Here are some brief stories and images highlighting people from the park district’s past.
Nelson Bennett was a man who loomed larger than life in most everything he did, and his accomplishments were considerable. Bennett was a “hands on” sort of manager at a time when individual initiative was highly valued, at least until Bennett locked horns with the other Commissioners of the Metropolitan Park District of Tacoma in 1909 and ended up quitting in a huff.
A quick summary of Bennett’s life before the Metropolitan Park District incident will help to illuminate this interesting man. Bennett was born in Sutton, Canada in 1843. By the time he was 17 he was working at constructing government barracks in New York. After that, he was active in the oil business in Pennsylvania, successfully sinking 25 wells at a time that oil drilling was more of an art than a science. Bennett gradually moved west, working as a school teacher, Indian fighter, miner and freight shipper. The freight business segued into engineering and tunneling for railway lines and it is this aspect of his career that Bennett is chiefly remembered for. He settled in Tacoma and at various points in the 1890s owned a newspaper, The Tacoma Ledger, and the Tacoma Hotel. It should be noted that a number of ethics controversies followed Bennett in his business dealings in Tacoma and elsewhere.
The “official” biography of Bennett, prepared by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), for the Metropolitan Park District in the 1930s states:
“He spent a considerable period as president of the Park Board, doing much to better the condition of the animals and birds in the zoo…He was a most earnest advocate of well developed parks and boulevard system, and favored every defined plan and project for up-building, improvements and adornment of the city.”
What the Metropolitan Park District biography fails to mention is that in 1909 Bennett was serving as a Park Board Commissioner, President of the Park Board and General Manager of the park system with a monthly salary of $300. This was most likely viewed as a conflict of interest by other Park Board Commissioners and a controversy ensued which ultimately forced his resignation. In a statement, Bennett said:
“…as I am unalterably opposed to serving the public without adequate compensation, as well as, insistent upon doing those things which are necessary for the welfare of the Parks, Boulevards and Zoo, I, therefore, in the interest of harmony and what seems to me the only honorable course to take, hereby tender my resignation…”
The newspapers had a field day with it. A political cartoon labeled “A quiet Session of the Park Board” shows a newspaper reporter being escorted out of the room for asking to see Park Board records and the meeting in general uproar. Bennett is depicted clutching a bag of money labeled “$300 per mo”. It would hardly be the last time the local press took aim at the Park Board, but it may be one of the first recorded occasions.
After Bennett resigned from the Park Board, he continued various entrepreneurial pursuits. At the time of his death in 1913 Bennett was working on a railroad tunnel near Ruston Way. This tunnel, which now bears his name, was completed by his widow, Lottie Wells Bennett.
Progress during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Dr. H. A. Christoffersen, a Tacoma dentist, served as a Park Board Commissioner between 1931 and 1952. During those 21 years he acted as President of the Park Board on 5 occasions; in 1932, 1933, 1938, 1943 and 1948. When Christoffersen was running for re-election to the Park Board in 1941, he gave a detailed account of park development for the preceding 10 year period. This article, which was published in the Tacoma News Tribune on March 6, 1941, is actually an interesting overview of the history of Tacoma’s parks during the Great Depression:
…Not only has the park district made a substantial improvement in its financial position during the past ten years but it has also made an enviable record of progress and development of its physical assets.
At Point Defiance park a mile of road was paved, a half mile of concrete sea-wall constructed, an aquarium was built and equipped at an expense of $8,000, which has proved most popular with old and young, alike.
Not generally known by the average citizen but none the less of an important item was the installation of a complete new cast iron and steel water distribution system, requiring forty carloads of pipe. Fort Nisqually, sponsored by the Young Men’s Business club and Pioneers of Washington, was reconstructed. A picnic area at water level was developed. Here a modern community kitchen, comfort station, bath house and food concession buildings were constructed. [This area was re-named Owen Beach] The latest improvement was the construction of a modern boat house providing storage facilities for four hundred private boats and two hundred additional boats for hire. On the deck of this boat house a modern restaurant was constructed and equipped. All these costing the park district $150,000 during the last ten years in addition to many thousands spend by the Federal Works Progress administration.
Wapato park, located in the south end of the city, has been developed from the rough to a modern park and recreation area, completely equipped at a cost to the park district of about $25,000 in addition to substantial expenditures by the Federal Works Progress administration. This park is a fine example of the modern conception of a recreation area, and at the same time providing a maximum of facilities for sports and leisure time activities.
Work in progress at Titlow Beach at the west end of Sixth avenue has already cost the park district upward of $12,000 and when completed will be a park of outstanding beauty providing the public with all the facilities of a modern park and recreation area.
