Rhody Ridge is the Snohomish County legacy of one couple’s love of nature

Rhody Ridge is still Fir Butler’s home. She and her late husband, Merlin, put a lifetime of toil into the wooded garden near Bothell. It was theirs, but they cultivated it for everyone.

“When you love the land as we have, you want it to continue long past your own life,” the 84-year-old widow said Monday.

Sitting in her cozy house on what is now Snohomish County Parks property, Butler talked about her love of nature and the legacy she and her husband have left for generations.

It was the late 1950s when they bought the logged-off acreage that is now Rhody Ridge Arboretum. By 1970, they had deeded their 5.7 acres to Snohomish County for a park. In the years since, the county purchased another six acres for the nearly 12-acre arboretum, which is east of North Road near Mill Creek.

The Butlers planted and maintained Rhody Ridge, a job too big for a frail octogenarian.

Merlin Butler died in January. He was 90. His widow is now back home after an injury a couple of years ago. After falling from a ladder while pruning trees, she was in a care facility for some time.

“I’ve always been so happy working outside,” said Butler, who is helped by a care giver. She hopes to soon resume gardening.

Raised in the “flat, dry lands of Texas,” Butler said she fell in love with Western Washington on a trip here as a teenager. After marrying in 1953, the Butlers moved here for life. They didn’t have children. With a love of the mountains, they spent free time hiking the Cascades. Butler is still thrilled by memories of hiking with her husband and their German shepherds.

Merlin Butler was a pharmaceutical salesman, but his second career was helping create Rhody Ridge. “The entire object was to create a park,” Butler said. A hidden gem, the arboretum has been toured by garden groups and college students.

Help maintaining it has come from several sources, including a newly formed Rhody Ridge Foundation. Members of the nonprofit group, among them Butler’s neighbors Diana and Pat Riley, hold monthly work parties.

On June 29, the Seattle-based organization PlantAmnesty donated a day of pruning services at Rhody Ridge. Katy Dittmer, the nonprofit’s general manager, said six arborists met Butler and pruned the trees.

And Tom Murdoch, a naturalist with Snohomish County Parks, has also worked at Rhody Ridge, at times with jail crews.

Named for rhododendrons the Butlers grew from seedlings, the arboretum is also a lush haven of tall evergreens, native cedars and firs. Most spectacular in spring and fall, it has magnolias, dogwood, Japanese maples and crab apple trees. Tasks include pruning, trail grooming and “dead-heading” old blooms off rhody plants.

Roberta Riley, Pat Riley’s sister, has joined in the work parties. “I’m learning Fir’s love and wisdom about plants. She is a charming person,” she said.

Diana and Pat Riley bought their house next to the Butlers nearly 20 years ago. Now, they work at Rhody Ridge nearly every day. In the past year, they cleared weeds from all the trails, Diana Riley said.

An attorney, Roberta Riley explained that the Butlers deeded their land to the county for a park, but retained the right to live there the rest of their lives.

Russ Bosanko, the county’s division manager of park operations and community partnerships, said the home and property are now valued at $702,400. The county bought an adjoining five acres in 1973 for $22,000, and another acre in 1989 for $33,000. When the Butlers arrived, there were few homes nearby. “Their whole thought was to have this space open to the public,” Bosanko said.

Richard Fairfield, of Snohomish, is president of the Rhody Ridge Foundation, which was recently granted nonprofit status by the Internal Revenue Service. A member of the American Rhododendron Society’s Pilchuck Chapter, Fairfield met Fir Butler years ago during an arboretum tour.

“A lot of these bigger estate gardens have foundations that either own or run them,” Fairfield said. Before the Butlers came, he said, “it was a stump farm — stumps and blackberries as far as the eye could see.”

Now, it’s a unique place of beauty. “There are so many rhododendrons, and they’re so big and beautiful. There are crosses there that were never registered, one-of-a-kind specimens,” Fairfield said.

Snohomish County Parks Director Tom Teigen said that with 107 parks to care for, the department uses many volunteers to help maintain trails, beaches and other sites. With the new foundation in partnership with the county, he hopes to see the Butlers’ vision preserved.

Teigen appreciates the couple’s foresight. As development fills once open space, he has seen other estates become parks. “We’re really blessed as a county. A lot of people over the years gave big gifts,” he said.

For Butler, the sacrifice was a pleasure.

“We had fallen in love with the wonderful landscape out here. We worked side by side for years,” she said. “We knew exactly what we wanted to do.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heralndet.com.

How to help

To join in monthly work parties at Rhody Ridge Arboretum, email Rhody Ridge Foundation president Richard Fairfield: wineryduck@yahoo.com

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