In the summer of 1907, Luther Burbank was a man with many Boswells trailing his steps, hoping to pry secrets from his encyclopedic mind. Each biographer desired to author the magnum opus on Burbank and his plant-breeding methods, and Burbank cooperated with them all equally, which is to say that he barely cooperated with anyone at all.
(This is the third part of a series on Burbank’s troubled relationship with the Carnegie Institution. The previous part discusses George Shull and the Carnegie Institution. The introduction to this series, “Burbank’s Follies,” provides more background on these topics and offers a critical overview of Burbank’s work. The series concludes here.)
Besides Shull, another habitue was a writer named W.S. Harwood, preparing a second edition of “New Creations in Plant Life.” Harwood had written a 1904 magazine article on Burbank and expanded that into a book-length profile with descriptions of his work methods a year later. That book sold well even though it was slammed by knowledgeable critics, suffering a particularly harsh review in the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society: “[Harwood] traces the course of his hero’s life and work with all the ardour of the true hero-worshipper…The book does not help at all, as we had hoped it would, to enable us to sift the truth from the obviously exaggerated accounts.”
In the published fragments of Shull’s correspondence with the Carnegie Institution, the sycophant Harwood is only mentioned once, and in passing; aside from being another person demanding Burbank’s attention, Shull didn’t consider him a competitor. But Shull didn’t know what to make of a new visitor to Burbank’s farm: Dr. William Martin, an editor from the Cree Publishing Company of Minneapolis, who was now living in Burbank’s old house and studying all of Burbank’s scrapbooks. The publisher had been negotiating with Burbank for over a year to prepare a ten-volume set that would document Burbank’s methods – an arrangement that seemed in direct conflict with the Burbank’s $10,000/year grant from Carnegie. Shull wrote to the Committee in February, 1907:1
Mr. Burbank informed me that the Cree books can not be in the least conflict with our work. He says that the 10 volumes will not contain as much ‘meat’ as ten pages of the Carnegie work. It is to be made up mostly of illustrations, on thick paper, with very brief statements in large type:–to be sold by subscription.
Shull’s supervisor urged him to “find out all you can” about the Cree project, and Shull replied the next month:2
I do not believe that it will be possible for me to learn much more intimately of the contents of Cree books than I have already reported. I do not think that they will be in very direct conflict, however, with the work we are planning, though without doubt, a large part of the public will draw a comparison between that work and ours, which will not be as favorable to the Carnegie work as we might hope, since the Cree work is being planned specifically to please the popular mind…
Dr. Martin was the Rev. William Mayo Martin, D. D. from Minneapolis, who the Santa Rosa Republican described as “a prominent author and man of letters.” (Martin was replaced a few months later by H. B. Humphrey, a plant pathologist from Washington State College, but Martin’s qualifications for the project are a mystery.
I’ve been unable to find anything about him professionally, academically, or even personally through census records. It’s as if he never existed. UPDATE: Martin was Cree’s brother-in-law.) Besides Martin, the Cree faction also included Martin’s stenographer and a junior professor from Stanford University, botanist Dr. Leroy Abrams, who had been hired to work with Martin, and was expected to be there for a year. Shull wrote to the president of the Carnegie Institution that it was getting crowded at Burbank’s place.3
Yesterday Mr. Harwood was here revising his book on ‘New Creations.’ Dr. Martin is here getting material for the ten volumes of the Cree Co., and a representative of Collier’s [Magazine] was also securing data for articles, so you can see none of us will be able to receive much attention. Mr. Burbank is trying to treat us all alike and has assigned different hours to each of these various interests.
Shull’s 1907 stint with Burbank was cut short by the death of his wife and infant at their Santa Rosa home. With the Carnegie Institution work on hiatus while he was in mourning back east, Shull hoped that Burbank would spend more time with the Cree team, all the better to concentrate on the scientific questions Shull would pose when he returned. Alas, Burbank sent him a letter stating that he had been very busy, “and so have not dictated to the other company at all since you left, but when you come back will try to give both parties a short time each day as usual.”4 Back in Santa Rosa, Shull wrote to the Committee in February, 1908 that he was no longer sure that the Cree project would be as lightweight as Burbank had claimed:5
It should also be noted that the management of the Cree Publishing Company’s projected work, is fully aware of the wave of adverse criticism which has been directed against Harwood’s book because of its unbridled praise of Mr. Burbank’s achievements, and is obviously taking steps to lessen this tendency in their publication. The employment of a trained botanist by that company, to stand sponsor for the scientific bearings of the work who will have been a longer time in actual contact with Mr. Burbank than I will have been, opens the question as to the relative merits of that work and ours, and also as to whether one or the other of these two works will not be superfluous in the presence of the other.
