Articles,  Features

Gardener Knew Artists Who Made Park Mecca (Part 11)

Tuesday, January 26, 1943

The Call-Bulletin presents, herewith, the eleventh of a series of articles describing the life and work of Uncle John McLaren, “father” of  Golden Gate Park, who died here recently. The articles were written by the late J. Lawrence Toole.

By J. Lawrence Toole

As John McLaren entered the ninth decade of this life, those who knew him best and had known him longest agreed that if he ever could be persuaded to discuss the philosophy of his life he’d say simply:

“I’ve always managed to be happy in my work and I’ve always done it the best I could.”

Or he would say, as he has been heard to say often to an impatient inquiring reporter:

“Dinna fash yersel, man. Things will come oot all right, and even if they don’t, if you’ve done the best you can, why then…”

All his life John McLaren did the best he could. Golden Gate Park and every other great public park and boulevard in San Francisco, every beauty spot he had scattered through the city, reveals how good is that best.

Pen in Hand

Years ago McLaren used to put some of his thought in writing. Chiefly about trees and plants and flowers he was growing in the park, with every now and then a flash of his own thinking and philosophy.

He wrote a book about the making of gardens in California that was almost a best seller in its day and became a sort of bible for home gardeners. But most of his writing was done for the intermittent reports of Park Commissions under which he served.

Here is a little bit from one of these reports of his, filched from a Park Commission compilation of nearly forty years ago, chosen because it reveals a little of John McLaren’s own love for gardens and the happiness he derived from their making:

“Philosophers, poets and artists in paintings, sculpture, and landscape gardening have always believed that the Giver of all good things esteemed the life of a man in a garden the happiest that could be given.

“The creation of the Garden of Eden, the Elysian Fields, the Vale of Cashmere, and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon bear idealistic or practical testimony to the human desire for verdure and foliage. It is the popular notion that the garden builders of old ministered chiefly to the delight of poets, students, philosophers, statesmen and the brain weary.

“In its modern aspect, and under the sway of progressive humanity, the park or garden has come to be regarded as a place where the weary, whether weary of head work or hand work, may be refreshed by breathing pure air, gladdened by the sight of flowers and trees, and solaced by the sounds of running waters.”

Writings Forgotten

McLaren sat quiet and smiling in his chair the morning, a bright and gay morning of early spring, as bits of that old report were read to him. He listened patiently, his eyes wandering over the trees bursting with new life outside his window.

“Did ye know,” he smiled, “a lot of the trees around the lodge are more than sixty years old? Some of them were here long before I came to the park. I was just thinking that pretty soon that rose garden over there will be blooming. Aye, and the rhododendrons. You must come oot and see them.

“Oh! That thing ye were reading? I dinna remember writing that, though I’ve often thought that way and maybe talked that way. It’s all true, mind you, all that about life in a garden and the happiness you can get from walking through this park, or sitting in it.

“I couldn’t begin to tell you how many poets and painters and writers I’ve met dreamin’ of things in their minds among the trees and flowers here. We had a painter on one of the old Park Commissions, Stanton was his name. A fine man he was, and he never got tired of painting bits in the park. That’s one of his paintings on the wall there, the Scotch scene I told you about.

Mecca for Artists

“Keith was another of the painters that used to come hear a lot. I like his pictures. As ye ken, that’s one of his on the wall in there. I wouldna mind betting, if I ever bet, that every fine artist that ever lived or came to San Francisco since Golden Gate Park was made has come here looking for… for inspiration. Aye, I’ve come across hundreds and got to know a lot of them pretty well.

“Poets? Aye, I’ve met many and many a fine poet walking in the park. They all seemed to have their favorite spots, too. I’ve often had them recite their pieces to me.

“George Sterling used to come here an Jack London. I got to know them well. Nice, queer sort that Sterling was. He’d walk along slow looking at the flowers and the trees and the sky, kind of whispering to himself and looked to be in a kind of a dream and wouldn’t talk much if I met him. He looked like a poet. He used to like it best up there by Stow Lake and Strawberry Hill.”

Since John McLaren first took over Golden Gate Park more than half a century ago he met or was known by an incalculable number of men and women who have made their mark in every phase of San Francisco life. He  had met virtually every important personage who had visited San Francisco  in that time, for no one comes here without visiting the park and learning that it was created from sand dunes by John McLaren.

