Category Archives: D.C. History

‘On the Hunt’ for Cherry Blossoms With a Film Crew from Japan

On the weekend of March 4, I spent several hours with a film crew from Japan, explaining the origin of Washington’s cherry blossoms and Eliza Scidmore’s role in helping to bring them to America. They’re producing a documentary for the TBS network, to air on March 18, 2017, as part of its “Mystery Hunter” series.

From left, reporter Nakada Asumi, assistant director Hoshuyama Aki, me, production coordinator Keiji Jinn Nishimura (in glasses, center), director Suzuki Yohei, audio man Sakuma Toshimi and camera man Fukumoto Noriyuki.

What a hard-working group they were.  They visited me at home for an interview on Friday afternoon — just hours after arriving on a long flight from Tokyo!

We regrouped on Sunday in West Potomac Park, at the site where the first cherry trees from Japan  were planted in March 1912. Fortunately, as production coordinator Keiji “Jinn” Nishimura (back center) told me, they also filmed the cherry trees in bloom last spring, so they have footage of the peak season.

It was a joy to meet and work with such talented professionals.

After leaving me at mid-afternoon on Sunday, they headed off across town to film … the famous Ben’s Chili Bowl!

Leave a Comment

Filed under Biography, Cherry Trees, D.C. History, Eliza Scidmore, Japan

‘She Persisted.’ A Century Ago.

From website of “Eliza’s Cherry Trees,” by Andrea Zimmerman (Pelican, 2011)

Thanks, Andrea Zimmerman, for adding Eliza Scidmire to the Internet meme of “women who persisted.”

On the floor of Congress this month, Sen. Elizabeth Warren opposed Sen. Jeff Sessions’ nomination as U.S. attorney by attempting to read a letter written by the late widow of Martin Luther King, Jr. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell cut off Warren, saying:

“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

“She persisted” quickly became a bumper-sticker slogan on social media, prompting references to trailblazing women of the past.

Women like Eliza Scidmore.

Andrea Zimmerman, in Washington for a book reading

In a Facebook posting, Andrea Zimmerman, author of the children’s book “Eliza’s Cherry Trees,” added Scidmore to the list of history’s defiantly successful women. As Andrea noted, it took Eliza 24 years to win support for her idea of planting Japanese cherry trees in the Potomac Park.

Eliza Scidmore was a young woman with a crazy idea, and the male park supervisors she approached with her suggestion brushed her off. Several times.

But she persisted, and eventually found an ally in First Lady Helen Taft. The cherry blossoms we enjoy every spring in Washington show how things turned out.

 

Leave a Comment

Filed under Biography, Cherry Trees, D.C. History, Eliza Scidmore, Research, U.S. History, Women's History

Before ‘Drain the Swamp,’ Washington Filled It In. Now We Have Potomac Park.

Incoming president Donald Trump rode a populist wave to the White House vowing to “drain the swamp” of political insiders in Washington. Earlier, President Ronald Reagan made it a catchphrase of his efforts to reduce the federal bureaucracy.

Eliza Scidmore, the subject of my book in progress, was working as a young newspaper correspondent in the 1880s when she reported on a literal swamp clean-up in Washington.

In this 1863 photo, the stump of the Washington Monument in the far distance is surrounded by the swampy Potomac flats, which were filled in beginning in 1882. (Photo by Titan Peale, U. of Rochester Rare Books Collection)

The “swamp” was actually an area of marshy tidal wetlands. Today we know that part of Washington as Potomac Park—home of the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the Tidal Basin and the city’s famous Japanese cherry trees. Continue reading

Leave a Comment

Filed under Biography, Cherry Trees, D.C. History, Eliza Scidmore, Photos

Eliza Scidmore as Wall Art

“Eliza and the Emperor.” That’s the title of an Eliza-inspired mixed-media canvas produced last year for the Carlyle Hotel in Washington by artist Anna Rose Soevik.

ElizaCarlyleMural_AnnaRoseSoevik_2015

“Eliza and the Emperor,” mixed media on canvas, by Anna Rose Soevik

Sovevik, who studied painting in London, lives and works near Washington. She likes big canvases and has done art installations at offices, bookshops and galleries around Washington and in several countries. Her work includes a series of portraits of celebrities like Sarah Jessica Parker, Lady Gaga, and Elvis Costello.

Her description of the Eliza piece is as creative as the art.

