Thursday, July 24, 2014

Memories of a Father

When it comes to naming children, everyone has their own way.  Some people name the children after members of their families from both the present and the past.  Others name their children after celebrities, or make up names that mean something if only to themselves.  And some use names of flowers, most common is Rose.

Although Ebenezer Rhys Roberts’ his first son was named after himself, Ebeneezer Jr, he used more unusual names found in horticulture and botany for his other three children:  Woodland, Reseda and Trillium.   
Wisconsin refers to Mrs. Roberts home - Left to Right: Woodland, Reseda, Trillium

Mr. Roberts, a Welshman, arrived in Tacoma with his wife, Ann Jones Roberts in 1888 after living in several different places in the West.  He was a professional gardener, having served 7 years as a gardeners’ apprentice at Kew Gardens in England. and upon arrival in Tacoma was hired by a Mr. R. F. Radebaugh, owner of the Tacoma Daily Ledger,  to design and develop his 80-acre estate located at Wapato Lake where he had built his cottage.  The lake was formed during the retreat of the Fraser Ice Sheet around 15,000 years ago, and was named by the Native Americans after a wild plant (sagittaria latifolia) that grew there in large numbers, although the spelled it “Wappato”.
1907 - Roberts & spooning benches which he placed tactfully about Pt. Defiance Park for benefit of sweethearts to cuddle in privacy 

Roberts 1907

Two years later, Mr. Roberts was hired by the first Tacoma Park Board where he was befriended by  Edward O. Schwagerl who had originally received a commission to design Wright Park.  But when Mr. Schwagerl became Superintendent of Public Parks in Seattle in 1892, Roberts became the chief designer of Wright Park.  Charles Barstow Wright, a Philadelphian and also president of Tacoma Land Company, had given the 20 acres to the City of Tacoma with the provision that it be developed as a publicpark within a limited time frame in 1886.  In 1891 the City acquired an additional 7 acres.  However it was due a friendship between Roberts and the president of the Park Board George Browne that Tacoma managed to obtain plantings for what was called “the finest botanical collections on the Pacific Coast”.  When Browne was going to Europe for a business trip, Roberts provided him with a letter to some of the officials at Kew Gardens asking their help in selecting some tree seedlings for planting in Wright Park.  

President Theodore Roosevelt visited Tacoma in May, 1903, and in front of a red oak tree known as the Teddy Roosevelt Oak planted in his honor, gave a speech to the crowd in attendance. A copy of that speech can be found at Almanac of Theodore Roosevelt - Complete Speeches of Theodore Roosevelt - Teddy Roosevelt.  The red oak is located in front of the Seymour Conservatory. If you happen to be interested in old trees, Seymour Conservatory has a map of all the champion trees in the park identifying the trees for you.  It was during this visit that a chair built from 6 antlers of elks grown in Point Defiance Park and rumored to be the “largest antlers on record” was presented to the President.  

According to the history of the park on Metro Parks site, “it is believed Roberts personally supervised the placement and planting of the majority of trees, shrubs, and flowers within the park. He spread out its infant roots, and firming it with his foot (heel).”  It is also believed that it was largely due to Roberts’ endeavors that William W. Seymour donated $10,000 for the construction of the Seymour Conservatory in 1907.

While acting as Superintendent of the Tacoma Parks in 1898, the Board of Park Commissioners approved $2,200 to build a residence in Point Defiance Park referred to as the Keeper’s Lodge.  According to Trillium’s description of the Lodge “The beautiful maple paneling of the ‘front parlor’ and the library was a distinctive background for the fine furnishings and rare pieces of bric-a-brac so beloved as home decoration in those days…  The decor of the dining room was a combination of handsome wallpaper and panels of royal-blue burlap.  A grooved, polished plate rail held a collection of hand-painted souvenir plates from every state in the Union.”  Roberts and his family (wife, and three children) lived in The Lodge until 1908 when he retired.

