
Amid rampant industrial development and the battle for establishing a national park in the dunes for a second time; in 1958, the octogenarian incorporated the Richardson Wildlife Sanctuary on 3.48 acres of sand dune.
Flora was remembered as being “strong and remarkable;” in her late 80s, she would fetch water daily from an old outside pump while a modern house was being constructed for her. Around the same time she and Ede began to put together the Richardson Memorial Library.” “A strong minded person… Mrs. Richardson resisted making improvements on the place until she began to develop the idea of a library. Then the basically log cabin was made into a home for the librarian and a place to house the library she and Mr. Richardson had built over years of study of nature and the dunes.” Flora got a portrait of herself painted for the library and is kept today at the Westchester Township History Museum.
She died at Porter Memorial Hospital after battling pneumonia in her Dune Acres home on July 5, 1960 with much unfinished work on the sanctuary and preserve. Following her death, Flora’s ashes were scattered on her and William’s plot.
Ede took charge of the Richardson Wildlife Sanctuary after Flora’s passing and offered guidance for 25 years. It was Edith’s idea to transfer William’s photographs to 34mm slides to be distributed to schools by the mail. With the assistance of her husband Ted, by 1979, the Richardson Library was circulating films reaching over 160,000 people a year in all fifty states. Around this time, the library collection's most valuable books were not of Duneland association and were subsequently sold off to fund the sanctuary and library. The remaining books are today a part of the Westchester Township History Museum’s collection.
The coming decades brought many changes to the Richardson Wildlife Sanctuary. Throughout the years, they provided financial assistance for projects such as Shirley Heinz’s 1987 publication costs of Emma Pitcher’s book, and funding for the birding tower at Indiana Dunes State Park in 2010. At one point, the Board hired Barbara Plampin who visited Flora and William’s land and provided a plant list for the site. The narrow roads and lack of parking were logistical difficulties that foreshadowed Dune Acres' unwillingness to support a public sanctuary within the town—leading to the necessary move of the nature sanctuary. The Board of Directors of Richardson Wildlife Sanctuary changed their corporation’s name to the Flora Richardson Foundation in 2008. In 2015, the foundation sold the Dune Acres property. With the funds, they purchased a publicly accessible preserve in nearby LaPorte County. Today, the Richardson Preserve protects an over 100 acre rich flatwoods habitat open for hiking, photography, and nature study.
“She was, in our own contemporary term, a liberated woman in her time and a strong and remarkable one in any time.”
BibliographyMarch 8 1890 St. Louis Globe-Democrat “Flora Slack”
“Society News” ; Page 14
June 2 1894 St. Louis Post-Dispatch “”
“society News” ; Page 12
June 1 1895 St. Louis Post-Dispatch “”
“East St. Louis” ; Page 5
April 21 1895 St. Louis Globe-Democrat “”
“East St. Louis” ; Page 5
February 29 1896 St. Louis Globe-Democrat “”
“Society News” ; Page 12
April 16 1911, The Inter-Ocean, Chicago IL
“Week Among the Women’s Clubs” ; Page 35
May 26 1929 Chicago Tribune “Mrs. William D. Richardson”
“Hope to Raise $50,000 Fund for a Clinic” ; Page 112
April 16 1932 Chicago Tribune “Mrs. William D. Richardson”
“Arbor and Bird Day Is Marked All Over Country” ; Page 7
October 17 1933 Chicago Tribune
“Outdoor Art League” ; Page 15
January 15, 1936; Chicago Tribune; Chicago, IL
“Death Notices” ; Page 16
ARTICLE FROM BESS FILE; June 12, 1938; Chicago Tribune
“Here’s A Nature School In Right Spot—The Dunes” by James O’Donnell Bennett ; Page 11
The content for this article was written by Joseph Gruzalski, a researcher with Indiana Dunes National Park. Funds were made possible by a National Park Foundation grant.