Eliza Scidmore and her cat sailed over the rainbow to Japan. She fell head over heals in love with Emperor Keita’s cherry trees and spent many many years finding the perfect spot for the trees in America. She brought back seeds and trees in a beautiful Pea Green Boat. Finally the cherry trees took root around the Jefferson memorial. The birds got a new home and the fish jumped for joy. To celebrate a Japanese lantern was lit, and the Cherry Blossom Festival began.

To my knowledge Eliza never had a cat, though she did have a small lapdog late in life that she spoiled rotten.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Cherry Trees, D.C. History, Eliza Scidmore, Japan, Photos

The Tokyo Park Behind D.C.’s Cherry Trees

Hand-colored photo of cherry-blossom viewing at Mukojima (Takashima, 1897)

Hand-colored photo of cherry-blossom viewing at Mukojima (Takashima, 1897)

“No other flower in all the world is so beloved, so exalted, so worshipped, as sakura-no-hana, the cherry-blossom of Japan.”
— Eliza Scidmore, The Century Magazine, May 1910

It’s blooming time in D.C. That means cherry tree fever along the Tidal Basin. Bruce and I made our annual pilgrimage early Saturday morning, under a clear but chilly sky.

Today is the trees’ official birthday. The first ones donated by Japan were planted in Washington on March 27, 1912.  Eliza Scidmore was one of only three special guests of First Lady Helen Taft on hand to witness the small private ceremony.

Eliza, who was the first person to suggest planting flowering cherry trees along the Potomac, said she got the idea while visiting Japan in the 1880s. One cherry-tree park in particular inspired her: Mukojima, a mile-long avenue of trees along the Sumida River in Tokyo.

I had a chance to visit Mukojima during a research trip to Japan. It looks very different today, but the spirit of fellowship and good will that so inspired Eliza is still evident today in the ancient ritual of hanami — cherry-blossom viewing.

Eliza wrote that she wanted to create a “Mukojima on the Potomac.” Here are some historic photos of what Mukojima looked like around the time Eliza went there.

Ramble under the cherry trees, around the time when Eliza Scidmore traveled in Japan (Takashima, 1897)

Ramble under the trees at Mukojima (Takashima, 1897)

 

Hand-colored postard of Mukojima

Hand-colored postcard of Mukojima

 

Hand-colored photo from Frank Brinkley’s Mukojima, from Frank Brinkley's 10-volume “Japan”

Hand-colored photo from Frank Brinkley’s 10-volume illustrated book “Japan”

 

 

Leave a Comment

Filed under Biography, Cherry Trees, D.C. History, Eliza Scidmore, Japan, Photos

Eliza Scidmore Slept Here …

In the course of research I’ve been finding addresses of various places where Eliza Scidmore lived or stayed over the years. Since she was such a vagabond, there were many! Here’s a photographic chronology of a few of them.

David Atwood House, Madison, Wisconsin.
David Atwood, editor and publisher of “The State Journal,” married the sister of Eliza’s mother. As a young woman Eliza was close to her cousin Mary Atwood. Eliza stayed here with the Atwoods during visits back to Madison, where she spent her early childhood years. (Source: Wisconsin State Historical Society)

Georgetown Visitation.
Eliza attended this Catholic boarding school in Washington from 1862-63, when she was around 6 to 7 years old. It opened in 1799 and is still operating today. (Source: Library of Congress)

 

“Idaho,” Juneau, 1887.
Eliza slept in a cabin aboard this steamer in the summer of 1883 when she made her first trip to Alaska via the Inside Passage. The wharf shown here was named for the ship’s captain, James Carroll, who became an early promoter of Alaska tourism. (Source: Alaska State Library)

 

Club Hotel, Yokohama.
Eliza and her mother stayed here on their first trip to Japan in the summer of 1885. The hotel, next to a popular men’s club, overlooked the harbor on an avenue known as the Bund. Later, Eliza and her mother lived next door, at No. 6 Bund, while Eliza’s brother George was a consular official in Japan. Today the site is occupied by the Hotel Monterrey. (Source: MeijiShowa)

 

Brunswick Hotel, Boston.
A lot of Washington residents fled the muggy city in the summer for fashionable spas or cooler places in New England. Eliza and her mother stayed at times at this popular hotel in Boston. (Source: Library of Congress)

 

Shoreham Hotel, Washington.
Built in 1887, this apartment hotel at H and 15th Streets, N.W., became a popular residence for members of Congress. Eliza was staying here in the fall of 1895 when she wrote to John Muir describing her recent “circumnavigation” of the Far East. It included a trip to Java she wrote about in one of her books. The hotel was razed in 1974 for an office building. (Source: unknown)

