Pity Luther Burbank; his single greatest invention was his own celebrity — yet he craved solitude and loathed the public that adored him.
As mentioned in an earlier piece on Burbank, he faced an exhausting daily siege from tourists, some assuming they would have a nice visit with him and chat about their begonias, or something. An essay published years later documented his torment: “Passing from the garage to the house he runs the gauntlet of outstretched hands and cheery greetings. He bows right and left and impatiently tells the callers he regrets that he cannot stop to talk with them. At the door a man waylays him and grabs his hand only to be thrust aside. Another more daring than the rest follows him into his study…after Burbank finally sits down to lunch the telephone announces that a party of 75 or 100 persons have arrived in town and wish to be conducted over his gardens. The local Chamber of Commerce secretary protests that the party was sent over by a travel bureau, a plan that Burbank had approved months earlier…”
Burbank was in a quandary. While his business success depended on his continued superstar-class fame as the “plant wizard,” he simply couldn’t work with adoring fans pestering him, supposedly six thousand in 1905 alone (curiously, that same figure was also quoted for 1904 and 1906). Making matters worse, his home and gardens were not on some remote country road, but just a few inviting steps away from downtown Santa Rosa.
Burbank first tried to fend off the unwelcome rabble by selling permits that would allow someone to talk to him for a few minutes. When that didn’t work, he took to adding testy signs around his yard. Posted just inside his otherwise-neighborly white picket fence was the first notice:
NOTHING FOR SALE
ALL VISITORS CALL AT THE DOOR
Further in was another warning:
ALL VISITORS ARE LIMITED
TO FIVE MINUTES EACH UNLESS
BY SPECIAL APPOINTMENT
Those undaunted (or clueless) then had to fill out a questionnaire, as noted in another book. “…Should a person succeed in running the gauntlet of these protective signs, there is still another provision which must be faced. When the inside of the door is reached, this slip is in readiness. I take the current one from the block on a day in May, 1905:”
None of that apparently slowed the ill-mannered tide, and the following year, overt threats were posted on every gate:
POSITIVELY NO VISITORS ALLOWED.
ANY PERSON ENTERING OR TRESPASSING ON
THESE GROUNDS WILL BE PROSECUTED.
As reported in the Press Democrat item below, Burbank — sorry, “the Friends and Relatives of Luther Burbank” — also printed a circular that went still further, implying that the ignorant masses were endangering the great man’s life by even writing to ask a question or seek work (although Burbank’s secretary was already sending a rejection form letter to all job-seekers). It closed with a blunt warning to keep away from him and his property: “The public has no moral, legal or other right to invade his grounds, his home, his private office or his laboratories.” The whole tactless missive can be found in a August 5, 1906 New York Times profile:
| First–Mr. Burbank has nothing for sale.
Second–He is not a nurseryman, not a florist, not a seedsman, not a dealer, and not a raiser of any kind of plants or seeds for sale.
Third–He is an originator of new kinds of useful and ornamental trees, flowers, fruits, vegetables, grasses, and grains.
A great portion of his time is utterly wasted in replying to questions which should never have been asked of him. Even by the most strenuous efforts and with all the stenographic force which can be accommodated, many of his letters have to remain from three to six months before a brief moment of time can be obtained even to briefly reply. Alas! There are only twenty-four hours in each day.
Over 6,000 visitors were received on his grounds during the year 1904. All the important experimental work was delayed beyond recall, grounds overrun with crowds from day-light to ten o’clock at night, no rest even on Sundays or holidays. Business destroyed, rare plants died from want of care. Attention constantly drawn from legitimate matters, letters neglected, telegrams delayed; meals taken standing, sleep disturbed, health at the point of destruction, visitors calling at all hours, without regard to Mr. Burbank’s convenience, each one being under the fixed and unalterable impression that he or she was the one particular one who should be admitted.
This was too much. The question arose, Should he continue his valuable researches undisturbed, or should he be murdered piecemeal as a showman?
The public has no moral, legal or other right to invade his grounds, his home, his private office or his laboratories.
WILL PUT STOP TO ANNOYANCE
People Pester Mr. Burbank With Foolish Questions and Ask for Positions
On account of the great annoyance given Mr. Luther Burbank, the eminent horticulturist, by people writing all kinds of questions, some of them very foolish, and all of them expecting an answer from him, and on account of the scores of applications for positions that pour in upon him, when in reality he has no positions to offer, and is not in the employment business as many of the inquiries seem to imply, a circular letter, making some plain statements, is being sent out in response to the hundreds of inquiries made and it is signed “By the Relatives and Friends of Luther Burbank.”
This step had to be taken in an endeavor to check the endless flow of correspondence, much of which is, as stated, altogether unnecessary and including some of the most ridiculous queries imaginable in order to let Mr. Burbank have an opportunity to give more attention to the great work he has in hand.
Hundreds of letters, for instance, come to the Burbank residence, asking the price of this plant or that, or something else. The reply being sent is to the effect that Mr. Burbank has nothing to sell, and that he is not a florist or nurseryman in the ordinary acceptance of the term, as many of the writers evidently suppose. The letter further states that Mr. Burbank places his creations in the hands of the great seedsmen of this country, and in other countries, comprising the greater part of the world, and a list of them is given.
The letter states that as each applicant for a position is received it is registered, and to date no less than 2,552 applications have been made and mail brings more. Attention is also called to the hordes of callers that annually visit Mr. Burbank, on no particular mission except to hinder him in his work, and each caller expecting that it is his or her right to have their questions answered by Mr. Burbank.
As stated the main reason for sending out the circular letter is to check the demand upon Mr. Burbank’s time, allow him to devote more attention to his work in giving the world new fruits and flowers, and more important still, give him a little rest.– Press Democrat, February 3, 1906