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 of 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 1900s. During his travels in Japan he never got a chance to actually see them in bloom, so his fascination was based solely on illustrations of cherry blossoms. He imported several varieties to test them at his home just outside Washington, When they thrived and attracted many admirers, he helped his neighbors acquire several hundred of the trees for the streets of Chevy Chase, Md. Those trees predate the ones in Potomac Park.
The Fairchilds wanted to see Japanese cherry trees in downtown Washington. To garner support, David Fairchaild arranged an Arbor Day event in 1908 at which local boys planted cherry trees 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 David Fairchild saw a chance to act. Scidmore wrote to Mrs. Taft urging her to have cherry trees planted along the Potomac; Fairchild sent a similar appeal at the same time to Col. Spencer Cosby, the head of federal parks and buildings in Washington, who was assisting Mrs. Taft with her plans.
Mrs. Taft took up the idea at once. She informed Eliza of her decision in a now-famous note.
Then, in a sudden turn of events,the project swelled dramatically when a Japanese businessman named Jokichi Takamine learned about Mrs. Taft’s plan and offered to donate a couple thousand trees for the project. Eliza mediated the exchange. In the end, more than 3,000 of the trees were sent, officially a gift of Japan.
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 a study desk in the library’s Adams Building.