There was no need for Shull to worry. Sometime during 1908, plans fell apart for Cree to publish that ten-volume set. Reasons are unknown; it could be that Prof. Abrams withdrew because of the frustrations working with the uncommunicative Burbank, or that the publisher ran out of money or patience. Although that work was abandoned, partners in the Cree venture would continue to develop money-making schemes with Burbank, which will be the subject of following installments in the “Burbank Follies.”
Now a century past, the story of Burbank’s conflicted doings with the Carnegie Institution, Cree Publishing and other would-be suitors is well-documented in books and journal articles. At the time, however, the Santa Rosa newspapers only reported approvingly of Dr. Shull’s comings and goings and the “splendid work” turned out by Cree; to the public, all apparently were having a merry time hanging out with the plant wizard, according to the papers. But there is one significant event from 1907 that was newsworthy, yet is not mentioned in any literature about Burbank: The thwarted plans to create a “Burbank Institute.”
in late October, Petaluma’s George P. McNear, possibly the most financially important man in the county, announced that “premature publicity” had derailed plans to create a Burbank Institute. As this was the first mention in the newspapers of any plans to create an international plant-breeding school, one has to wonder what publicity he meant – and why that should squelch the deal. There were other mysteries in McNear’s single-paragraph non-announcement: Who were the “wealthy men interested in results of experiments” that were expected to fund a “permanent endowment” for the institution? If truly “Burbank’s consent [had] not been secured,” as McNear wrote, how could any group presume to found a school centered upon Burbank’s methods?
The Press Democrat and Santa Rosa Republican articles that followed McNear’s statement filled in some details. Yes, the editors knew about the plans and had indeed vowed secrecy. The PD reported Stanford President David Starr Jordan, a well-known Burbank booster, was said to be the author of the press release signed by McNear. Whether that’s true or not, it’s clear something actually was afoot.
It’s difficult to know what to make of this episode. One reason to be skeptical is because plans for a potential Burbank Institute were not mentioned by any of his biographers, and this period is well-documented, thanks to Shull’s correspondence with the Carnegie Institution. It also appears that the newspaper articles about the thwarted plans for the school were written nearly verbatim from Burbank’s dictation. His fingerprints can be found in his customary overstated claims that “the Carnegie Institution has already set aside the sum of $100,000” for his support and “its perpetuation would appear only reasonable,” that he would “teach the higher science of plant breeding,” and that “University professors…were greatly interested in the project.”
There are two possible scenarios that I can imagine – and in both cases, Burbank is my pick as the probable source of the newsleak, inadvertently or no:
|There might have been “cigar talk” among some of Burbank’s more well-heeled supporters about the possibility of creating a Burbank school. Unable to restrain his need for self-aggrandizement, Burbank boasted to someone that wealthy and famous people were soon to build an institute in his honor. Word got back to McNear and the others, who became alarmed that Burbank was pushing them into commitment, so they shot down the idea, fast.|
|Serious plans really might have been underway to create and endow a Burbank Institute. But the bank panic of 1907 – which occurred the same week as McNear’s declaration – caused potential investors/donors to hunker down. With the intent of pushing them into commitment, Burbank whispered to the papers that the secret deal was still in the works, which led McNear and the others to send out the statement to the press.|
Some combination of the two scenarios is also possible. Yes, the nation was suddenly facing the total collapse of the U.S. economy, and investors would be foolish to give Luther Burbank a bunch of post-dated blank checks during the crisis. At the same time, many believed that Burbank’s new spineless cactus was as important a discovery as the Russet potato, and speculators were indeed “interested in results of [Burbank’s] experiments,” hoping to get in on the ground floor. As for Burbank’s role, the only thing he loved more than being idolized was having a reliable income, and a Burbank Institute had enormous potential for both. One can imagine his anguish at seeing such a project suddenly dissolve, and one can imagine he might risk a long-shot bid to snatch it from defeat.