1837 M St., N.W., Washington.
Eliza resided in this house in the Dupont Circle neighborhood from around 1910 to 1912 [view is seen from around the corner, on 19th Street]. So she was probably living here when she attended the planting of the first Japanese cherry trees in Potomac Park on March 27, 1912, as a guest of First Lady Helen Taft. The American writer John Dos Passos later lived here for a time. (Source: Library of Congress)

Stoneleigh Courts, Washington.
By 1920 Eliza lived in No. 510 at this luxury apartment building that had as its major investors the former Secretary of State John Hay. Located at Connecticut and Massachusetts Avenues, now Dupont Circle, [Correction: located on Connecticut Avenue, just north of Farragut Square], it was built in an innovative horseshoe layout, with a central courtyard that allowed light to interior apartments. Eliza’s neighbors included many eminent people. (Source: Library of Congress)

31 Quai du Mont Blanc, Geneva, Switzerland.
This shows the site of the apartment building facing Lake Geneva where Eliza was living in at the time of her death in 1928. She had moved permanently to Geneva in part to follow developments at the League of Nations. She found the weather dreary much of the year, so she vacationed regularly with family and friends in southern Italy and France. (Photo: Jacques Lasserre)

 

Foreign General Cemetery, Yokohama.
Eliza’s final place of sleep is in a cemetery in Yokohama, where her ashes were laid with those of her mother and brother. Her inscription on the gravestone is beneath the cross. The overhanging cherry tree in bloom  was planted by Japanese who pay tribute to her every spring. It was propagated from one of the trees Japan gave to Washington in 1912. A plaque by the grave reads: “A lady who loved cherry blossoms rests here in peace.” (Photo: D.L. Parsell)

 

 

3 Comments

Filed under Biography, Cherry Trees, D.C. History, Eliza Scidmore, Japan, Photos, Research

Scidmore, Takamine and ‘Homecoming’ Trees

Plaque describing the role of Jokichi Takamine and Eliza Scidmore in Japan’s cherry tree gift to Washington (Photo: D. Parsell)

Eliza Scidmore is popping up all over the place here in Japan. Her cameo appears on plaques that mark the presence of cherry trees that have been grafted from the trees in Potomac Park—scions of the 3,000 trees Japan sent to Washington a hundred years ago. A couple hundred saplings of these “homecoming cherry trees” are being planted around the country.

It’s one of many U.S.-Japanese projects celebrating last year’s centennial of Washington’s cherry trees. Japan is also planting 3,000 dogwood trees that were a gift from the United States.

On the “homecoming tree” plaques Scidmore is paired with a famous Japanese chemist named Jokichi Takamine. It recognizes their dual effort in making the cherry trees in Washington a reality. Eliza had wanted for years to see it happen. And Takamine had previously offered to buy cherry trees for parks in New York City, where he lived, but officials there had not been receptive.

Jokichi Takamine

Scidmore and Takamine knew one another well. When they learned of Mrs. Taft’s landscaping plans for Potomac Park, they both saw a chance to act. Takamine offered to personally buy trees for the beautification project—he thought a couple thousand would be a good number to make a fine display. The Japanese consul general in New York, Takamine’s travel companion in Washington, suggested it would be more appropriate, for reasons of protocol, to make the trees a gift from the Japanese people rather than an individual.  Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under Cherry Trees, D.C. History, Eliza Scidmore, Japan, Media & Outreach

The Eliza Scidmore Society

When I started this blog more than a year ago, my first post was a photo of Eliza Scidmore’s grave site in Yokohama, sent to me by a Japanese friend. I knew at the time I would eventually have to travel to Japan to do research for my book on Eliza—and to see her grave site.

Today I joined members of the Eliza Scidmore Cherry Blossom Society (Sakura-no-Kai) at an annual memorial service at her grave.

Kaoru Onji places flowers at Eliza Scidmore’s grave in Yokohama. “Eliza Catherine” on the tombstone is the name of her mother, first buried at the site. (Photo: D. Parsell)

Kaoru Onji, a retired professor of organic chemistry, coordinates the activities of the Eliza Scidmore Society. Assisting her is Mina Ozawa, director of the Yamate Museum. This year about three dozen members of the Society and other guests gathered amid fierce winds for the brief ceremony, then enjoyed a buffet luncheon.

