Letters from Theodore Wirth: Gardener Above All?

The letters Theodore Wirth wrote to his friends during his 1936 around-the-world voyage, which included a quote on the Calhoun Beach Club, reveal little about Minneapolis parks, but quite a bit about the man.

When Wirth retired as Minneapolis park superintendent in 1935 — he was forced to retire due to civil service age rules — he travelled with his wife to Hawaii, Samoa — where he visited his son, a U. S. Navy officer — Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, the Canary Islands, England and on to his boyhood home in Switzerland. Over the course of his travels he wrote ten “general letters” to his friends in Minneapolis. The first was dated December 15, 1935 from a ship sailing from Los Angeles to Honolulu and the last was dated September, 1936 from Winterthur, Switzerland, his home town.

As Wirth explained in General Letter No. 2:

There are so many of you back home that it is of course impossible for me to write to you all. Even if I could do so, it would mean that I would be writing on the same subject time and again. I bargained for a good solution of this problem with Mr. Bossen (his successor as park superintendent) and Miss Merkert (his secretary for many years) before we left home, and I am to write a general letter from time to time, which is to be typed and circulated as may be deemed advisable.

The very method of distributing his letters speaks to his Swiss efficiency, but the content of those letters reveals a good bit about the man as well. Most of his letters are inconsequential newsy travelogues, but I am struck that he was most passionate and enthusiastic about plants on many stops during his voyage.

From his first letter, when he wrote of visiting John McLaren, the famous superintendent of San Francisco parks, he singled out trees for comment. Of California’s Redwood State Park, which McLaren took him to visit, he wrote, “the big Redwood trees are worth a world’s trip to see.” It is the first of many references to the grand and unusual plant life he observed.

Of course he wrote also of parks, commenting on a new park being built in Honolulu, and city planning, noting that Adelaide, Australia was the best-planned city he’d ever seen or heard of. But many of his most detailed observations were about plants.

In New Zealand he makes note of the “elaborately planted” grounds at Lake Rotorua, the “gorgeous tree ferns” towering 50 feet above the undergrowth, even the high yields of New Zealand’s wheat farms.

Of a tour of Sydney’s botanical garden with the curator, he notes a fine specimen of Morton Bay Fig, Ficus Macrophylia with a crown 110 feet in diameter and begonias eight to ten feet tall, concluding “there is no end to what I could report along the lines of plant life here.” He writes that Sydney has much more land set aside for recreation and open space than Minneapolis — Australians are “enthusiastic devotees or every worth while sport” — but it is “sadly lacking” in street tree plantings.

Melbourne is “lavishly decorated with floral displays,” he writes, but he also recounts his travel to see gigantic gum (Eucalyptus) trees six to eight feet in diameter and 150 tall, a “truly majestic sight, not unlike our glorious Redwoods,” and notes that the tuberous begonias at the Fitzgerald Gardens there were the largest he had ever seen.

He writes with special enthusiasm about the bulb nurseries of Holland and how the bulbs were auctioned, mentioning that he had letters of introduction to three bulb-growers from his friend O. J. Olson, a St. Paul florist. He encouraged every florist to visit Holland in May.

Thank you, Sonia Abramson
Copies of the ten letters, 48 pages, Wirth sent to his friends were given to the park board in August 2011 by Ed Abramson. Ed’s aunt, Sonia Abramson, was an employee of the park board, working most of her life in administration. Sonia must have been among those who received copies of the letters after Miss Merkert typed them from Theodore Wirth’s handwritten originals. Ed and his sister-in-law, Cookie Abramson, discovered the letters after his aunt died in 1998 at age 93. Ed recalls that his aunt “loved doing what she did.” “She did a marvelous job for the city and the park board treated her well. It was a win-win,” he said.

Wirth makes two other references to things Minneapolis in his letters — in addition to his Calhoun Beach Club reference.

He provides this account of Pago Pago: “The Pago Pago harbor is not any larger than Lake Calhoun. Imagine the lake surrounded by abruptly-raising, densely wooded mountains from 1,700 to 2,200 feet high — absolutely landlocked — the entrance from the ocean not visible once you are in the harbor.”

He also notes that while sailing from Samoa to Fiji, one morning on deck he was “agreeably surprised” to run into Edward C. Gale, a prominent Minneapolis attorney, son of Samuel Gale and son-in-law of John Pillsbury. They travelled on the same ship until they reached Auckland, New Zealand.

Wirth’s ten letters conclude with a description of parks and playgrounds in Switzerland which suggests where Wirth’s views of parks originated. Among his observations:

“The forests of Switzerland are both the nation’s park and playground in the fullest sense of the word.”
“People flock to the woods singly and in droves to find their recreation.”
“The Swiss people are an exceedingly nature-loving nation — the natural scenic beauty of their homeland makes them so.”
“Playgrounds, as we so properly advocate, build and maintain in the States, are not as essential here in Switzerland.”
“The entire population is more or less self-taught in their practice of exercising, physical culture and body development.”
“Playground activities are managed by the school authorities.”
“Park construction and operation are better known here under the name of “Gardenbau” and the branch of government that has jurisdiction over all pertaining to it is the one of Horticulture.”

These claims tend to corroborate my  impression that Wirth never quite understood the American affinity for organized ball games and competitive sports. While many, many neighborhood playgrounds were designed by Wirth, there was nearly always in his layouts a clash between his instinct to create gardens — at least visually pleasing spaces — and his recognition of the popular demand for playing fields.

Theodore Wirth accomplished many things as a park superintendent, but I believe, as these letters suggest, his first love was gardening and horticulture.

David C. Smith

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