Articles,  Features

Midwinter Fair of 90’s Gardeners 1st Triumph (Part 10)

Monday, January 25, 1943

The Call-Bulletin presents, herewith, the ninth of a series of intimate articles describing the life and work of “Uncle John” McLaren, famed “father” of  Golden Gate Park. The series was written by J. Lawrence Toole, noted San Francisco newspaperman.

By J. Lawrence Toole

When John McLaren, at 92, planted the first tree for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, he grinned at the fine new and shining spade that trembled a little in his shaking hands and remarked:

“Well, it’s a pretty spade, anyway.”

Behind the remark were memories of other spades he had handled in famous exposition first-tree plantings in San Francisco. For John McLaren has planted the first tree at every fair and exposition held in San Francisco in the last fifty years. Not many in the little throng that watched old John McLaren go through the motions of tree planting at the G.G.I.E. site remembered, except with a vague childhood memory, perhaps, the day more than forty-five years earlier when he planted the first tree for the Midwinter Fair.

McLaren himself did not remember it clearly. For him the years were numbered no longer. In the shadow where he stood past and present were blended into one. There were no more years. Dates had lost their meaning for him. Even birthdays had lost their meaning. The December before, when San Francisco staged an elaborate celebration of his ninety-first birthday, the fuss and attentions left him cold and incurious. 

Birthdays Forgotten

“I’ve given up remembering my birthdays,” he told a reporter then. “I know I’ve had a lot of them and I know how old I am. I know that maybe better than a calendar can tell me.”

Still, though not clearly nor distinctly, memories of the Midwinter Fair of 1893 did return to John McLaren’s mind. When reminded of it he could confess an affection for it like that of a parent for a first-born.

Good reasons he had for remembering that almost forgotten Midwinter Fair. It was staged in his own Golden Gate Park. Its gem-like arboreal setting was the product of his hand and brain. It was the father of San Francisco expositions. 

“I well remember that time,” said McLaren. “Year or so before the fair opened we had hard times in San Francisco, like everywhere else. Thousands of men could find little or no work. And there was no government money for relief then. No WPA or PWA or anything like that for people out of work to fall back on.

Work for $1 a Day

“A lot of what people were going through at that time came under my own eye, for a the time we were building the high road west from Strawberry Hill and that made work for hundreds of men. They got a silver dollar a day.

“There was a pay office and a paymaster in the park near the Panhandle and every day the men were paid there. A dollar meant a lot more than than it does now. But to get it the workmen had to walk miles from their homes in the city and then miles sometimes to their work. Morning and again at night that was, rain or shine. There was plenty of competition for the jobs. They earned their money, let me tell you.”

Park tradition tells that this early road building in the park was born of John McLaren’s desire to provide work for at least some of the workless men then trudging San Francisco’s streets, without much hope and with families in want.

“But no,” he’d tell you, “I was only a working man myself, just like I am today. The commissioners did that. They raised the money. Give them the credit.”

And always, about every miracle, big or little, performed in the park it is the same: “The commissioners did that.”

Boom After Fair

San Franciscans whose memories go back to the early nineties will remember years that were not very gay for a big slice of the city’s population. To refer to the period just before the Midwinter Fair as Gay Nineties would be far from the truth. It was not till after the fair, as John McLaren recalls, that the city began to live up to the name given those years of the nineties. 

A period of prosperity followed the fair, prosperity reflected in the upbuilding of the great residential districts south and north of the park.

Before the Midwinter Fair, San Francisco scarcely knew Golden Gate Park with its growing treasure of sheer beauty, or the sand wastes adjoining the park with their potential treasure of real estate.

“After the fair,” McLaren remembered, “the city began to move west. I used to watch it spread over the dunes.”

Though he was the last to claim, or admit it, no small part of the credit for San Francisco’s westward march to the ocean since this century began was due to influence of the Midwinter Fair of 1894 – and to John McLaren, who made the Fair’s sixty acres of Park land a magnet of landscaped beauty.