Other parks having substantial improvements during the past ten years include Spanaway with a new bath house and caretaker’s cottage; Wright park, with a bowling green, recreation area and re-constructed conservatory; Lincoln park, with a modern community kitchen and picnic grounds connecting with a small playground; McKinley park with new playground facilities, and many other park areas with substantial improvements.
Areas especially classed as playground improved during the past ten years include Jefferson, in the west end, with 17 acres; Portland Avenue, Roosevelt, in the east end; Alling, McKinley, Harmon Dawson, Oakland in the south end; Jane Clark in the north end; have been completed or are in the course of construction. Franklin, in the west end, and now in the course of construction, will be another park and playground of major importance when completed…
…When I (as a park commissioner) look back at this record of development and achievement I cannot but feel proud of the city I was born in, have spend most of my life in, and expect to living in the rest of my life…
The Great Depression was a period when parks infrastructure improved substantially, thanks to the forward-thinking Commissioners of the Metropolitan Park Board and partnerships with the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Many of the improvements that Christoffersen refers to are still in evidence today.
The statue near the entrance to the park commemorates the Honorable Francis W. Cushman, a U.S Congressman from Tacoma who served from 1899 – 1909 and was instrumental in getting title for the land covering Point Defiance Park conveyed to the City of Tacoma. Originally, the land was claimed by the U. S. Government as a military reservation in 1866, but was never used for any military purposes. In 1888 the City of Tacoma was allowed to develop the property as a park by an act of Congress signed by President Cleveland. But it wasn’t until 1905 that actual title to the land was transferred to the city. Cushman took it as his personal project to push the bill (HR 17019) through committee and to a successful vote of the full Congress. Cushman died at the relatively young age of 42 in 1909. Almost immediately there was talk of commemorating him in some way in Point Defiance Park. When Mr. Cushman’s mother died in 1919, she left a bequest of $20,000 to fund a memorial to her late son. Scottish born sculptor, J. Massey Rhind of New York City, was selected to complete the sculpture which has stood proudly to welcome visitors to Point Defiance Park since its unveiling on October 19, 1925. The centennial of Point Defiance, which will occur on March 3, 2005, would not be possible without the efforts of Francis W. Cushman. The next time you are in the park, consider strolling over to the monument and spend a few minutes enjoying the view of the bowl and gardens from the granite benches at the base of the Cushman Statue.
The Seymour Conservatory has had only had 5 directors in a nearly 100-year history. Each of these
directors has left their own individual mark on the Conservatory. In a recent article the first director, Gustav Faulk, was profiled. His successor, Clarence M. Deming, oversaw, and was principally responsible for, dramatic changes that occurred at the Seymour Conservatory between 1949 and 1971. Many of the changes he made are still in evidence today.
Deming was initially hired by the Metropolitan Park District in 1937, his first 3 years were spent working as a gardener at Point Defiance Park in the nursery, Rose Garden and what was then termed the “perennial gardens”. He was next assigned to assist Seymour Conservatory Director, Gustav Faulk, in Wright Park. During World War II, Deming worked in material control at a shipyard, as he had been rejected for military service because he was diabetic.
After the war Deming returned to the Metropolitan Park District, working in the Seymour Conservatory again. Deming’s name begins to appear in newspaper articles in 1947, noted as the horticulturist that arranged various special displays. In 1949 Deming was put in charge of the Conservatory upon the retirement of Faulk. The staid Victorian conservatory of palms would never again be the same. Deming should be credited with bringing the Seymour Conservatory into the 20th century and integrating art into botanical settings. He is personally responsible for 4 Aztec and Maori inspired statues that are still in the north wing and 2 statues at the conservatory doors. These statues were all made of modeled cement over a metal frame. Deming worked with various household tools while the wet cement was still pliable, completing each of them in one day.
Along with the art, Deming made substantial renovations to the Conservatory that defines the interior as it still looks today. He also began reaching out to the community, speaking to garden clubs and other groups to solicit plant and financial donations and generally increase the visibility of the Conservatory. Deming’s flair for artistic display is evident in many newspaper articles from the 1950s and 1960s. An Easter display in April 1968 featured a feathered swan drifting in a mist of spun glass, surrounded by a lacy veil. Doves perched on colorful poles and a mass of Easter lilies provided a backdrop to the display.
Deming retired from the Metropolitan Park District in August 1971 and was succeeded at the Conservatory by Stephen Brightman. Deming enjoyed an active retirement, traveling extensively in Mexico and growing orchids. Clarence Deming died on December 25, 2003. He leaves a legacy of community involvement and artistic expression, which characterize the Seymour Conservatory during the years of his directorship. A brochure about the Aztec and Maori inspired sculptures that Clarence Deming made is now available at the Conservatory. Next time you’re there, pick up one of the brochures and peek around the foliage to find the hidden treasures that Deming left for us to enjoy.