The society grew from a group of people who shared an interest in Eliza Scidmore‘s story after her book Jinrikisha Days in Japan was translated into Japanese. In 1987 they visited her grave during cherry-blossom season to pay tribute. The ritual has continued. Today the group has about 50 members. Continue reading

8 Comments

Filed under Biography, Cherry Trees, D.C. History, Eliza Scidmore, Historical Travel, Japan, Media & Outreach, Research

Cherry Blossom Viewing at ‘Mukojima’ in Tokyo

Picnicking and cherry tree viewing at Mukojima in Tokyo (Photos: D. Parsell)

On Saturday I literally walked in Eliza Scidmores footsteps when I went to Tokyo to see the cherry tree viewing (hanami) at a place called Mukojima. A mile-long stretch of cherry trees lining the Sumida River, it was the chief inspiration for Eliza’s idea of planting Japanese cherry trees in Washington. She envisioned, she wrote many times, a “Mukojima on the Potomac.”

It wasn’t just the trees that Eliza wanted to import. She found herself captivated by the spirit of cherry tree viewing, and it was that experience she wanted to see re-created in Washington. She described, in the late 19th century, the Japanese turning out in many parks to see the trees at peak bloom.

The most festive place was Mukojima. It was like the “people’s park,” where Japanese from all walks of life mingled in a carnival atmosphere. There were jugglers, acrobats, orators and vendors. And lots of saké drinking and picnicking. The place is much changed today, of course. Most of the original trees were destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and had to be replanted. The Sumida River today is wider. Tall buildings tower above one side of the riverbank, and the other has a raised freeway running parallel to a stretch of cherry trees. But the display is still glorious, and the spirit of hanami remains the same.

It was a joy to be there and experience it. The trees bloomed about two weeks earlier than expected here in Japan, so my timing was perfect!  Continue reading

6 Comments

Filed under Biography, Cherry Trees, D.C. History, Eliza Scidmore, Historical Travel, Japan, Photos

Off to Japan, in Eliza Scidmore’s Footsteps

By the Tidal Basin in Washington with reporter Miki Ebara, in front of the first two cherry trees from Japan planted on March 27, 1912, and a 300-year-old lantern from Japan (Source: NHK TV)

A busy Saturday. I just spent five hours with a film crew from the New York bureau of Japan’s NHK television, talking about my research on Eliza Scidmore.

Miki Ebara, the chief correspondent in New York,  first contacted me a year ago not long after I launched this blog. She covers disasters as part of her duties and was familiar with Eliza Scidmore’s reporting on the great tsunami on the northeast coast of Japan in 1896. 

Miki and I reconnected several weeks ago when I started thinking about making a trip to Japan for some necessary research. Cherry blossom season seemed the best time to go, so things have moved along very quickly. I’m off early next week. First trip to Japan.

Because she shares my fascination with Eliza, Miki decided to do a news feature on the cherry trees in Washington with a segment on my research, especially details I’ve uncovered about Eliza’s early life. The show is scheduled to air on March 30, when the trees in Japan should be at peak bloom.

Eliza has become increasingly well known in Japan because of her book Jinrikisha Days in Japan and her role in bringing cherry trees to Washington, so there’s much curiosity about her. There’s even an information sign about her posted outside one of Yokohama’s metro stations, near the cemetery where she’s buried. Continue reading

3 Comments

Filed under Biography, Cherry Trees, D.C. History, Historical Travel, Japan, Media & Outreach, Research

Eliza Scidmore and the Fairchilds and Their Great Idea

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.

Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under Cherry Trees, D.C. History, Eliza Scidmore, Library of Congress, Research

Andrew Carnegie, Eliza Scidmore and the D.C. Historical Society

Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square in Washington, now home to the D.C. Historical Society

Last week the Library of Congress held a seminar on Andrew Carnegie’s legacy of establishing public libraries in the United States and several other countries, beginning in the late 19th century. 

About 1,600 were built in the United States. One of them is at Mount Vernon Square in Washington. Today it houses the offices of the D.C. Historical Society and the affiliated Kiplinger Research Library, where I found some very useful information in the early stages of my research on Eliza Scidmore. 

Continue reading

Leave a Comment

Filed under D.C. History, Eliza Scidmore, Library of Congress, National Geographic

D.C. Historical Studies Conference

Good news today. Just got the word that I’ll be speaking on Eliza Scidmore at the 39th Annual Conference on D.C. Historical Studies in October.

This year’s conference is focusing on several centennial events in Washington, including the anniversary of the first Japanese cherry trees planted in Potomac Park. Joining me on a panel will be Ann McClellan, the author of a new book from National Geographic on the cherry trees, and John Malott, a former U.S. ambassador who now heads the Japan-America Society of Washington, D.C.

We’ll describe our respective research on several people whose critical roles in the planting of the trees has been little known— Eliza Scidmore; USDA botanist David Fairchild and his wife, Daisy; and Japanese chemist Jokichi Takamine.

