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Monday, April 26, 2010

National Parks: “America’s Best Idea”

Last week (April 17-25) happened to be National Park Week and hopefully, many of you were able to get out to one of the nation’s great parks. Before the National Park Service was established in 1916 these majestic spaces were maintained under various jurisdictions including the Department of Agriculture, the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Army. The lands were considered “open” to the grazing of livestock and there was no consistent management of the land. Thanks to the foresight and efforts of men and women over the last century, the parks are now protected at the national level. One such person who led the effort to establish the National Park Service was J. Horace McFarland who coined the phrase that America’s parks were “America’s best idea” which fittingly serves as the title of Ken Burn’s recent PBS documentary.

J. Horace McFarland looking over Mary Wallace roses in his garden at Breeze Hill
Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, J. Horace McFarland
Dr. J. Horace McFarland (1859-1948) was a man of many talents and interests. He was a rosarian, civic reformer, preservationist, writer, printer, horticulturist and photographer. His early success as a printer allowed him the financial freedom to devote his life to advocate for urban beautification in his hometown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He eventually set his sights across the United States as President of the American Civic Association. McFarland staunchly advocated for the preservation of the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Everglades, and the Glacier Bay and Jackson Hole National Monuments. He also rallied against the New York power industry to save Niagara Falls from commercial exploitation.

McFarland began advocating as early as December 1911 for a bureau for the national parks at an American Civic Association Conference in Washington, D.C. In 1912, President William Howard Taft sent a letter, written by McFarland, to Congress urging legislators that the adoption of a bill to create a federal bureau for the parks was “essential to the proper management of those wondrous manifestations of nature, so startling and so beautiful that everyone recognizes the obligations of the Government to preserve them for the edification and recreation of the people.” On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service Act. After the Act’s passing, McFarland remained influential as a member of the National Park Trust Fund. His advice on new appointments to the agency was sought out even into the 1930s by Harold Ickes, President Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior.

McFarland’s archival papers are located at the Pennsylvania State Archives; many of the letters McFarland wrote during his lifetime are highlighted in Ernest Morrison’s biography, “A Thorn for Beauty.” The Smithsonian’s Archives of American Gardens includes over 3,500 photographs and glass lantern slides of gardens throughout the United States dating from 1900 to 1962 in the J. Horace McFarland Collection. These include a substantial number of images of his home and garden, Breeze Hill, in Harrisburg which was designed by landscape architect Warren Manning (another supporter of the National Park Service Bill).

--Kelly Crawford, Museum Specialist
Archives of American Gardens
Smithsonian Gardens

1 comment:

  1. It's easy to take the parks for granted today, but we should be so grateful to all the people who fought for them back then.

    I love the glass lantern slides of Breeze Hill. Do the gardens there still exist today?