Gustav Faulk worked at the Seymour Conservatory between the years 1912 and 1949. During most of
that time he functioned as the curator or director of the Conservatory, although he likely never held those job titles. We recently had an opportunity to meet with Faulk’s daughter and grandson, Arlene and Terry Lumsden to learn a bit more about his career with the Metropolitan Park District of Tacoma. Arlene’s sister, June Hickok, also wrote down her own remembrances of her father’s life for our use. These oral and written family histories give us a much fuller portrait of Gustav Faulk, and in turn, of the early accomplishments in the development of Metro Parks.
Gustav Linus Faulk was born in Sweden in 1876. He received horticulturist training in his native Sweden, initially as a gardener at a spa and later at a horticultural school. He immigrated to the United States in 1899 to join one of his older brothers who found him a job working in a coal mine in Pennsylvania. Faulk hated mine work, but did meet his future wife, Jennie Johnson, while living in Pennsylvania. Faulk traveled to the west coast and liked the climate of the Pacific Northwest as it was more comparable to Sweden. He was hired by the Metropolitan Park District of Tacoma in 1910, initially working in Point Defiance Park. His agricultural background was soon noted and he was transferred to the Seymour Conservatory in 1912. Flowers were second nature to Faulk and for 38 years the conservatory was the great love of his life – after his wife, Jennie, whom he brought out from Pennsylvania after getting established in Tacoma.
In a 1934 newspaper article, Faulk recalled the grand ladies and gentlemen of the city parading through the Wright Park in their carriages during the early days of the Conservatory:
We had two roads in the grounds back in those days. One that was the continuation of Yakima Avenue and the other a long curving affair, that started at 3rd and G Street, made a letter S and ended up on I Street. We closed the last because the people drove their horses too fast and it wasn’t safe for the children.
During the Faulk years, the Conservatory did not have the rotating displays that we are now accustomed to. But, beginning in the 1930s, botanical events started occurring that were noted in the local papers. In May of 1936 a Bird of Paradise that had been purchased the previous June, bloomed for the first time. And in March of 1937 two blooms appeared on the plant simultaneously. In June 1946 there is a delightful article about a rare night blooming Cereus that was featured at the Conservatory. The plant only bloomed between dusk and sunrise and was located in the north wing of the Conservatory. The newspaper assured readers that lights would be turned on in order that the display could be seen.
Faulk’s daughter June recalls that he would freely give advice to visitors when asked and would keep donated plants in a special section so the donors could see them grow. He would always get a kick out of visitors to the Conservatory spotting a beautiful little bright red pepper and tasting it. They would hurry for water to rinse out their burning mouths. There were signs posted to warn people, but if they ignored them they would pay the price.
Faulk retired in 1949 and was succeeded by Clarence Deming, who made many dramatic changes to the Conservatory that are still in evidence today. Faulk took an active interest in the Conservatory even after his retirement and continued to live in Tacoma. He died in February 1962.
Frederick Heath was one of Tacoma’s most prominent architects and designed many public buildings in the city and across the country. Heath also has a particular association with the Metropolitan Park District, and served on the Board of Park Commissioners between 1908 and 1918, when the new park district was taking its first steps after its formation in 1907.
Frederick Henry Heath was born in La Crosse, Wisconsin in 1861.
He was first employed in the printer’s trade, but after a few years took up architecture in Minneapolis in the office of Warren H. Hays. Heath moved to Tacoma in 1893 and by 1901 had established a business here. He was the senior partner in the firm that eventually was known has Heath, Gove & Bell.
In 1902 the Tacoma Board of Education appointed Heath to the position of school architect. He was responsible for redesigning the luxurious hotel that suffered a disastrous fire in 1898, turning it into Stadium High School in 1906. He also designed the bowl next to the high school and is often referred to as the “Father of the Stadium”.
Heath designed the Nereides Baths, which stood in Point Defiance Park between 1906 and 1931. This eclectic building was constructed of logs and somewhat resembled a Swiss chalet. It was Tacoma’s first indoor swimming pool and a great attraction in the park at the time. Heath served as president of the park board from 1911 until 1916. It was under his leadership that the firm of Hare and Hare was hired in 1911 to make a master plan of Point Defiance Park. This plan guided park development through the 1930s and is credited with suggesting that the streetcar station, built in 1914, be constructed in the Japanese or “Pagoda” style.
Heath’s architectural firm was responsible for over 600 projects in the Northwest and in Tacoma. Heath’s churches in Tacoma include St. Patrick’s, First Church of Christian Scientist, First Lutheran and First Baptist. His stores include the old Rhodes and Bon Marche department stores on Broadway.
