Louise Hallberg, Graton's 'Butterfly Lady,' dies at 100

Louise Hallberg guided generations of students through her gardens which will remain open to the public.|

Sonoma County lost a piece of history with the passing of Louise Hallberg on Saturday. She was 100 years old.

The lifelong Graton resident was affectionately known to decades of Oak Grove Elementary School students as “The Butterfly Lady.” Every year since the late 1980s, students at the school would take the 10-minute walk to the butterfly garden at Hallberg’s Victorian home, built by her grandfather around the turn of the 20th century.

“She was so sweet and so kind and she loved children,” said Ann Parnell, secretary at Oak Grove Elementary School and longtime Graton resident.

The butterfly garden got its start in when Hallberg’s mother, Della, planted the native Dutchman’s Pipe in the 1920s. The vine is the only plant on which the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly nests. Those butterflies had almost exclusive reign in the garden until Hallberg began to plant vines and flowers to attract other butterflies more than a half century later. This original planting makes the west county landmark one of the oldest butterfly gardens in the county.

Her family first laid down roots in Graton in 1883 when her grandparents, immigrants from Sweden, purchased 40 acres outside of Sebastopol. The farm grew to 130 acres where they harvested hops, berries, pears, apples and other fruit. Hallberg was born in Sebastopol on Jan. 3, 1917, and lived in her family’s home for most of her life.

Hallberg attended Oak Grove Elementary School and Analy High School in Sebastopol. She then went on to UC Berkeley, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in political science in the late years of the Great Depression. Hallberg worked in the registrar’s office at Santa Rosa Junior College for three decades until she retired in 1975.

Hallberg was known for her meticulous record keeping, whether at the registrar’s office, in her butterfly garden or with the weather. Her father built a weather station on the property in 1930. She carried on his tradition of collecting weather data and in 1968 the station was recognized as an official reporting station by the federal government.

In retirement, she began researching butterflies and their relationships to plants. She would contact entomologists and botanists inquiring about plants that attract butterflies. She traveled to nurseries and searched the wilderness for the right plants. After a decade, Painted Ladies, Monarchs, Purplish Coppers, Buckeye Great Purple Hairstreaks and dozens of other butterflies joined the Pipevine Swallowtail in her garden. Every day she would document the number and type of Lepidoptera on her property.

In 1997, she created a nonprofit, the Hallberg Butterfly Gardens. Over the years she personally greeted more than 35,000 people who came to her garden for tours during the spring and summer months of butterfly season. She continued tours into her 99th year last summer.

“She had a sense of wonder for nature. You could see it in just the way she would touch a plant,” said Gabriele Shader, a kindergarten teacher at Oak Grove who has known Hallberg for years. “She had a special reverence and she installed that sense in the children who visited.”

A children’s book, “A Class Trip to Miss Hallberg’s Butterfly Garden,” was published in 2000. The book, written by Gay Bishop Brorstrom and illustrated by Kathy Goetzel, will bring Hallberg into the lives of children for years to come.

Her legacy will live on through the Hallberg Butterfly Garden, which will remain open to the public, and her Victorian home will become property of the nonprofit she started.

Hallberg never married and has no surviving immediate family. Her nieces and nephews still own much of the family properties, which include the Emeritus Vineyards on Gravenstein Highway in Sebastopol.

At her 100th birthday party in early January at the Graton Community Club that her mother helped found in 1914, Hallberg insisted that she didn’t wanted any memorial services. Those wishes are being respected.

“Her birthday wish that she kept repeating over and over again was, ‘Keep the gardens going,’” said Leah Brorstrom, who has worked with the Hallberg Butterfly Gardens for seven years and was one of the first groups of Oak Grove students to visit the gardens in the late 1980s.

You can reach Staff Writer Nick Rahaim at 707-521-5203 or nick.rahaim@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nrahaim.

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