The Olaf Jensen Collection, housed at the Archives of Michigan, is now available to the public. This collection was donated by Shirlee H. Sheathelm, Mr. Jensen’s granddaughter.
Olaf Jensen began his landscape gardening career as an apprentice at a commercial garden near Copenhagen, Denmark. He immigrated to the United States in 1905. By 1917, he became the traveling horticulturist for the Grand Trunk Western (GTW) Railroad. For thirty-seven years, railroad depots and buildings throughout Michigan were decorated by Jensen-designed gardens. At the peak of his career, he was responsible for flower beds at eighty different points across the GTW system. Jensen is credited with supervising the placement and planting of 2,260,000 plants and flowers. At his retirement in 1954, Jensen estimated that he alone was responsible for planting 1,480,000 items, often at the rate of 1,000 an hour during his busiest seasons. In Battle Creek, Jensen was known as “the plant doctor” who offered advice, both official and non-official. Olaf Jensen died in 1977.
An Olaf Jensen garden in Battle Creek, 1930
The Olaf Jensen Collection
The Olaf Jensen Collection consists of photographs (1926-1953), design drawings (1918-1953) and scrapbooks (1923-1969). Some of the photos depict Jensen’s remarkable gardens. Jensen planted these in railroad depots. The flowers spelled out the name of the town in which the depot was located. Jensen hand colored these photos himself. The effect is a combined black and white and color photo of remarkable gardens of a kind rarely seen today.
Jensen's design for a garden in Port Huron, 1949.
Jensen gave special attention to the “carpet beds” in Battle Creek and Port Huron. Battle Creek was Jensen’s home base, and Port Huron was the site of an international crossing into Canada. The Port Huron garden bed emphasized international themes such as the unity between the Grand Trunk Western railroad and its parent firm (Canadian National Railways), or the friendship between the United States and Canada. Olaf used the maple leaf as a Canadian symbol before it was part of the Canadian flag. He designed these gardens on graph paper, before he planted the flowers.