Heath died in March, 1953, just a month shy of his 92nd birthday. He continued his architectural career right up until 2 weeks before his death. Imagine the changes and growth that Heath witnessed in Tacoma over 60 years. Also just think of the park and civic developments that he was personally responsible for!
In the early years after the Metropolitan Park District was formed in 1907, park employees did not
have the same benefits or protections that we often take for granted today. The career of one early employee, Miss Mathilda Mayer, is interesting in what it says about the role of women in the work force and the extent of change that has taken place over the past 90 years.
Miss Mayer was hired as a secretary for the Board of Park Commissioners about 1909. She was featured in local newspapers on several occasions. In April 1913 she was profiled among 7 other women who held various positions of responsibility within city government. It is interesting to note that 2 of the 8 women profiled were indicated as Mrs.____, so not all women quit working after marriage. Another human-interest story ran a photo of Miss Mayer and described how she personally delivered pay in cash to the all male employees working in the various parks that made up the fledgling park system. In another article published on May 4, 1913 Miss Mayer defended “spooning” in the parks and was quoted:
“We have to help the old maids find a husband and keep the young maids from growing old-unmarried. That’s what parks are for. People like to sit and talk by themselves quietly. If they want to stay in sight of everybody they can do that on Pacific Avenue. The board won’t care, just as long as everybody leaves at 10 o’clock. Park policemen will make the rounds after that time.”
The article was principally concerned with the introduction of electric lights by other park districts in order to hinder the “spooners”. But Miss Mayer’s defense of the practice may not have set well with the Board of Park Commissioners.
In April of 1914 Miss Mayer again made headlines in the newspapers, this time for being fired by the park board. The Tacoma Tribune headline read: “Woman Secretary of Park Board Who Was Retired Without Notice” and under that “Retired Secretary Raps Park Board”. The justification for terminating Miss Mayer was that they had found a man that they wished to employ and she was soon to be married anyway. Park Board President, Frederick Heath, is quoted as saying:
“We have been looking for a man to take the position for about a year. It is a man’s job, pure and simple. The secretary of the park board must necessarily be the representative of the board at times and it looks better to have a man. I will say that Miss Mayer is the most efficient woman I every saw and we raised her salary three months ago because of her efficiency. She did not ask for it, but the board recognizing her efficiency gladly gave her the additional money.”
The whole matter spilled over into the race for park board commissioners and became a contentious issue. One candidate, J. S. Menefee, was clearly uncomfortable that he had been publicly identified as voting for Miss Mayer’s dismissal and was trying to distance himself from his vote. Although it is somewhat difficult to wade through the full range of politics that was involved at the time, Miss Mayer’s dismissal was likely viewed as unfair even by 1914 standards. H. W. Myers, a candidate running against Menefee stated:
“Menefee has been trying to get miss Mayer ousted ever since he has been on the board. He has called me everything under the sun just because I stood up for her in the past. He accused us of letting “a skirt run the park board,” and he has done his best to get rid of her. And now he comes out with the statement to the effect that he wanted to retain Miss Mayer but voted with other just to make it unanimous. He is doing it simply to ensnare the women’s vote.”
There was no happy ending to this story but the testimony of Miss Mayer’s efficiency stands the test of time. She kept a scrapbook while working for the park board that is now located in the special collections section of the Northwest Room of the Tacoma Public Library’s main branch. Each article is clearly cut out with the headline and the date and source neatly handwritten. Her successor, George Lewis Gower, continued the scrapbook after her departure. The articles suddenly appear without headlines and the handwritten dates are frequently wrong or missing. The scrapbook starts to include articles about a relative of Gower’s who was an opera singer and had nothing to do with the Metropolitan Park District. Miss Mayer would never have been so sloppy in keeping the scrapbook. There is a suggestion in one article contained in the scrapbook that Miss Mayer was moving to Portland, Oregon. We hope she found both career fulfillment and marital happiness there.
The centennial of Point Defiance Park is officially March 3, 2005, which is the 100th anniversary of
President Theodore Roosevelt signing the legislation that gave title to the 640 acres of Point Defiance to the City of Tacoma. Although Congressman Francis Cushman was instrumental in guiding the legislation through Congress, others in the Tacoma also contributed to the effort on a more grassroots level.
