Minnesota Heroes

Katharine Ordway

A little known chapter in the conservation of our nation’s prairies, forests and wetlands is the one devoted to Katharine Ordway, a daughter of Minnesota. According to those who knew her best, she would have wanted it that way.

Born in 1899, Ordway was an heir to the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co. (later known as 3M) fortune. A student of botany, she didn’t begin her conservation work—to which she would devote the rest of her life—until she was in her sixties.

Introduced to the Conservancy in 1966 by one of its founders, Dick Pough, Ordway soon began to help the organization protect the prairies of Minnesota, which she loved for their beautiful wildflowers and connection to the state’s pioneer history.

In 1970, she provided the funding to purchase 310 acres of prairie south of Glenwood in Pope County, which was named Ordway Preserve in her honor. She went on to help the Conservancy purchase three more Minnesota prairies—Wahpeton, Chippewa and Santee—in quick succession, eventually financing the protection of several thousand acres of prairie in the state.

Her desire to do even more to save vast expanses of prairie eventually took her beyond Minnesota’s borders to South Dakota, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska where she assisted with protection of a network of prairies totaling 31,000 acres.

Ordway’s philanthropy would continue after her death, however, through her Goodhill Foundation. John G. Ordway, Jr., Katharine’s nephew and a Goodhill Foundation director, said: “My aunt gave us three years to spend the foundation’s principal and income because she believed that if we didn’t buy the land right away, it would be too late.”

The foundation eventually gave more than $40 million to support the Conservancy’s effort to protect some of the most beautiful and biologically diverse landscapes in the United States. Katharine Ordway’s vision, generosity and legacy live on in the prairies of Minnesota and South Dakota, the forests of Connecticut and Hawaii and the wetlands of Virginia and Oregon.

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