Who Was Margaret McKenny

Margaret McKenny was a garden designer, writer, teacher, photographer, lecturer, and conservationist, recognized both locally and nationally. She was an expert mycologist and founder of the Olympia Audubon Society.

Margaret was born in Olympia, Washington Territory April 17, 1885. Her family had located there from Iowa in 1867 when her father was appointed Superintendent of Indian Affairs by President Andrew Johnson a few years after the Civil War. She was the youngest of seven children born to Cynthia Adelaide and Irving Thomas McKenny, although only first-born Ida and twins William and Samuel still survived. Margaret grew up in close association with Ida’s children, Irving and Constance, the oldest in that younger triad of family children.

The family home was located just off Main Street and Seventh Avenue, in the downtown core. Her father was within walking distance of his business running a thriving drug store and managing his real estate holdings, while the rest of the family had easy access to town amenities, church activities and social events. Her father died in 1899.

Margaret was educated by tutors and attended Providence Academy in her last years of schooling. By all accounts, Margaret had a happy childhood; it was in her early years that she developed a love of nature and a keen appreciation of its beauty and importance. She also reveled in poetry and other forms of literature.

As a girl and young woman, she was free to explore the largely undeveloped areas near Olympia and build on her schoolwork knowledge of botany and other studies. She shared this passion with others in Olympia who were enthusiastic followers of the Nature Study movement popular at the time. At some point she began to take a serious interest in mushrooms and other fungi and develop an expertise in that area. She was deeply involved in garden club activities and was inspired by the many active women reformers in town beautification efforts. Margaret also had the opportunity to travel to Alaska several times to visit family connections there. Olympia was a small community in the far northwest but it was nonetheless connected to the social and cultural currents pulsing through the nation at that time.

One of the reform movements transforming the national culture focused on new forms of education. In 1913 a Montessori school opened in Olympia. Margaret was able to join the new venture and within a few years became the sole teacher and moved the school to her own purpose-built home on Water Street. She lived there with her mother and ran the school until 1919. The end of World War One marked a change of direction and she began to explore other avenues for work and involvement. She opened a bookstore and curio shop downtown, and continued to write poetry. And she carried on with her gardening and botanical pursuits.

By the late 1920s Margaret’s intense interest in garden design led her to attend the Lowthorpe School of Landscape Architecture in Groton, Massachusetts, one of the few schools that admitted women students. She then found an opportunity to work in this field in New York City, where she carved out a new phase of life with positions with the Garden Club of America and then the New York City Gardens Club. She also built on her teaching experience as a staff member of the Nature Lore School at the American Museum of Natural History. She explored the City and beyond, met many influential persons, and continued her study of plants and birds. She joined the Boston Mycological Club and became secretary of the New York Mycological Society.

While working for the garden clubs, Margaret learned to write for newspapers and magazines, and began her book publishing career. Her first book, Mushrooms of Field and Wood, was printed in 1929, and followed by:

1936 The Wild Garden

1937 Your City Garden with E. L. D. Seymour

1939 A Book of Wild Flowers

1939 Birds in the Garden and How to Attract Them

1940 A Book of Garden Flowers

1940 How the Hurricane Helped

1942 Trees of the Countryside

1944 Washington Nature Notes, which were later collected and printed as Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest, in 1954

1945 Abe and His Girl Friend Amble

1945 Little White Pig

1945 A Book of Wayside Fruits

1961 Tree Pruning Manual for the City of Olympia Tree Program, with John Duffield; re-issued as a National Park Service Tree Preservation Bulletin, #4

1962 The Savory Wild Mushroom, with D.E. Stuntz

1968 A Field guide to Wildflowers of Northeastern and North-Central North America, with Roger Tory Peterson

My collection of Margaret’s books, just a selection of her titles

She was also an associate editor for Wise Garden Encyclopedia in 1951 and contributed essays on Wild Flowers and Growing Flowers and Vegetables for the Childcraft encyclopedia series in 1960.

Margaret returned to Olympia in 1943. Looking ahead to the end of the war, the State of Washington conceived a program to draw more people to the state, both as tourists and settlers in a bid to boost the economy and consolidate the gains in development the state had experienced during the war boom years. Margaret was recruited to help publicize the state’s natural beauty and to teach newcomers how to discover and appreciate the bounty of this still developing state. She first worked for the State Progress Commission and then for State Parks.

Margaret traveled all over the state and made many contacts while also adding to her knowledge about the plants and animals of Washington’s very different regions. She built an enormous photograph collection, which became the basis of many slide-show lectures for years to come. She connected with new people and renewed friendships with many Garden Club members, mushroom enthusiasts, birders and other nature lovers.

In 1953 Margaret and her friend Leo Couch launched the Olympia Audubon Society. As president, she used that position as a bully pulpit to press for many conservation projects and to bring speakers to Olympia to educate the community on many subjects of nature interest—including mushrooms. She worked with several local groups to engage children in nature study.

Photograph courtesy of Washington State Historical Society

Margaret was at the forefront of several battles with the City to preserve areas rich in opportunities for immersion in nature. She spearheaded campaigns to turn the City’s old watershed area into a natural preserve and to dissuade the City from logging parts of its premier park, Priest Point Park, as well as opposing turning its historic downtown square into a parking garage.  She also marshaled community concern to save the nearby estuary of the Nisqually River from development that would have threatened this important bird area and all the creatures that depended on the lush environment of an unspoiled estuary. She served on the City Tree committee that sought to restore the canopy of street trees that had been lost to development over time.

Margaret supported herself in these years through her writing, which included regular newspaper columns as well as book publications, teaching classes in nature lore, conducting writing and art classes with children, renting out portions of her house, and running a lucrative mushroom selling business to New York City restaurants.  She was widely known as The Mushroom Lady and was always available for neighborly consultations about the identity and edibility of various mushrooms. She was a founding member of the Puget Sound Mycological Society among other mycological clubs.

Margaret stayed active and involved in conservation issues until her final illness. She died August 4, 1969, age eighty-four. Her achievements, conservation ethic and spirit continue to inspire all who know her story.