Bernice Newell was a local newspaper reporter in the early 1900’s who was primarily associated with the society pages and arts organizations. But when a cause stirred her, she rose to the occasion with a spirit that would shock her regular society page readers! One such cause was Point Defiance Park. Mrs. Newell wrote an article published in the Tacoma Daily Ledger at the time of President Theodore Roosevelt’s visit to Tacoma on May 23rd 1903 in which she proposed to kidnap the President and take him on the streetcar to Point Defiance. Once there, she described in rich detail the wonders that could be seen in the Park that Tacoma had been improving since 1888:
“Nature designed this great beauty spot and in its development she has had a sympathetic and loyal disciple. It is fortunate indeed for Tacoma that this noble tract, loaned by the government to the city for park purposes, should have been entrusted to the care of Superintendent Roberts [for whom the Lodge was built in 1898].
The conservatory, [the greenhouse that stood c. 1900-1920 in the location of today’s Rose Garden gazebo] of which one section is already completed, is to be an immense building with an octagonal center, from which the rectangular arms extend. The central section will in time be made a fernery and the other portions devoted to the various forms of conservatory work. And that conservatory is needed right now, to take care of the plants that have achieved such marvelous growth since the house was built, a little more than two years ago.
The great gulch, [the now-paved roadway and underpass between the Boathouse parking lot and the exit road out of the Park] which was once the home of the two black bears, has been clearing during the past few months, and is now to be converted into a lily-lined dell with a winding “way” at the bottom, leading down to the Sound.
This season will see the handsome new building at the foot of the lily glen practically completed and opened by Mr. Ferris. [This is the original pavilion detailed in a Park Bench article on June 24, 2004] It is octagonal in shape, ninety-two feet across, and five stories high, and on its broad encircling porch the delights of a summer day on Puget Sound will be even more enchanting. From the two points of the bluff at the mouth of the glen, a rustic pontoon, is to be flung across to the veranda of the building.”
Her article ended with an impassioned plea:
“Mr. President, don’t you think it would be only fair if Uncle Sam would fix it so Tacoma could have Point Defiance Park for her very own and never have to think of the possibility of its being taken away from her?…It is all the resort of the great army of busy people have, and if Uncle Sam could see how they use it, he would never rest until he had provided that it could never be taken away. Don’t you think so?”
In 2005 Bernice Newell has again carried her message to local groups in Tacoma, this time in the form of a first person living history presentation portrayed by Melissa McGinnis. The passion and eloquence of this woman is a fitting tribute to the many citizens who have contributed to100 years of growth at Point Defiance Park.
However, as usual, there is an interesting path behind the “no”, leading to the question about Olmsted and his connection to Tacoma parks (a connection that is sometimes erroneously assumed or presented as fact).
Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) was the leading landscape architect of his generation, and is hailed as the founder of American landscape architecture.
He is perhaps best known as the designer of New York’s Central Park, although Olmsted and his successors designed thousands of public and private landscapes in North America and internationally.
His home, office and archives in Brookline, Massachusetts are now a National Historic Site preserved by the National Park Service.
Frederick Law Olmsted’s philosophy
Olmsted’s philosophy was the improvement of American society through harmonious landscapes and public spaces, which were open to all and which would serve as an antidote to the increasing urbanization of post-Civil War America.
Parks were to be graceful, democratic, pastoral and rejuvenating, separate from the intrusions of daily life, and bordered as much as possible from conflicting uses.
What was Olmsted’s connection to Tacoma?
In 1873, Charles B. Wright, President of the Tacoma Land Company invited Frederick Law Olmsted to submit plans for laying out the city of Tacoma. You can view an original of this colorful Olmsted plan in the Northwest Room of the downtown Tacoma Public Library. In the plan there were very few square city blocks, some of the streetssloped diagonally down to Commencement Bay, and park acreage followed natural land contours rather than being contained in grids.
The citizens of Tacoma hardly knew what to make of that radical plan, and since the 1870s were financially strapped times, the Northern Pacific was not willing to go out on a limb with what was perceived as too avant-garde to raise the required capital.
Mr. Olmsted and his plan for Tacoma were shelved without ever being implemented.
So, the tenuous connection between Tacoma and Frederick Law Olmsted consisted of this plan.
Olmsted’s influence on future design
Although Frederick Law Olmsted had no direct hand in designing any of Tacoma’s parks, his philosophy and ideals of park landscapes certainly did influence early professional designers and park gardeners. Edward Otto Schwagerl and Ebenezer R. Roberts were laying out Point Defiance Park and Wright Park in the 1890s and early 1900s and were influenced by Olmsted’s philosopy.
Olmsted in Seattle
Though Olmsted was not appreciated in the Tacoma of 1873, a generation later it was a different story in Seattle.
Frederick Law Olmsted died in 1903, the same year his sons and successors in the landscape architecture firm he founded – by then known as Olmsted Brothers – contracted with the city of Seattle to survey and prepare a comprehensive plan for that city’s park system.
