The newest leader at the helm of this southwest Rockford attraction is introducing big ideas for the months ahead. Meet Alexander Mills and learn what he has in store.
As the new executive director of Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Garden, Alexander Mills wants to attend to the plants, shrubs and trees around him, but he also wants to plant seeds in the minds of visitors young and old – to grow their appreciation for nature and what Klehm holds in store for them.
Mills, 32, holds a B.S. in Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences from the University of Illinois and is certified by the International Society of Arboriculture. He most recently served as Neighborhood Services Manager and Community Development Director for the City of Freeport. He steps into the Klehm position previously held by Dan Riggs, who retired in mid-June after almost six years at the helm of the 33-year-old organization.
Mills had visited Klehm before answering an ad for the current position, which he describes as his “dream job.” His office has large windows overlooking wildflowers and ornamental grasses blowing wildly in the wind, as if to express excitement for the next chapter at Klehm.
“It seems like I’ve spent my entire life preparing myself for this position,” Mills says. “This is where I’m supposed to be, and I plan to take Klehm to the next level of awareness and bring even more people here.
“I’d like to see more feet on the ground, day in and day out,” he continues. “Volunteers and others have worked hard to make Klehm what it is today, and I want to make sure Klehm is being used to its maximum potential. I want to see more people here, making return visits and becoming members and volunteers, realizing what a jewel this is in our city.”
First on his agenda is the completion of the large water feature at the Nancy Olson Children’s Garden this fall. Twin streams flow to a splash pad for kids to enjoy. A grand opening is slated for spring.
Mills is writing several grants to help continue growth and improvement at Klehm. Also on his agenda is expanding the unique collection of trees and other growing things, while also reaching out to the community. He wants to see more classes and educational opportunities for people of all ages, and more weekends like a recent one at Klehm that featured three events simultaneously – an outdoor Woodsong concert, a volunteer awards ceremony and an indoor private reception.
Klehm is maintained as a 155-acre living museum with gardens and rare trees for the enjoyment, education and inspiration of visitors. It’s a private, nonprofit, membership-based organization, supported through dues, donations, sponsorships, grants, fundraisers and subsidies, in partnership with the Forest Preserves of Winnebago County.
Landscape architect William Lincoln Taylor established the site as a nursery around 1910, which explains the many rare, now-mature trees on the property. His experimental plantings include trees found nowhere else in Illinois, some of which were never expected to thrive in our climate but have defied the odds for more than a century.
The Klehm family bought the nursery in 1968 and maintained it until 1985. Because they understood its horticultural value, they generously donated the land to the Winnebago County Forest Preserve District with the stipulation it be maintained as an arboretum.
Mills made his first visit to Klehm about 10 years ago. He was in Rockford helping to conduct an inventory of trees on city streets, making note of tree species, ages and sizes in anticipation of the arrival of the destructive Emerald Ash Borer.
On a side trip to Klehm, he discovered the uniqueness of the arboretum, which had its beginning as a nursery. On another trip, he was able to spend more time, paying even more attention to the variety of vegetation and people of all ages walking around.
Mills grew up in Georgetown, Ill., and remembers being outdoors most of the time, roaming the woods and eventually taking part in a conservation program at a nearby forest preserve. While in college, he owned his own forestry business. He spent the weekends doing surveys and reports, and constructed forest management plans for landowners. His appreciation for the outdoors only grew as he participated in cross-country running.
“I knew I wanted to work with trees, but I didn’t want to cut them down, which is the way a lot of people go,” he says.
Mills’ wife, Jessie, is a veterinarian practicing in Orangeville, Ill. The couple has two children, John, 6, and Samantha, 1.
“We have a lot going on here and I want to build on that,” he says. “I’m ready to raise our profile to the next level.”