Beauty for Fair

“In September 1889,” says the fortieth annual report of the Park Commissioners. “General W.H. Dimond resigned and W.W. Stow was elected commissioner to fill the vacancy. In May, 1890, Mr Stow was elected president of the board. John McLaren had been appointed superintendent in 1887 and had been authorized to visit the parks of England, France and Scotland.

“In June, 1893, the board decided to co-operate with citizens in holding a Midwinter Fair in Golden Gate Park, and gave the use of sixty acres of ground in Concert Valley for the Exposition.”

It was the success of Chicago’s World Fair of 1893 that inspired a group of San Francisco citizens, one of whose leaders was the late M.H. De Young, to hold a Midwinter Fair in the park.

With a year to work in after the park commissioners had provided a site of the fair, and the knowledge and impressions he had gathered on a tour of Europe’s great public parks fresh in his mind, John McLaren tackled the job of making the Midwinter Fair a thing of memorable beauty.

Also he seized it as a fine opportunity to prove a contention he has boasted since first coming to San Francisco – that the city of his adoption was blessed with the finest all-year-round climate in the world.

McLaren Triumph

He succeeded in both beyond the city’s dreams, for all through the winter of its existence, the beauty of the Midwinter Fair amazed visitors with its brilliant landscape effects. This was McLaren’s first great triumph in San Francisco and provide to the hilt his belief – which is now common knowledge – that flowers may be grown here every day in the year.

In 1915, John McLaren celebrated his sixty-ninth birthday with a second exposition triumph, unquestionably, next to Golden Gate Park itself, the greatest gardening triumph of his life. Never as long as it retains a memory of times past, will San Francisco forget the floral and arboreal charm of the Panama Pacific International Exposition. For that great exposition John McLaren again planted the first tree, though then his hands were still strong and the spade did not tremble, and the eyes that glanced over the silk hats at the ceremony were bright and steady. He was younger then.

“I was, and felt like a youngster,” he said the day was recalled to him. “It did’na seem so long ago and there are times now I don’t feel much different. That day out there on Treasure Island I did’na.”

Careful Planning

Not only did John McLaren plant the Panama-Pacific Exposition’s first tree; he selected and planted every one of the trees that wooded the exposition grounds. Some of them, such as those grouped around date Palace of Fine Arts to this day, still stand and grow as McLaren planned.

There was never anything haphazard or unplanned in gardens or flower plots or tree groupings planned by John McLaren. For four years before the 1915 exposition he mapped and planned every detail of his work.

Every detail of tree and flower and grass was rehearsed, season by season, at Golden Gate Park. He knew to the day, almost to the hour, the time between planting and blooming of every flower and flowering shrub and tree he used. With an artist’s eye for color and proportion, he achieved a rhythm and refinement of harmony with buildings that amazed.

So exactly did his time schedule work out that the gardens with which he filled the grounds bloomed with a succession of flowers all through the season. 

Today at the park they tell, confidentially, this little new story of John McLaren.

“Well,” he said, “they say I’ll be 92 about next Christmas time, and folk who read the papers more than I do tell me they very seldom read of the death of a man over 92. So there’s maybe a good chance I’ll be here.”

And that dauntless old man as he picked up his space and tackled his job.

(To Be Continued)

The full Call-Bulletin 13-part series of articles on John McLaren:

Part 1: “Keep Busy, Best Motto”: Golden Gate Park Creator | Part 2: Dune Squatters Hard to Move | Part 3: McLaren Gave Credit to Aides in Park Work | Part 4: Playground Dream Made Real by $50,000 Bequest | Part 5: Scot Enlisted Wealthy S.F. Men to Aid in Park | Part 6: Expert Made Stow Lake By Lining It With Clay | Part 7: Windmills at Park Brought McLaren Joy | Part 8: Big Fern Tree Garden Pride of Park Builder | Part 9: Park Sand Set by Europe Grass | Part 10: Midwinter Fair of 90’s Gardeners 1st Triumph | Part 11: Gardener Knew Artists Who Made Park Mecca | Part 12: S.F. Regarded “Unlovely City” Until — McLaren Put Beauty in Parks and Streets | Part 13: World Honored Park’s Gardener