The Olmsted Brothers work in Seattle continued for 33 years, on many public and private design projects, among them Kinnear Park, Volunteer Park, the UW campus and Washington Park and Arboretum.
No doubt based on their renown and their work in Seattle, the Olmsted Brothers did return to work in Tacoma in the early 1900s, but only on prominent private landscapes in Tacoma, among them “Lakewold” (originally known as “Inglewood”) and “Thornewood” in the Lakewood area, and “Haddaway Hall”, the old Weyerhaeuser mansion on North Stevens Street and the Thomas Carstens home on Orchard Road N in Tacoma’s North End.
It was officially named upon the retirement of Park Superintendent Floyd E. Owen, dedicated with a plaque the following spring. The plaque reads: “Floyd E. Owen Beach – Commemorated in honor of Floyd E. Owen Superintendent of Parks, in recognition of 47 years of dedicated service to the Metropolitan Park District of Tacoma 1912 – 1959”.
As of 2016, Floyd Owen still holds the record for longest-serving Metro Parks Tacoma employee. A native of North Carolina, Owen moved to the Seattle area in 1909 and three years later found himself in Tacoma, working as a teamster for the Metropolitan Park District. He subsequently became a foreman, and was given ever increasing levels of responsibility over the next thirty years. In 1945, he was put in charge of Point Defiance, Titlow Beach, and Dash Point parks, but it wasn’t until 1949 that he had the title “Acting Superintendent”. With the title came responsibility for parks throughout Tacoma. The “acting” part was removed in 1954, and for the last five years of his career, Superintendent Owen managed Tacoma’s parks with a steady hand. Retiring at age 69 in 1959, Floyd and his wife Agnes continued to live in the Superintendent’s Lodge – now the Visitors Center — at Point Defiance Park through 1970, as part of a consulting agreement with the Park District.
His loyalty and high quality of work led to the naming of Owen Beach in his honor: a testament to his dedication to the park district and the people of Tacoma.
Stuart Rice is arguably the father of the Metropolitan Park District of Tacoma, having served as park board president immediately before and after the park district was formed in 1907. The State of Washington passed legislation in early 1907 that allowed park districts to incorporate and become their own separate taxing authority. It was an opportunity for park districts to gain some measure of financial independence from city governments. It was also an opportunity that Rice couldn’t resist and he jumped at the chance for Tacoma’s parks immediately. The citizens of Tacoma voted in favor of creating the Metropolitan Park District on April 2nd 1907.
First and foremost Stuart Rice was a real estate developer, but he was also civic minded and always sought to improve his adopted city of Tacoma. Rice was born in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1854. Little is known about his early life, but he graduated from Yale Law School and was admitted to the bar in Minnesota in 1880. By 1881, Rice had arrived in Washington Territory and taken his examinations to practice law here. But there is no evidence that he ever pursued a legal career in this state. According to his obituary in 1938:
‘A modern city was being carved out of the wilderness. Real estate values were growing with dizzying rapidity. Fortunes were being made over-night in a boom, the likes of which the Northwest has never seen again. So he devoted himself to the real estate business and was instrumental in the development of the early Tacoma.’
Rice’s early enterprises in Tacoma included acquiring rights-of-way for the Northern Pacific and the Milwaukee railroads as well as inaugurating the first street car service in the city. He was active in the Democratic Party on both state and local level. Rice served on the Tacoma School Board in the 1880s and between May and October of 1890 he served as Tacoma’s mayor. During Rice’s brief tenure as mayor, the first board of park supervisors was appointed.
In 1903 Rice himself was appointed to the park board. Several different publications at the time reported Rice’s vision for a park system where the various parks would be connected by a series of boulevards. It was an extremely ambitious plan at a time when Tacoma was just beginning to emerge as a city. The new legislation gave incorporated park districts both a revenue source as well as provisions allowing for the right to purchase, acquire and condemn lands for public parks, park-ways and boulevards.
Rice’s boulevard plan generated a round of political infighting that makes modern day politics look tame. Between 1907 and 1909, The Forum, an illustrated weekly newspaper, denounced Stuart Rice and the Metropolitan Park Board in at least 8 major stories. Rice retired from the park board under fire in late 1907, but articles attacking the newly formed Metropolitan Park District and its excessive spending continued for several years.
After all these conflicts, Stuart Rice kept a lower profile for the remainder of his life. He was president of an insurance and real estate investment firm, Stuart Rice, Inc. and also remained active in Democratic Party politics including the “New Deal” reforms during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Rice was profiled in a newspaper article in 1937 as one of 5 living former mayors of Tacoma. He lived on until April, 1938 and by the time of his death was hailed as being well known and respected.