Living in the midst of Point Defiance Park allowed Roberts to provide additional security and to prevent illegal cutting of firewood by vandals.  It also allowed Roberts time and opportunity to tend the plantings and to take care of the zoo animals that also reside there.  But, living there also had some unexpected funny situations.  For example, the streetcars were operated by electricity on the same current to the Lodge and at times when the outbound cars climbed the steep grade on Pearl Street they used almost all the current.  As a result, it made the lights at the Lodge to either dim, or go out entirely.  The Lodge continued to act as a residence for several Point Defiance Superintendents and for Metro Park Executive Directors and their families until 1980.  You can learn so much more about The Lodge at the Metro Parks site; Roberts’ daughter Trillium Roberts Insel is responsible for most of the information known about The Lodge and Point Defiance’s early days from an article she wrote in 1967 for the Tacoma News Tribune.  
The bridge formerly in Pt. Defiance Park with Trillium on the railing, Roberts on walk 1905

While at Point Defiance Park, Roberts started the Rose Garden by involving the school children in 1895.  He asked them each to bring rose clippings to the park, where he planted the clippings.  This result in more than 75 varieties of rose in the Rose Garden in 1898. In 1937 the All American Rose Society was formed and they chose Point Defiance’s Rose Garden as one of the earliest gardens to be accredited.  The accreditation was withdrawn in 1986 but regained in 1990, thanks to the Tacoma Rose Society. Roberts also developed the sloping lawn at the entrance known as “the bowl” area and greenhouses (1901-1920) at the park among other things.  
1907 Left to Right: Reseda, Woodland, Trillium

Following his retirement, Roberts operated commercial greenhouses on Gravelly Lake, and from 1912 until his death in 1918, wrote gardening and horticultural articles for the Tacoma Daily News.  He maintained an office in the Perkins Building at 1101 A Street, Tacoma, where he spent three days a week writing his articles, answering mail, and seeing anyone who wished to consult with him on gardening matters.  Such consultations were offered free of charge. 

Not only did Roberts have his education at Kew Gardens to fall back upon as well as his more recent work in the US, but he was also a contemporary of Frederick Law Olmstead’s )  sons, (1822-1903), John (1852-1920) and Frederick, Jr. (187-=1957.  Olmstead was the designer of New York’s Central Park and considered to be America’s foremost landscape architect.  His sons came to Washington and worked on several parks and playgrounds; to name a few Woodland Park, Volunteer Park, Frink Park and developed plans for several others.  It is hard to believe that the Olmstead’s work did not also influence Roberts.

It’s great that there is so much history about one of the most important park superintendents and botanists connected to the City of Tacoma parks, but what does that have to do with the greater Gig Harbor community.  True, on the infrequent visits to Tacoma, maybe people from Gig Harbor visited Point Defiance and Wright Park.  Few I think but don’t know went to Wapato Park though.  But that still doesn’t explain this blog about Tacoma parks, does it?  Well, in a round-about way it does.  

You see Trillium Roberts Insel, a long-time Gig Harbor resident and Roberts’ daughter, was also a writer for the Tacoma News Tribune through the years.  She wrote many articles for both the Tacoma Times and the Tacoma News Tribune as a news correspondent, but especially some very detailed articles on both her father and the parks.  She was a member of the Tacoma Mountaineers and the Tacoma Manuscript Club as well as being an active member in several civic organizations in Gig Harbor.

Trillium married John H. Insel on June 30, 1926 and they lived in Gig Harbor where they raised their three children.  In the beginning of their marriage, John was a post carrier. John was an active member of the Gig Harbor Lions Club and, because of his service as Sea Scout Skipper during WWII (15 years as skipper), became one of Gig Harbor’s best known-members.  John was also an active member of the Gig Harbor Improvement Club, the Fortnightly Literary Guild and the PTA. 

A devastating fire occurred in 1944 destroying several businesses in north Gig Harbor and John Finholm, his brother Eddie, and several neighborhoods and friends got together and formed an all volunteer fire department.  One of those volunteers was Trillium’s husband, John.  He was later in 1946 to become Fire Chief, and still later a Fire Commissioner. In 1946 the the Pierce County Fire District commissioners announced the selection of a permanent site for District No. 5’s fire station.  The property was leased from Bert Uddenberg and located to the rear of his garage at 3720 Harborview Drive then the main highway and now occupied by Speedy Glass.

The Fire District had been established in January 1945 by special election with John Finholm, Gig Harbor; Keith Swinney, Purdy, and John Sails, Horsehead Bay, all elected fire commissioners.  Mr. Sails resigned in 1946 and Oscar Dulin, Arlette, was applied to succeed Sails.  John Insel, acting assistant fire chief, was appointed to fill the position of chief.  Chief Harold Rucker had moved to Ephrata.  

Trillium died at age 89 on October 15, 1986.
John died December 12, 1988 at age 97.

If you happen to have any photos of the Insel family, or of the Roberts family, we would appreciate your sharing them with us.  Thank you.

Tacoma News Tribune articles 
Record of Minutes #1 - City of Gig Harbor DataNet2
Metro Parks Tacoma 
© 2012 Harbor History Museum. All rights reserved.

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