Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest is a living legacy of philanthropist and visionary, Isaac W. Bernheim. Born in Schmieheim, Germany on November 4, 1848, Isaac W. Bernheim immigrated to the United States in March, 1867 at the age of eighteen with only $4 in his pocket. After struggling for several years to make a living as a peddler in New York, eastern Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, he moved to Kentucky and went into the distilling business. Over the years he achieved great success with his Bernheim Brothers Distilling Company and his popular brand of bourbon, I. W. Harper.
Mr. Bernheim was grateful to the people of Kentucky for allowing him the opportunity to be successful, and he made many contributions throughout the community. His love of sculpture was manifest in several gifts to the public, including the statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Louisville Free Public Library and the statue of Thomas Jefferson in front of the Jefferson County Courthouse. He also donated the statues of Henry Clay and Ephraim McDowell which stand in the Statuary Hall in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C., representing Kentucky.
In 1929, Mr. Bernheim bought and endowed the land that would become Bernheim Forest, now over 16,000 acres. He dedicated this land as a gift to the people of his new homeland. Mr. Bernheim wanted to provide a place for the renewal and restoration of the bond between people and nature. His vision included the combination of an arboretum and natural forested areas infused with the arts, to create a unique site to experience nature. To make his vision a reality was not easy. Due to the land's previous use by the sale and iron ore industries, the landscape at the time of his purchase was heavily abused and nearly devoid of trees.
Between 1929 and 1950, workers prepared the land for its donor's intentions. As a testament to Isaac W. Bernheim's vision and perseverance, Bernheim today is home to a nationally-renowned 600-acre arboretum with over 8,000 varieties of documented trees, shrubs and herbaceous perennials in the arboretum, including the celebrated Hubbuch Holly Collection with over 300 specimens.
In 1931, the Frederick Law Olmsted firm of Brookline, Massachusetts began work on a major site plan for the landscape arboretum. They created an original landscape design that was adopted by the Board of Trustees in 1935.
Following the Olmsted plan, workers built three small lakes and a road through the arboretum before any of the collections were planted. The entrance road began at State Highway 245 and led to the fire tower, a distance of 3.1 miles. Originally dirt, it was blacktopped in 1948 in preparation for the public's arrival. Bernheim’s roads now cover eleven miles. The Olmsted Ponds (formerly Cedar and Holly ponds), as well as Mac's Lake were created in 1939. Lake Nevin, a 32-acre fishing lake near what is now the main entrance, was impounded in 1949 and named in honor of Mr. Hugh L. Nevin, President of the Board of Trustees for many years. Bernheim opened to the public in July, 1950. In 2019, Bernheim Forest celebrated its 90th Anniversary. Over 500,000 visitors from the U.S. and abroad now visit Bernheim each year.
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