Ebenezer Rhys Roberts was the first superintendent of Tacoma’s parks, while it was still a department of the city before formation of the Metropolitan Park District in 1907. Roberts was born in Wales in 1854. As a young man he worked on several prominent estates in Britain and also at Kew Gardens near London. He immigrated to the United States at the age of 21 and worked in New York City, California and New Mexico before moving to Tacoma in 1888. He worked at the estate of R.F. Radebaugh on Wapato Lake before being hired by the City of Tacoma for the early work on Wright and Point Defiance Parks. The Lodge at Point Defiance was built for Roberts and his family, providing enhanced security at a time when wood was routinely being taken from the Park by vandals.
Much of the early development of Point Defiance Park is directly attributable to Roberts, including the Rose Garden, bowl area and greenhouses. He was primarily a gardener, but also acted an animal keeper in the early days of the zoo, often chasing down and capturing escaped animals. After leaving the recently formed Metropolitan Park District in 1908, Roberts operated a commercial greenhouse at Gravelly Lake and was a featured horticulture writer for the Tacoma Daily Ledger. Roberts died in Tacoma in 1918. These wonderful photographs were located by Doreen Simpkins and Bill Rhind in the possession of Robert’s granddaughter, and loaned to Metro Parks Tacoma for the Point Defiance Park Centennial celebration.
Ebenezer Roberts Remembered
A historical oversight was corrected on Friday May 18, 2007 when Tacoma’s first Park Superintendent and Master Gardener, Ebenezer Roberts, received a headstone for his grave. No one knows why no headstone was placed on his grave when Roberts died in 1918 but thanks to Christopher Eng of New Tacoma Cemetery (the cemetery that abuts South Park) and Premier Memorial Company he does now.
Eng became aware of the oversight back in 2005 when Metro Parks’ staff members Doreen Beard-Simpkins and Bill Rhind went looking for Roberts’ grave in order to place flowers as a tribute to all his hard work at Point Defiance Park. At the time Doreen and Bill were researching the history of Point Defiance for the 2005 centennial of the park and had become fascinated with this man who did so much for the park during its early years of development. It took some time and research but Eng soon discovered that no headstone had ever been placed on Roberts’ grave. Buried beside him are his wife Mary and his eldest daughter Reseda and there was no headstone for these women either.
As Eng learned more about Roberts he decided that a monument to the man who had done so much to beautify Tacoma’s first parks was definitely needed. Eng convinced the cemetery board that they needed to cover the cost of the headstone which Premier Memorial sold to them at cost and engraved free of charge. Working with Jean Robeson, Roberts’ granddaughter, Premier Memorial Company designed just the perfect headstone. Not only are roses carved above the Roberts name but two vases stand on either side to encourage people to bring flowers to the grave. Thanks to Roberts all of Tacoma’s first parks had beautiful rose gardens; many of which came from cuttings brought to Roberts from gardens all around the town.
On a beautiful Friday afternoon in May a small gathering of people gathered for the unveiling. Tributes to Roberts were offered by his granddaughter Jean, representatives of the Tacoma Historical Society, Metro Parks and the City of Tacoma. Even a great-nephew of Francis Cushman, the state representative responsible for acquiring Point Defiance Park from the federal government was there. Smiles and tears were evident as Jean pulled back the green velvet cloth covering the stone and flowers were immediately placed in the vases on either side – roses, of course.
W. W. Seymour is an interesting figure in the early history of the Metropolitan Park District. He is principally remembered for donating funds to build the Seymour Conservatory in Wright Park, but he also served as one of the Commissioners of the Metropolitan Park Board and was the President of Park Board from 1909 to 1911 before he resigned to fill the remaining term of A.V. Fawcett, the Mayor of Tacoma who had been recalled in a special election.
William Wolcott Seymour, a native of St. Albans, Vermont, was born in 1861. After graduating from Williams College in 1884, he spent 2 years of further study in Germany. Seymour arrived in Tacoma in 1890 and became associated with the investment-banking firm of Seymour, Barto and Co., which later became Seymour Bros. & Co. when his brother Edmund joined him in the business. His company ended up taking over the Tacoma Gas Company and W. W. Seymour became the President. He was involved in a number of local public utility companies as well timber sales. Seymour appears to have been very successful in his many business ventures.
A newspaper article from the Tacoma News Tribune at the time of his death in 1929 paints a picture of a man who was born into wealth but also made a considerable fortune through his own initiative. His political career seems to be limited to serving on the Metropolitan Park Board and the one partial term as mayor. Seymour embodies the ideals and civic mindedness of his time and must have believed in giving back to the community that he prospered in. His donation of $10,000 in 1906 to the city was “to be used as deemed most advisable in beautifying the city” according to an article in the Tacoma Daily Ledger on November 1, 1908. The money was turned over to the Park Board who voted that it be used for building a conservatory.