His Many Friends

To list half of those he has known and made friends by name alone would take pages of The Call-Bulletin. The list would include presidents, senators and politicians of every degree; royalties of almost every land; millionaires and merchants of immense renown; famous writers, artists, poets and philosophers; world-known pundits in every art and science and most of the famed botanists, horticulturists and gardeners in the history of his own art.

Except for his own kin, McLaren said, and the park commissioners he had seen come and go since 1887, people and their affairs had not interested him much, except in what they did or didn’t do for his park. Through all his life his ambitions never deviated from the work he had set himself, tending to his garden – Golden Gate Park.

For this, in the first years of his struggle with the sand dunes he had fought like a tiger. His battles with such great and powerful men as Adolph Sutro and the early politicians while the park and its development were under state control are traditional. Most of the time by sheer courage and determination he won his battles. When argument and fighting failed, his Scotch cajolery won.

Always Serene

Those who knew him swear to his unfailing serenity and composure under difficult circumstances. He learned early, he’d explain, the powerful effect of the mind on the body and the baleful influence of worrying. 

This bent little man, who could be seen any fine day, and even days that were not fine, pottering here or there among his plants and trees and ferns, or watching youngsters at play and sport, knew great happiness, and great grief, in his personal life.

His greatest happiness, perhaps, came from his marriage to his boyhood sweetheart, Jane Mill. They had gone to school in the little cottage schoolhouse near Sterling Castle in Scotland. 

Years ago when he was a gardener working at San Mateo she came out from Scotland, and they were married. 

Their marriage attracted no attention in the papers, but her death at the Park Lodge, where she had lived more than 40 years, was given much space.

She died in October 1926, almost as beloved for her charitable activities as her husband was for his work in the park. Keenly John McLaren felt the loss of her companionship, and it was long before he recovered, partially, from the blow. Her death came just after they had celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary.

Death Sorrows

His wife’s death was the second great grief fate dealt McLaren within a year. Two children had come to the McLaren’s, a son Donald and a daughter Mattie, who was in her second year at Stanford when her mother died. 

A year before the death of Mrs McLaren the son, Donald, died under circumstances so tragic and painful as to seal his father’s lips. McLaren would not speak of his son’s death. 

Upon his son Donald, John McLaren had set great affection and great hope. The son, like the father, had grown to be a great gardener, and old McLaren hoped he would carry on his name and work. Under his father’s direction, Donald McLaren had carried out much of work at the 1915 Exposition and gave promise of great things. His early death was a tragedy for John McLaren.

During the course of these morning talks with the frail old man out at the lodge the talk got around to his family, and McLaren seemed to grow visibly sad.

“I’m the last of my ain family,” he said a bit wistfully. “There’s nae one to carry on my name. I’ve nae son and that’s…”

Whatever he was going to say was cut short by the joyous rush of a tiny girl into his arms, and it was impossible not to see the look of happiness that came into the old man’s face and eyes.

Love for Children

“This is bonny wee Martha,” he grinned, “and I doot not she wants me to play. Watch oot now, dinna hurt yersel,” he admonished the eager little girl as he put her down gently. “What’ll the game be this time?”

As good a way as any to get close to the secrets of John McLaren’s long life, and the almost youthful zest and enthusiasm he still could muster was to see him at play with his golden haired little great-granddaughter Martha. It was to see an old and feeble man of more than 90 drop age and weakness like a clock and become a child again.

Like magic, old John McLaren, who could be dour enough at times, became a child again, almost as much a child as the bairn tugging him from his chair for a romping game of her own invention, a laughing, prattling little game which the old man knew and had often played with her, a sort of bear-growling in which old John was the bear and little Martha pretended to be a scared humming bird. 

McLaren Philosophy

Not very often was a stranger privileged to watch this game of enthusiasts, nearly a century apart in age. And if a stranger did happen to be present John McLaren’s old housekeeper, a Scotswoman who had been an average lifetime at the Lodge and whose word was law in the residential half, was quick to snatch the little girl away. Not, though, without a good Scotch scowl that drove the old man back laughing, to the safe haven of his own work desk and his chair. 

This reporter had the great privilege of witnessing that little comedy and he thought it revealed a little of the tenderness in McLaren’s philosophy of life and explained a little the high affection in which he was held by the children, past and present, of San Francisco and by every grown-up San Franciscan who played as a child in Golden Gate Park. 

Next to making waste spaces green and glowing, John McLaren derived his life’s greatest pleasure from making children and young people happy. But that’s another story.

(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