Arboretum founder Fred Lape earned a degree in English at Cornell and started a teaching career at Stanford University, before he returned in 1928 to the farm to pursue a career in freelance writing. Selling a short story to Collier's encouraged this move, but the ensuing years, although productive in terms of writing, were not productive financially.
Prolific in prose and poetry, he was involved in music, art and theater. Fred taught for a few years in the late 1930s at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.
The Landis Arboretum began as an idea. Fred Lape aimed to grow every species of woody plant from temperate regions around the world that would survive in the hills of Schoharie County. Fred’s desire had its origin in a fascination with the variations of trunk, limb and leaf. To fulfill that desire he started planting trees on the site of his 19th century Oak Nose Farm, his boyhood family home.
Fred collected plants from nurseries, other arboreta, and botanical gardens through seed exchanges,and from the wild. His enthusiasm for collecting and propagation continued until his death, resulting in a unique collection of hardy trees and shrubs.
Some familiar names identify his propagation projects: Rhododendron x ‘Esperance’, Syringa vulgaris ‘Schoharie’ (lilac), Chaenomeles speciosa ‘George Landis’ (quince), Malus pumila niedzwetzkyana ‘Unnamed Cultivars’ (crabapples).
Fred kept careful records of his plantings, providing valuable historical documentation of his efforts. Hard work made the transition from farm to arboretum possible. His friends, with the help of a few small grants, continued to plant and maintain the grounds.
In the later years of his life, he found it increasingly difficult to manage the Arboretum and slowly transferred management to the Board of Trustees. He continued, however, to be devoted to the idea of a “garden of trees and shrubs” and he created a small endowment fund prior to his death in 1985.
George Landis, an academic colleague, plant collector and friend of Fred’s, was one of the early enthusiasts who helped bring about the creation of the arboretum. George Landis passed away in 1950, leaving most of his estate to Fred. This bequest allowed Fred to focus his energy on planting an arboretum.
The Arboretum was established in 1951 and named for the "friend who had made it all possible both in life and in death."
Another individual instrumental in the early stages of the Arboretum’s development was Levan Loveland. As a banker and financial advisor he was primarily responsible for the incorporation of the Arboretum as an educational institution. In addition, Loveland is remembered for his skill in and enthusiasm for flower gardening.
Some of his original perennial beds that bear his name are in front of the farmhouse and continue to attract large numbers of visitors year after year.