Articles,  Features

“Keep Busy, Best Motto”: Golden Gate Park Creator (Part 1)

John McLaren’s Life – A Saga of City’s Sand Dunes

Wednesday, January 13, 1943

The Call-Bulletin presents herewith the first of a series of intimate articles portraying the life of “Uncle” John McLaren, creator of Golden Gate Park and helpmate of nature here for a generation. J Lawrence Toole, noted newspaperman, wrote his biography before he preceded his friend and subject in death.

By J. Lawrence Toole

Run out, the city editor had said casually, and sit down with John McLaren and get him to reminisce a bit about himself and Golden Gate Park. He’s more than ninety years old and has superintendent of the park for more than half a century. He has come in contact with nearly every person of importance who has lived in or visited San Francisco in that time. And about the park. He built it, you know, practically create it, and…

This then is the beginning of John McLaren’s reminiscences and the story of the great park he made out of sand. A trifle random that may be at times, disconnected, maybe, and discursive, after the way of an old, old man digging back in times past, but, for the most part they will be his – John McLaren’s.

Kept brightness

A little bit like an oversize elf or grinning good-natured gnome was John McLaren, round-like in every direction when he stood. Sitting at a desk in his book-, and paper-, and picture-cluttered sanctum in the lodge he looked actually big. A scant growth of silvery white hair sparkled over his head. Wisps of white bristle arched over his upper lip and eyebrows.

But from under the eyebrows peered out steady eyes that retained their brightness, or a good deal of it, and the mouth beneath the dab of a mustache puckered constantly as if ready to smile or grin. And grin it did a lot. If one could forget his age, vitality would seem to shine in a complexion fresh and ruddy that told its own story of the sun and air and wind in which he lived and worked nearly all his life. 

It was a rule, out there at the lodge, to knock at the door of McLaren’s sanctum and wait until bidden to enter. Politeness demands that, of course, but the whispers of workers in the ante-room emphasized the rule. But then, a man of more than 90 has a right to nod in his chair.

Desk piled high

A pile of typewritten sheets under the gnarled hand that rested on the desk gave the impression of a man deep in work, and, instinctively, an apology for interrupting. He waved aside the apology with a grin, the first of many, and looked around his littered desk and room.

“Oh this?” He said, in accent that still retained the tang of Scotch moors, “I don’t use this much. My work’s done out there,” he looked through the window at his side through trees in the first flush of spring, “yes, mostly out there, except… Now tell us what you what and how is The Call-Bulletin?”

He was told and he cuddled deep in his chair to listen.

“Well,” he said, “about the park, fine. But about myself, now – that’s different. I’m no great talker about myself. But I can tell a lot about the park. I’ve been here a long time, you know.”

Over half century

“Yes, more than fifty years. As long as you’ve been alive, maybe. Aye? I came here to work in, let’s see 1887. The year of Queen Victoria’s jubilee that was, wasn’t it?”

“But I knew San Francisco and the park, or anyway what was to be the park, long before that. I used to come up from San Mateo to buy trees from a chap named Myer, or Meyer, that had a bit of a nursery out on Stanyan Street, not very far from you’re sitting now. I was doing some gardening and tree planting down at San Mateo then, working for people like George H. Howard, D.O. Mills, Alfred Hoyt, W.P. Ralston and “Pong” Easton, who had places – beautiful places, too – between San Mateo and Millbrae. I used to buy trees at Meyer’s nursery to plant down there – and they’re growing yet.

“And – oh yes, before I ever planted a tree in the park here I had planted those trees you see down at Coyote Point. The Howards owned several thousands acres and I planted 70 acres in trees for George H., a thousand maybe to the acre. I think that was about ’85. The eucalyptus are pretty tall now.”

Grins at reminder 

That was quite a bit of talking for an old man who is not much given to talk and he was reminded not to tire himself. That brought the grin to his face again and a smack on the interviewer’s knee. He went on, but after the littlest pause:

“What, me tired? Yes I know I’ve passed 90 and that I’m an old man. I’m the last of my generation and I don’t think of birthdays any more. They come too fast now and I’ve had a lot of them. But I stick to the motto I’ve followed a long time: Keep busy. I manage to do that.