1pg. 138, Bentley Glass, The strange encounter of Luther Burbank and George Harrison Shull (American Philosophical Society) 1980
2pg. 139, ibid
3pg. 171, Peter Dreyer, A Gardener Touched With Genius (Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, Santa Rosa, CA) 1985
4pg. 140, Glass
5pg. 139, Glass
COMES TO WRITE VOLUMES ON BURBANK
Rev. William Mayse [sic] Martin of Minneapolis, a prominent author and man of letters, arrived here Friday morning, and will make his home here for the coming year. He comes to edit a work of ten volumes, to be entitled “New Creations.” This will explain in detail the marvelous work of Luther Burbank, the well known local scientist, in his propagation of new plants and flowers. This work is to be published by the Cree Publishing Company, which is having the large colored panels and colored postals made of Mr. Burbank’s creations. Rev. Mr. Martin is accompanied by his private stenographer and will have his office in the former Burbank home. His family have remained to spend some time in Los Angeles, but later will come here to make their home while Mr. Martin is doing the great work he has undertaken.– Santa Rosa Republican, February 2, 1907
CREE GETS OUT SPLENDID WORK
Donald [sic] Cree, President of the Cree Publishing Company of Minneapolis, Minn., who is engaged in getting out a ten-volume work entitled, “Burbank’s Creation,” is on the coast making arrangements to place the work with subscription agencies. While in this city Monday Mr. Cree made the Press Democrat a pleasant call and permitted an inspection of the prospectus of the sets of volumes.
The work gives promise of being the most elaborate of its kind ever attempted. The paper is all especially made with the “Luther Burbank” watermark in the margin, and the plates are all colored to life, from handpainted samples prepared here by specialists.The binding represents the finest the art can produce and are in several styles from the luxurious $1000 to the $500 and $250 per set down to a popular edition.
Mr. Burbank has been dictating for several months for the text of the work and the “copy” is being sent out as fast as prepared and placed in the hands of the printer. The first volume is expected to be ready for delivery within a short time and the rest will follow as rapidly as they can be handled. The work is sold by subscription only.– Press Democrat, May 28, 1907
DR. MARTIN IS CHANGED
Cree Publishing Company Plans Burbank Cards
Dr. William Mays [sic] Martin, who has been here for several months past as editor of the Cree publishing company’s works on Luther Burbank and his work, has been given another line of work by his firm, and the editorship has been placed in the hands of H. B. Humphrey, who will continue the work on the set of books under course of publication.
The Cree company has determined to issue a series of postal cards, setting forth various views of the Burbank home, Mr. Burbank’s photograph, some of his flowers and fruits and views from the experimental grounds. This department of the work has been placed in charge of Mr. Martin and already thousands of the cards have been ordered from all parts of this state, and dealers as far east as Chicago have placed large orders for the cards. It is expected that this line of the of the work will be in great demand, and the cards will be made from the superb views recently made by the company from oil paintings of the real views, such as are being used in the publication of the illustrations in the books.– Santa Rosa Republican, October 28, 1907
SET OF BOOKS ON BURBANK WORK
Complete Scientific History of Eminent Scientist’s Work in Realm of Nature
President Dugal Cree of the Cree Publishing Company, of Minneapolis, accompanied by Rev. William Mayes Martin, D. D., has been spending several days in this city. This is Mr. Cree’s second visit to Santa Rosa, he having been here last September, at which time he entered into negotiations with Luther Burbank for the rights to publish a set of books covering the scientist’s life work. During the present visit the details have been completed and a contract entered into between Mr. Burbank and the publishing house for the latter to bring out a set of ten volumes of “New Creations,” an edition authorized by Luther Burbank giving a history of the facts, methods, principles, and a description of the new creations brought out by the famous scientist during his thirty-five years work among fruit, flowers, and foliage.
Dr. Marin will remain here to look after the Publisher’s interests and forward the copy as rapidly as the stenographer, who will take the subject matter from Mr. Burbank’s personal dictation, completes it, assist in gathering data, and see that nothing is left undone to hurry forward the preparation of the completed work.
The desire of the publishers and hopes of Mr. Burbank are to in this manner answer the thousands of questions which are constantly pouring in on Mr. Burbank, and also save the valuable time and labor which it requires to answer such requests by letter. Mr. Burbank has had most insistant demands from publishers all over the United States as well as Europe for the publication of such a work while the reading public and horticulturists desire it as a permanent monument to his memory as well as to preserve the methods and plans of the noted scientist for future reference.
The work will be profusely illustrated with full page colored plates made natural to life of all Mr. Burbank’s star creations with scenes and views of his home and experimental grounds, both here and at Sebastopol. The work will be as the name implies, a complete review of the actual methods of work carried on by Mr. Burbank in accomplishing the results which has made his name famous the world over.
