Park History


The Great Depression dramatically affected the American family. Many men found themselves out of work, and many women, eager to support themselves and their families or relatives, worked outside the home for the first time. The New Deal programs, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s response to the Depression, were designed to provide jobs to the unemployed through public works projects. Through newly implemented agencies such as the Works Progress Administration, Americans were put back to work. With its WPA allotment, Petersburg put local people to work on a long list of public construction and improvement projects such as roads, schools, a new city hall, and even a new public golf course. August 1936, WPA projects in Petersburg employed 795 people, most of whom were black and almost half of whom (362) were women.

Petersburg Projects

Women Workers

In Lee Memorial Park and elsewhere around the country, women WPA workers often landscaped publicly owned property. Some WPA landscaping projects were created specifically to employ black women with limited skills. These programs drew fire from the NAACP, which charged that black women were assigned to outdoor physical labor while similarly unskilled white women were given indoor work.

Although some argued that women should not be given jobs when many men were unemployed, women in key positions in the Roosevelt administration ensured that unemployed women benefited from the work relief programs. In Petersburg, Virginia, as in most communities, women employed by the WPA worked in jobs associated with women’s work: they sewed bedding and clothing for indigent families, typed and filed city records, immunized children, and staffed nurseries.

During its five years of funding, the Lee Park project employed hundreds of women. Very few of their names are known. In addition to their director, Donald Holden, the typical workforce at the sanctuary included a timekeeper, four to eight supervisors (called forewomen), and several dozen laborers. Nearly all of them were women. All evidence shows that the work roles in the sanctuary were segregated; the laborers were black and the supervisors were white, typical of many New Deal programs in the South.

Mary Bell Focie

Mary Bell Focie, pictured here, worked as a laborer in Lee Park. “There was nothing but dirt before.... We planted little shrubs on the hills about eight inches tall,” she said.The honeysuckle planting was particularly strenuous, especially in cold weather. Years later, Focie still did not want to hear the name Lee Park because it reminded her of “freezing with a shovel in our hands.”

Mary Webb Jones

Mary Webb Jones, pictured in 1935 or 1936, was a supervisor and one of the first women to work on the Lee Park project. Mrs. Jones’ Reassignment Slip shows that she was to report for work in the park’s bird and flower sanctuary on December 2, 1935. Also classified as a practical nurse on her identification card, Jones rendered first aid to one of the other workers and later wrote about it in her diary.

The Lee Park Project

The WPA project at Lee Park began in December 1935, when the City of Petersburg used part of its WPA allocation to create jobs for women building a wildflower and bird sanctuary within the park. Mary Donald Claiborne Holden, a member of the Petersburg Garden Club and an avid horticulturist, was chosen to supervise the project. Groups of unemployed black and white women worked to clear ravines, build more than ten miles of paths, and plant more than one million honeysuckle roots to control erosion. The women also labeled 500 different kinds of plants with both common and botanical names, transplanted more than 365,000 plants, shrubs, and trees into the preserve, and constructed bridges and benches in the park. Despite federal laws prohibiting segregation in New Deal programs, racial discrimination was evident in the Lee Park project; only white women held supervisory positions, while mostly black women did the demanding manual labor.


By late 1940s, the WPA was winding down across the nation as the economy was picking up and people were preparing for the possibility of war. In November 1940, the Lee Park sanctuary received its final WPA allocation. For several more years, volunteers from The Petersburg Garden Club tended the bird and wildflower preserve.

Women WPA workers transplanting flowers along one of the four main hills of the Lee Park Wildflower and Bird Sanctuary in Petersburg, c.1937.

Log Bridge

Photo of log steps and bridge constructed by WPA workers in Lee Park.

The Holdens

Donald Claiborne Holden and her family, Christmas 1943. Left to right: Annie Watson (Nan), Donald Claiborne (daughter), John, Annie Watson (daughter) holding her baby Robert McKean, Herbert, and Donald.

Right: the Claiborne family home at 109 North Union Street. It was demolished in the early twentieth century to make way for a parking lot for the Hotel Petersburg.
Bird Sanctuary

Part of the WPA project in Lee Park saw the creation of a wildflower and bird sanctuary located in an area of the park that included native forests and meadows. Today, the forest habitats that survive in Lee Park are somewhat different from those that existed in the the 1940s. This is because many sections of the park have not been actively maintained. Large trees have been destroyed by storms, the water level of Willcox Branch and Lake has risen, pollution has increased, and invasive plant species have taken hold. Still, many birds that were reportedly living in the park in the 1940s can still be found today, including the Great Blue Heron, White-breasted Nuthatch, Carolina Chickadee, Yellow-rumped and Yellow-throated Warblers, Wood Thrush, Chipping Sparrow, and Summer Tanager. Some birds that were reportedly seen in the 1940s have not been seen recently, including scaups, yellowlegs, coots, Tundra Swan, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Pygmy Nuthatch, Hooded Warbler, and Cerulean Warbler. Excellent birding is now available in Lee Park. Some of the commonly-seen species are illustrated on this panel.

Owl, Wren & Map

The map shows the location of the Bird Sanctuary in Lee Park. Barred Owls— permanent residents of Lee Park—are large (21ʺ tall with a 42ʺ wingspan) raptors that hunt small rodents and birds mostly at night, at dusk, or in the early morning. They fly silently, can be seen along the trails in Lee Park, and have a call that sounds like “Who Cooks for You All.” Carolina Wrens (top right) are very common in Lee Park, and can be heard or seen just about anywhere near wooded areas all year round.

Bird Shelter

This photo shows a blind built in the 1940s in Lee Memorial Park to allow birders to observe or photograph birds in their natural habitat.

Warbler & Kingfisher

Belted Kingfishers frequent Willcox Lake. They can be seen almost any time of the year sitting on a perch, diving down to capture small fish, or flying close to the water while making a repetitive, almost monotone sound. They swallow their prey head first after beating them against a branch.

Pine Warblers are small yellowish birds with yellow “spectacles.” They arrive in the Lee Park area in early spring or late winter, and some stay until fall. They are usually found in tall stands of pines.

Plant Sanctuary

The Lee Park Wildflower Sanctuary merited the name “Sanctuary.” It offered a variety of habitat types into which the women transplanted over five hundred plant species. These habitats included hardwood forests with and without pine, open woodland borders and roadsides, moist, shady ravine bottoms, lake margins, and the inlet of Willcox Lake where the WPA bog was created. Every attempt was made to match each rescued plant to a site within the Sanctuary that was similar to its original home. Donald Holden taught the women workers to “plan, plant, and care for gardens.” This helped ensure that the plants were placed in the ground with proper care. Despite this care, most of the transplanted species did not survive. We now know that rare species generally do not survive long term after transplantation. Protecting the original habitat works best.

Heart of the Park

The Lee Park Wildflower Sanctuary was situated in the heart of the Park, buffered by the lake, the Bird Sanctuary, Confederate Breastworks and an internal Park road.


Silky leather-flower is a member of the buttercup family, and like some other members of that family (marsh-marigold, for example), the sepals play the role of petals and petals are absent. Its common name refers to its silky-hairy stems (when young) and the four thickened, silky-hairy sepals. It is primarily a plant of the Piedmont.


Donald Holden wanted to help the women workers learn the names of the plants in the Sanctuary. One way she did that was by playing a game in which they were asked to pair a riddle (such as “untamed sweetness”) with the appropriate plant name. Canine timber was the clue for dogwood.