Almost no one realizes that Eliza Scidmore grew up in Washington, so I’m looking forward to sharing what I’ve learned.

 

 

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Cherry Trees, D.C. History, Eliza Scidmore

Happy Birthday, D.C. Cherry Trees!

Helen Taft in 1908, a year before she became First Lady and planned the cherry tree project in Washington (Source: UDSA)

The cherry trees are blooming, and Washington is now celebrating a special event: the centennial of its first trees donated by Japan. On March 27, 2012, First Lady Helen Taft and the Japanese ambassador’s wife stood alongside the Tidal Basin  and planted the first of 3,000 flowering cherry trees sent from the mayor of Tokyo. Eliza Scidmore was one of the few people present that day.

Read my article about it on National Geographic’s “News Watch.”

 

 

Leave a Comment

Filed under Cherry Trees, D.C. History, Eliza Scidmore, Japan, Photos

Eliza Scidmore Profile in ‘The Washington Post’

The special cherry blossom section in today’s Washington Post had a good article about Eliza Scidmore by staff reporter Michael Ruane. Includes quotes by me based on a phone interview.

Hand-colored photo of cherry trees in Japan, by Eliza Scidmore (Source: National Geographic)

Leave a Comment

Filed under Cherry Trees, D.C. History, Eliza Scidmore, Japan, Photos, U.S. History

Historic Cherry Tree Art at the Library of Congress

Mothers and children in Tokyo, Helen Hyde, woodcut, 1914 (Source: Library of Congress)

With the 100th anniversary of Washington’s first cherry trees only six weeks away, on March 27, special exhibits and programs on sakura (cherry blossoms) are suddenly cropping up all over town. In late March the Library of Congress will open an exhibition of 54 prints and artworks from its collections that depict different scenes of cherry trees. The selections include watercolor drawings, Japanese woodblock prints, book illustrations, photographs, posters, postcards and editorial cartoons. I’ve posted a few enticing samples. Continue reading

Leave a Comment

Filed under Cherry Trees, D.C. History, Japan, Library of Congress

Washington’s New “It” Girl: Eliza Scidmore

Japanese girl in kimono, by Eliza Scidmore (Source: National Geographic)

Ah, the pain of hindsight. If only I’d stumbled upon Eliza Scidmore’s story sooner I might have a book coming off the presses in time for the 100th anniversary of the planting of the first cherry trees in Washington next spring, on March 27. Talk about the perfect book-signing opportunity!

When I began research on Eliza Scidmore it just didn’t hit me at first that the centennial was imminent. A lot had already been written about the cherry trees, and I was focused mainly on Eliza. Once I realized the significance of the date I sent queries late last year to several publications (Smithsonian, The Washington Post Magazine, The Washingtonian) proposing an article on Eliza and the cherry trees, targeted to the anniversary. There were no takers.

Now, with the centennial just a few months away and a huge festival planned, Eliza — after being largely overlooked for a century — is emerging as the new “it” girl in town. Continue reading

Leave a Comment

Filed under Cherry Trees, D.C. History, Eliza Scidmore, Japan, Photos, Research

On Serendipity in Research

Serendipity is like the crack cocaine of research. It gives you a wonderful high.

I remember well the first time I came to understand the term. It was in the 1980s, and I was in graduate school at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism. For my science writing class, I interviewed several researchers on campus who were studying different aspects of cystic fibrosis. It’s an insidious disease in which a faulty gene and its protein product cause the body to produce a thick, sticky mucus that clogs the lungs and impedes proper digestion. A pediatrician was working to improve clinical observations; a pair of biochemists hoped to develop a reliable diagnostic test for the disease; another researcher was studying glandular secretions in a rat model.  Continue reading

Leave a Comment

Filed under D.C. History, Eliza Scidmore, Japan, Research

Eliza Scidmore’s American Fan Club

I’m not the only one with a fixation on Eliza Scidmore. After I began researching her I met two other women equally fascinated by her remarkable life. Washington writer Ann McClellan learned a lot about Eliza while writing The Cherry Blossom Festival, published in 2005 as a souvenir book for the National Cherry Blossom Festival. Hearing about my project, a colleague in the Women’s History Discussion Group at the Library of Congress put me in touch with Ann, a friend of hers. Then earlier this year I met Andrea Zimmerman, soon after the launch of her children’s book Eliza’s Cherry Trees. We all agreed: Eliza was quite a gal. Continue reading

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Cherry Trees, D.C. History, Eliza Scidmore, Writing: Craft & Community