Researchers, authors, students and history buffs gathered here last weekend for the annual D.C. Historical Studies Conference. I was there as a presenter on Friday, in a joint appearance with author Ann McClellan.
This year’s conference, the 39th one, featured among its topics local anniversaries including the sesquicentennial of President Lincoln’s emancipation of slaves in D.C. and the centennial of the cherry trees in Potomac Park. I told the story of Eliza Scidmore, emphasizing some D.C. connections that have come to light in my research. Ann, the author of two books on the Cherry Blossom Festival, described the efforts of a local couple, Marian (“Daisy”) and David Fairchild, whose interest in cherry trees overlapped with Eliza’s.
David Fairchild was a botanist and plant explorer at the U.S. Department of Agriculture who developed an interest in Japanese cherry trees in the early 1900’s. During his travels in Japan he never got a chance to actually see them in bloom, so his interest was based solely on illustrations of their blossoms. He imported about 25 varieties to test them at his home just outside Washington, and when they thrived and attracted many admirers, he helped his neighbors acquire several hundred of them for the streets of Chevy Chase, Md. So those trees pre-date the ones in D.C.
The Fairchilds, like Eliza, also wanted to see Japanese cherry trees in downtown Washington. They arranged an Arbor Day event in 1908 at which they provided cherry trees to local boys for planting at schools around the District. Eliza attended the Arbor Day ceremony at Franklin School, where David Fairchild introduced her as a great authority on Japan.
A year later, upon learning about First Lady Helen Taft’s beautification plans for West Potomac Park, both Eliza and the Fairchilds saw a chance to act. Eliza wrote to Mrs. Taft urging her to have cherry trees planted along the Potomac — so they could be reflected in the water, as was the custom in Japan. At the same time, David Fairchild sent a note to Col. Spencer Cosby, the head of federal parks and buildings in Washington, who was assisting Mrs. Taft. Fairchild suggested to Cosby that a popular riverside drive called “the Speedway” be lined with glowering cherries, and he offered to donate 50. In his letter he credited the idea to Daisy (who was the daughter of Alexander Graham Bell).
The rest, of course, is history: Mrs. Taft took up the idea at once, favoring an avenue of the trees. She informed Eliza of her decision in a now-famous note.
Then, in an unexpected turn of events, everyone got what they wanted, when a Japanese businessman named Jokichi Takamine learned about Mrs. Taft’s plan and offered to donate a couple thousand trees for the project.
In the end, more than 3,000 of the trees were sent, officially a gift of Japan. There were so many that they were planted in Potomac Park AND at various spots around D.C. I learned recently that one of the original trees still stands on the grounds of the Library of Congress, just across the street from where I have an office in the library’s Adams Building.