“For years,” Mr. Burbank said today, while discussing the publication, “I have been importuned and urged to write a complete work which would stand as an authority of my work among fruits and flowers, but I have felt my time and attention belonged to the work in hand and that others might write the story of it. I have refused all offers up to the present time and Mr. Cree is the only many who has been able to bring me to consider the subject seriously much less enter into a contract or agreement to prepare a complete work.”– Press Democrat, January 10, 1907
REPRESENTS THE CREE COMPANY
Bruce is Canvassing State For Burbank Books
R. A. Bruce, representing the Cree publishing company, is in the City of Roses for a visit. He spent Christmas day with relatives here. He is a partner with John J. Newbegin of San Francisco, the agents for this state of the splendid work being published by the Cree Company on Burbank’s New Creations. Regarding a story that appeared in the Republican a few days ago, the substance of which was taken from a Marysville paper, Mr. Bruce claims he never pretended to represent Mr. Burbank, and it is a well-known fact that Mr. Burbank has no agents of an kind in the field for the sale of his new creations. Mr. Bruce is traveling over the state securing subscribers to the work being published by the Cree Company, and is meeting with good success. We have reasons to believe from the credentials he has presented that he is doing a legitimate and fair business in every respect.– Santa Rosa Republican, December 26, 1907
PERPETUATION OF BURBANK METHODS
Promoters of Plan to Establish Institute Say Discussion of Matter at This Time is Premature
Admitting that the facts as published are correct, and yet fearful that undue publicity at this time may geopardise [sic] the final outcome, certain of the projectors of the proposed Burbank institution for the perpetuation of expert plant-breeding have undertaken to discourage further discussion of the matter, and the following statement ssaid to have been prepared by President David Starr Jordan of Stanford University and signed by George P. McNear of Petaluma, chairman of the committee having the project in charge, has been given to the press:
Petaluma, Oct. 26–Several persons have met to devise plans for permanent endowment and perpetuation of a laboratory of plant-breeding through the aid of wealthy men interested in results of experiments. No satisfactory plan has been yet devised. Premature publicity makes it necessary to abandon the matter. Mr. Burbank’s consent has not been secured.
George P. McNear, Chairman,
The Press Democrat believes it is in a position to state, however, that the abandonment of the project is only temporary; and that the institution will be established in due time. The idea has been suggested on numerous occasions, and when President R. S. Woodward of the Carnegie Institution was in Santa Rosa some two or three years ago he intimated that such a project was even then under consideration [illegible microfilm] the Carnegie Institution has already set aside the sum of $100,000 to assist Mr. Burbank in his work, and under the circumstances some arrangements for its perpetuation would appear only reasonable and proper. Such an arrangement as the one proposed would certainly have the hearty support of all Santa Rosans as well as of the entire scientific world.– Press Democrat, October 27, 1907
INJURIOUS TO SONOMA COUNTY
Premature Publication Will Thwart Plans
The premature publication of the proposed plan of establishing a school of international character and importance in Sonoma county has caused the abandonment of the plans which were in process of formation. The publication has done an untold and irreparable injury to Sonoma county, and was done without authorization and after the parties to the conference had been pledged to secrecy, and after a request had been made of the newspapers that it should not be published because of the fact that it [would] cause the matter to be dropped. In the face of this request, which was made wholy with the idea of benefiting Sonoma county, the giving of publicity in the matters was unwarranted and injurious.
The REPUBLICAN was requested at the time to refrain from any mention of this matter regarding the establishment of the great international school until it was ready for publication, at which time the same was to be given out officially by Mayor John P. Overton. For the reason that it was for the benefit of the county, this paper withheld mention of the same, desiring to throw no obstacle in the way of the accomplishment of anything that would be in any manner injurious to the best interests of the county. The matter has been abandoned and the unwise action of the paper which published the matter when requested not to do so may prevent its ever being taken up again.
Luther Burbank, who had been approached to become the head of this great school, which was to teach the higher science of plant breeding along the lines of Mr. Burbank’s work was to have taken the matter up with his confreres after arranging his affairs with the Carnegie Institution, and the publicity given may prevent this being accomplished.– Santa Rosa Republican, November 2, 1907
PLANS WORKING ALONG NICELY
Another Important Announcement Will Be Made Later In Connection With the Burbank Laboratory
Plans for the establishment of a laboratory or college for the imparting of special instruction in Luther Burbank’s great work in the creation of new fruits and flowers are going along very nicely.
It is expected that before long another important announcement will be made in connection with this matter. The Republican will get this news later.
The University professors here the past week were greatly interested in the project and both at Berkeley and Stanford it is occasioning much discussion.– Press Democrat, November 3, 1907