Coupeville museum exhibit celebrates 30th anniversary of Meerkerk Gardens
— Created April 28, 2021 by Alec Brown
By Alec Brown
To celebrate 30 years of being a public nonprofit, Meerkerk Gardens has partnered with the Island County Historical Museum in Coupeville to put on a special display outlining the garden’s fascinating history. Anyone can view the exhibit during the museum’s operating hours, which are Mondays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. This particular feature is expected to stay until June, though the date may be extended.
For those unfamiliar, Meerkerk Gardens is a rhododendron garden near Greenbank which was created by Max and Ann Meerkerk—two people who were both eccentric and creative enough to become local historical figures. The gardens now serve many facets of Whidbey culture.
“Philanthropically, the gardens represent the Meerkerk’s vision of a peaceful woodland garden open to the public,” said Dr. Re McClung, vice president of the Meerkerk Gardens board of directors. “Environmentally the gardens utilize sound gardening techniques to protect the rich habitat as home to birds and wildlife, conserving resources by managing rainwater, composting and building the soil. Horticulturally, the gardens are a learning center where dedicated volunteers receive hands-on training while caring for the gardens. Classes and tours educate the public about rhododendron culture and nature programs for children inspire future gardeners. Culturally, the gardens enrich lives through musical events like Mother’s Day, the Bluegrass festival, and Octoberfest. Socially, the gardens bring people together for a shared experience, and introducing visitors to our community.
“The museum exhibit is a historical retrospective telling the story of Ann and Max Meerkerk and their ‘secret garden’ that has evolved into Meerkerk Gardens today,” McClung continued. “The gardens welcome over 20,000 visitors each year who enjoy the all-season walking paths and visual displays of rhododendrons and companion plantings. Through this exhibit we want to bring in new visitors who will be interested in preserving this special piece of history through the renovation of the Meerkerk’s home and the establishment of a permanent historical museum.“
The display includes information boards describing Ann and Max Meerkerk, their lives, and the early history of the gardens. It also includes artifacts recovered from the Meerkerk house, such as architectural plans, samples of Ann’s artworks, and hybridization journals they kept which detail the journey of their unique rhododendrons.
Dr. McClung researched and wrote the history of the Meerkerks while Cynthia Woerner, Meerkerk’s promotions and development coordinator, created the graphics, layout, and looping video of bloom season photographs available at the exhibit.
Many of the artifacts on display were acquired to rehabilitate the property and establish a permanent exhibit at the Meerkerk estate.
“We were down in the basement…finding boxes of slides and boxes of artifacts,” said McClung. “We caught everything just at the right time. Another year or two, everything would have been gone totally. Just to save all these special treasures has been a remarkable opportunity for us.
“And these were fascinating people,” she continued. “They are both renaissance people. They always lived off the grid. They always tried unusual things together.”
Max, who was related to the Kaiser Wilhelm bloodline and had PhDs in law and philosophy, grew up wealthy and served as an emissary between Germany and China, where his interest in rhododendrons and the arts first bloomed. After serving in the first World War and not wanting to fight in the second, he came to the United States to start an antiquity store.
Coincidentally, Ann had opened a pottery studio in New York City as well. Her love of pottery and his love of antiquities eventually pulled them together.
But there was one little problem – Max was already married at the time.
“The woman he was married to was the woman who he was in business with,” stated McClung. “And it seems like they were more business partners than in marriage. So she said it was okay to get a divorce. So he went to Las Vegas, got a divorce, and married our Ann. But her family wasn’t crazy about him; they thought he was a bit of a scoundrel.”
After visiting a friend in Meerkerk, they decided to move from their home in Idaho and settle down here on Whidbey Island. But there was yet another obstacle.
“[Max] had his fingers in a lot of stuff,” described McClung. “He was the president of the Weimaraner Society and raised Weimaraner’s. So if you wanted a Weimaraner in the United States, you knew Max. At some point they owned, like, 88 of these, and they were living in Idaho at the time…they fell in love with Whidbey Island, came over here and bought the property in one day, and then they had to move all their 88 dogs from Idaho to Meerkerk. So they loaded them up in trailers, and every time they would take them out on the road for the bathroom, people would admire them, so they sold like 35 dogs before they even got to Meerkerk.”
“They were fabulous, amazing, artistic people,” said Island County Historical Museum Director Rick Castellano. “Anyone that travels with 55 dogs deserves an exhibit.”
When they eventually settled down at Meerkerk in 1961, Ann had a clear vision of what she wanted to do with the land.
“Her idea was the sustainable garden of rhododendrons,” Dr. McClung stated. “She wanted it to be a place where people could go. A peaceful woodland garden—that’s what she wanted to build.
“They cleared acreage, laid out growing areas, put in water lines and began planting rhododendrons brought in from gardens all over the Northwest and brought in from Asia and England,” she continued. “Before Max’s death in 1969, they added another 20 acres and after his death, Ann purchased another 20 acres, to make the property 53 acres [as] it remains today. Before she passed away, Ann made an arrangement with the Seattle Rhododendron Society to take over the care and maintenance of the gardens and open them to the public. Meerkerk Gardens became a non-profit 501(c) 3 in May 2003. Over the years, new plantings, new pathways, new hiking trails and a beautifully welcoming gatehouse have been added to enhance the visitor experience.”
Details and stories like these and many more are available at the exhibit. Visit the Island County Historical Museum to get the complete Meerkerk history—and visit the Meerkerk Gardens between June and May to enjoy the garden during peak season. The gardens are open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $5.
According to Castellano, the exhibit has been a great success.
“It’s just been so well received,” Castellano stated. “We see, especially lately, people escaping King County and other surrounding counties to come on the weekends. That’s when most of the people are here. This is a very localized exhibit, but the people that are coming from off-island are standing here and reading every one of these panels, which is quite an endorsement to this exhibit. People love eccentric people, and talented people. And they were eccentric and talented people.”
One part of the display came from a joke.
“We have live rhododendrons in the museum!” he continued. “When they first came here and we talked about doing a collaboration, I said, kind of jokingly, ‘only if you bring live rhododendrons.’ And they showed up with live rhododendrons! I love it. It kind of goes with the whole eccentricity of it, of Max and Ann Meerkerk, their creative bent. They would have loved this. It’s not just these things, but it’s the hybrid books, her artwork, and the live plants, you know.”
“I just encourage everyone to come and see [the display] and go see the gardens,” Castellano concluded. “We’re so fortunate to have those here on the island. With her eccentric vision, they’re there.”
Visit the Meerkerk Gardens website at Meerkerkgardens.org, and learn more about the Island County Historical Museum at islandhistory.org.