With origins in Gascony, France, the word is derived from la hite, which means hillock or small hill. How appropriate that the name is associated with a beloved nature sanctuary near Liberty that is dedicated to the memory of a woman who preserved its beauty for generations to come. The Martha Lafite Thompson Nature Sanctuary is approaching its 50th year and is built on the vision, faith, and dedication of those who share the vision of its namesake.
In 1911, life in Liberty, Missouri, was bustling and eager to keep up with the changing times. William Jewell College had already been established and the sinking of the Titanic was still a year away. Although Ford’s popular Model-T was embraced by those with the means and desire to approach life on four wheels, a little girl was born who would grow to prefer afternoons in life surrounded by horses and open air.
Martha was born on December 25, 1911, to Roger and Annie Lafite. Roger, originally from France, served in its Forestry department, passing down his love for the outdoors to little Martha who had a special connection with horses from an early age. Martha’s upbringing was definitely not typical of the times; her parents were very well-traveled and – whether by genetics or nurturing – instilled a certain level of wanderlust and free-thinking in their daughter.
Growing up in Liberty and eventually graduating from Liberty High School in the late 1920s, Martha found a perfect partner in Omar Thompson, the owner, and operator of a greenhouse and nursery in the area. The two wed, not yet realizing that their mutual love for the land and its preservation would become a passion that only grew stronger with the passage of time.
The first chapter of the story began when Omar and Martha purchased over 50 acres of land in the 1950s. Quite popular with friends and among the emerging Kansas City social scene, Martha organized get-togethers with friends on her property to watch birds and enjoy the peace that came with a warm summer wind and the rhythmic sway of prairie grass at dusk.
Although dedicating her land to a nature sanctuary was always her plan, she wasn’t able to see it through entirely before her death from a stroke in 1975. Thanks to the dedication and those she left behind, they were able to work with William Jewel, the ErnestShepherd Youth Memorial, and the Burroughs Audubon Society to incorporate a non-profit and raise capital to build a Nature Center in 1988. The Missouri Department of Conservation also purchased over 40 acres of land and leased it to the sanctuary to expand its footprint and create a new partnership.
Anne Nickel, President of the sanctuary’s Board, feels a special connection to Martha. When Nickel learned that she had documented her life from 1933 to 1937 in a journal, she knew she had to share Martha’s story with the public. After extensive research into her history and memories captured by Martha’s own hand, Nickel worked to create an exhibit full of photos, interesting facts, and excerpts from the journal that visitors to the sanctuary can enjoy in the Nature Center now through the end of May.
Describing Martha as “independent and unconventional for her time,” Anne attributes her carefree spirit and determination to a rather nontraditional upbringing. Martha’s parents eventually divorced and she traveled the United States and many parts of the world with her father, undoubtedly bringing a love of diverse cultures back with her when returned to Liberty. “I think she was strong-willed,” Anne says, based on her reading of the journal. “She cared about what people thought but wasn’t going to conform. She followed her heart.”
Now, 112 years after Martha’s birth, her dream of a nature sanctuary is alive and flourishing with 100 acres of land and four miles of scenic walking trails, some of which Martha mapped out during her lifetime. It’s heartwarming to think how she would feel knowing children celebrate their birthdays on this land, scouts go on adventures and a piece of land so precious to her is now a destination for excited field trip goers and those who need to press pause on their busy lives.
“I think she was a fun person who lived a full life,” says Executive Director Michael Sandy. “She was passionate about getting this set up as a nature sanctuary.” Although her presence is felt throughout the property, a tribute to Martha and her legacy stands proudly in a plaque attached to a pink granite rock close to the picnic area. Written in both English and French to honor her heritage, it reads: “Her generosity and foresight made this sanctuary possible.”
As an only child with no children of her own, Martha’s land and hope for the future were at the heart of what she left behind. “She had to decide, who is going to inherit this?” Nickel says. “We inherited her land and it’s on us to keep her vision alive.”
You can see the exhibit on Martha Lafite Thompson through the end of May and explore the property at 407 N La Frenz Road in Liberty while you’re there. The Martha Lafite Thompson Nature Sanctuary is made possible only through corporate and individual donations. You can read more about the nature sanctuary and Martha or donate at naturesanctuary.com
“She had to decide, who is going to inherit this?” Anne says. “We inherited her land and it’s on us to keep her vision alive.”