“You don’t think, do you,” and there was that genial grin again, “that I ever sit thinking and worrying about my age? No, sir: if I did that I’d be dead in a month. I just won’t do it. I never stop working as long as there is work for me to do and I can do it.”

There’s a top for oldsters and aging folk in that, better than volumes of dull treatises on fending off decrepitude. McLaren summed them up in two words: Keep busy.

Recalls boyhood

With venerable old John McLaren sitting there looking at one with smiling eyes twinkling in a face fresher and early as smooth as your own, it would have been silly to put that shop work stock question: To what do you attribute your great age?

Anyway, having a great sense of humor and a vast experience with foolish questioners, he might have attributed his long life to wee nips of good brew or to singing Scotch songs or to listening to the sage advice of everlasting trees. And that would have hurt the McLaren legend in San Francisco – mention of which, earlier, had made him laugh out loud. So the question wasn’t asked. 

For McLaren took the reins of the talk in his own hands and galloped right back to his happiest recollections, his birthplace, his boyhood and the old Scotch places where he learned his trade as a gardener, and that’s what he still calls himself. 

“Aye, I was born just outside Stirling,” he went on. “Let’s see, December 20, 1846, it was. In a wee farm house it was, not far from Stirling Castle. What are ye grinning for? You know them both? Then ye’ve heard about the great Wallace and maybe you know that old song, “Scots Wha Have Wi’ Wallace Bled.” Can ye sing it? No? Well, I can. Maybe, sometime. Then you’ll know about Robert Bruce and the battle of Bannockburn. Ye do, eh? Well, the wee house where I was born stood aboot in the middle of that battlefield. When I was a boy going to school – in a bit of cottage at Milton it was – I used to cross the Bannockburn brig every day and on a summer day we’d jump off the brig and play in the burn. They used to say 30,000 English soldiers died and were buried on its banks. Maybe.”

Knew History

Of course, McLaren doesn’t go back to Wallace who routed the English at Stirling Castle near the end of the thirteenth century or to Robert Bruce, who routed them again twenty years later at the battle of Bannockburn. But he did know the history of the famous place where he was born and he knew the Bannockburn intimately as he knew his boyhood’s but and ben.

In his office was a big picture of Stirling Castle and he looked at it with long memories in his eyes. Then he jumped up and suddenly with lightness and agility younger men might envy, his face puckered in a smile. 

“Come on ben wi me and I’ll show you a bonny picture,” he said, and he led the way back to his own parlor and stood before a brilliant little painting of a pastoral scene, unmistakably Scotch.

He looked at it awhile, almost reverently, before he spoke again.

Loved beautiful things

“That’s the Bannock Brig,” he said quietly. “For a long time I used to keep a picture postcard of it where I could see it. Then one day John Stanton, the San Francisco artist – he died a few years ago – borrowed it. He was going to Scotland and I made him swear to bring the little postcard picture back to me. He did, and he also brought me this painting of the brig and the burn. Last time I was home I went to look at the brig. But they’d ruined it. Why they’d put another handrail on it. Why can’t folk leave beautiful things alone?”

He meant that last, for no man loved beautiful things more than John McLaren. After all, maybe that was one of the secrets of his long life. He turned to another painting on the wall, a big, beautiful painting, and challenged his interviewer to tell the painter and the scene. When it was identified, not a hard thing to do, as a Keith painting of a Scotch glen, McLaren was pleased as a boy and almost danced. 

Wee nip

“Ye’re right,” he laughed. “That’s a Keith and yon’s Glen Alpin. Not many that comes in here can spot that picture. I love it. It’s beautiful. Well, we must have a wee nip on that, What, no? Man, I was going to have a wee yin maself. And I couldn’t have said that yesterday,” and he looked at the calendar. It was March 1. “But I can today.”

“How come today and not yesterday?”

“Well, you see, it’s like this,” he explained, while his eyes bubbled with amusement, “I made up my mind to set one month aside as a nipless month. And last month was the month I picked this year. You see?”

“Yes. But why pick February, a cold month?”

“Because, ye ninny,” and McLaren’s laugh filled the room. “February’s the shortest month of the year.”

With that typically Scotch joke off his mind – his pet joke – McLaren was lured back to this reminiscences.

(Tomorrow – McLaren begins his work in San Francisco)