Elise Smith Lapham passes at 99

Mon, 03/28/2011 - 8:53pm

Elise Lapham, who bequeathed the wonderful Clay Head trail system locally known as “the maze” to Block Island, died of natural causes in her apartment in Bloomfield, Conn., this week. She was an ardent conservationist, philanthropist, active community member and loving mother and grandmother.

Elise grew up in Grosse Pointe, Mich., and attended Vassar College. She married David Lapham in 1933. After living in nearly a dozen places before and during the Second World War, Elise and David settled in New Canaan, Conn., where they raised four children. She was active in many community organizations including the New Canaan Garden Club, for which she served as president for two years as well as on the board of the Garden Club of America. She was also on the boards of the New Canaan Inn, the Stamford Museum and Nature Center and Newington Children’s Hospital. Later in life, she made significant contributions to the Waveny Care Center and the Lapham Community Center on the former estate of David’s grandfather, Lewis H. Lapham. She also established a small foundation to continue her charitable giving in the future.

In the 1950s Elise and David fell in love with Block Island. They bought a few lots to build a house in 1960 and circumstances fortuitously led them to purchase another 135 acres. They began to cut trails and plant trees and eventually ended 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 that blanket the fields with yellow every spring. Walkers were welcome on the winding trails, through 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.

Elise became interested in bird banding in the early 1960s and several years later obtained her banding license. In 1967 she set up a banding station on the property. With the help of her daughter Helen, her islander friend Kim Gaffett and other volunteers, migrating spring and fall birds have been banded every year since. Visitors were always welcome and she and her helpers gave hundreds of demonstrations to Block Island school children, Audubon and other groups that came to see the operation. She provided funds to have more than 40 years of banding records entered into a database now available to researchers. In 1995 she received the Block Island Times 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 Survey.

Elise and David traveled extensively and were early participants in the small ship Lindblad cruises. After David died in 1991, Elise continued to travel with friends and family.

She is survived by her son Peter, daughter Penelope and granddaughters, Erica Anderson and Fiona and Sara Lapham. Memorial donations can be made to Waveny Care Center in New Canaan or The Nature Conservancy, Block Island. An informal memorial service will be held on Block Island in May.