Seymour was noted for riding to work on a bicycle while he was Mayor, something the movers and shakers of Tacoma at the time just did not do. Current Mayor, Bill Barsma, who has researched past mayors of Tacoma, thinks of Seymour as someone who would be most comfortable with our society today. In addition to the conservatory, Seymour also funded hospitals, nurses and doctors to work with the poor, and a YMCA summer camp that is now known as Camp Seymour.
In 1910 Mr. Seymour married for the first and only time. His wife, the former Emily Wells Risley, was from Connecticut. Mrs. Seymour appears to have had horticultural interests. Minutes from Metropolitan Park Board meetings in the early 1930’s indicate that Mrs. Seymour was present on several occasions. A newspaper article from December 28, 1934 states that she was present at a meeting that dealt with funding for repair of the dome and she explained how her husband came to build the conservatory. There is also an undated handwritten note from Mrs. Seymour in Metro Park files (probably dating from the 1940s) stating that she was sending some cymbidiums to the conservatory from her winter home in Santa Barbara, California.
Today the Seymour Conservatory is a lasting monument to a man ahead of his times in many ways and perhaps his wife too, who had a passion for the conservatory built by her husband.
The salmon bake that was held last Saturday as a part of the Point Defiance Centennial celebration
revived an older tradition which in itself was a 1960s revival of even earlier salmon bakes on the beach at Point Defiance. The revived 1962 salmon bake was held as a part of the larger Seattle Worlds Fair events which stirred the whole Puget Sound region to event planning and hosting visitors. We owe a debt of gratitude to Park Board Commissioner, Eva Stewart, for bringing the salmon bakes to life and keeping them going throughout her tenure on the Metropolitan Park Board.
Eva Stewart has the distinction of being the first woman on the park board and one of its most colorful figures. She actually started her career with the park district in 1927 when she was hired as a playground supervisor. After marrying and starting a family, Mrs. Stewart spent over 15 years of active involvement with Tacoma PTA before she was appointed to fill a vacant seat on the park board in 1951. She spent almost 25 years on the park board, resigning in 1975. During her time in office Mrs. Stewart served as president of the park board on 6 occasions. A newspaper tribute at the time of her retirement in 1975 stated that “During her tenure, Tacoma’s parks were expanded, cleaned up and improved, with her as a constant driving force for progress”.
Mrs. Stewart was certainly one of the Metropolitan Park District’s greatest supporters and promoters. She took every opportunity to raise the profile of the park district in the public eye. Newspaper articles throughout her time on the park board reveal that whenever a newspaper photographer was present, she went running … straight towards the photographer! No other park board commissioner has generated the volume of press coverage that Mrs. Stewart did. She was not averse to donning a “gay 90s” costume, square dancing outfit or beret and French artist’s garb to promote park events. In 1960 she even appeared on a construction site with a bulldozer to herald the development of the Kandle Playfield, her perfectly coiffed hair lacquered such that no breeze could penetrate it. Eva Stewart made sure that she was not forgotten by donating her personal scrapbook of newspaper clippings and photographs to the park district after her retirement.
Eva Stewart died in 1989. Her obituary lists organizing the salmon bakes and the establishment of Northwest Trek as her greatest accomplishments. Thank you Eva, for leaving such a rich and colorful legacy to Metro Parks Tacoma!
J. Ralph Williams was a president of the Metropolitan Park Board, who is now principally remembered for his role in the acquisition of the Meadow Park Golf Course. Williams was an avid golfer his entire life. At age 14, in 1921, he was working at Meadow Park Golf Course as caddie. Williams graduated from Lincoln High School in Tacoma and went on to earn a degree from the University of Washington. Early in his career he worked as a golf instructor and won the first flight of the Tacoma Public Links Championship in 1929.
Professionally, Williams was a banker and worked for Pacific First Federal Savings and Loan from 1937 until his retirement in 1969. He rose through the corporate structure, achieving the rank of vice president in 1955 and president in 1965. Williams was a guiding force at Pacific First Federal during major growth years in the 1950s and 60s.
Williams was first appointed to the Metropolitan Park Board in 1953 and then was elected in his own right the following year, continuing to serve until 1970. He was elected president of the Park Board on three occasions; 1957, 1960 and 1965. Meadow Park Golf course was acquired by the park district in 1961 for $250,000, in the face of much private competition offering substantially more. After Williams passed away in 1970, he was honored by the park board by re-naming the “short nine” course at Meadow Park the “Williams Nine”. It was a fitting tribute to a man who gave years of service to the Metropolitan Park District and was passionate about the game of golf.