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In Memory of Elise Smith Lapham

In Memory of Elise Smith Lapham, New Canaan Garden Club

t600-Elise_Lapham_Photo1DWG3Elise Smith Lapham died of natural causes in late March at the age of 99. Mrs. Lapham was an ardent conservationist, philanthropist, active community member and loving mother and grandmother.

She grew up in Grosse Pointe, MI, attended Vassar College and married David Lapham in 1933, settling in New Canaan, CT, where they raised four children. An active member of the New Canaan Garden Club since 1939, she served as its president for two years and later served as a Garden Club of America Director from 1965 to 1967.

In the 1950’s, Mr. and Mrs. Lapham fell in love with Block Island, a small jewel off the coast of Rhode Island. David Lapham, who was in the shipping business in New York, turned to his wife at one point and said, “You know, I’ve never had to go to a cocktail party on Block Island. I think this is the island for me.”

They bought a couple of lots to build a house in 1960 and circumstances allowed them to purchase another 135 acres. They began to cut trails and plant trees, eventually ending up with nine miles of trails, including a mile along the bluffs at the north end of the island. They also planted thousands of daffodils, which continue to blanket the fields with yellow every spring. To quote Mrs. Lapham, “Dave would go along — he’d take a posthole digger, stick it in the soil and wiggle it back and forth,” Elise said. “And then I’d come along on my hands and knees, put a handful of bulb food in the bottom, put the bulb in, and then David would come back and stamp it into place.”

Walkers were welcome on the trails, which became known locally as “the maze”. In 1979 they donated conservation easements on most of the land to the State of Rhode Island and the Nature Conservancy, protecting it from future development. This donation helped to trigger matching federal funds that enabled local organizations to purchase additional open space on the island for permanent protection.

Mrs. Lapham became interested in bird banding in the early ‘60s, and several years later obtained her banding license. In 1967 she set up a banding station on her Block Island property where with the help of family and volunteers, migrating birds have been banded in the spring and fall every year since then. She gave hundreds of demonstrations to Block Island school children and to the Audubon. She provided money to have more than 40 years of banding records entered into a database, now available to researchers. In 1995, she received the Block Island Bayberry Wreath award for outstanding service to the island in conservation and in 2006 she received the Distinguished Naturalist Award from the Rhode Island Natural History Society.

Elise Lapham was an active and later an honorary member of the New Canaan Garden Club from 1939 until her passing this year. The NCGC cherishes her 72 year legacy of conservation and commitment to serve the environment in New Canaan and Rhode Island.