Although he was rarely found cracking a smile, Luther Burbank had to be beside himself with joy in 1907. He was a year into the grant from the Carnegie Institution, which gave him $10,000 annually “for so long a time as may be mutually agreeable,” which he expected to be at least ten years. He had a contract with a Midwestern publisher for a 10-volume series on his work. He had sold the rights to his spineless cactus for the grand sum of $26,000. And perhaps best of all, the number of people pestering him had been cut down from 6,000/yr to less than half that multitude, thanks to a blunt, even threatening circular published the year before, warning that Burbank was being “murdered piecemeal as a showman” by the annoying, yapping masses.
This is the first of a three-part series on Burbank in 1907, and it’s fitting to launch it with a description of what his experimental farm looked like that year. Tagging along on a tour with 700 teachers (!) was the Press Democrat’s “Dorothy Anne, Society Gossip.” As I’ve written before, her columns are a guilty pleasure of mine. She wasn’t a very good writer and often snippy and mean, but hers are the only accounts that provide us with a view of what it was like to live in Santa Rosa in those days (albeit from a social climber’s perspective). She had toured Burbank’s new home the year before, leaving us a good description of a very nice, very historic house that Santa Rosa shamefully allowed to be destroyed.
2,500 CALLERS ON BURBANK IN 1907
Gives an Idea of the Great Attraction the Scientist and His Work Here Affords
An estimate obtained by a Press Democrat representative Wednesday shows that 2,500 people have come to Santa Rosa to see Luther Burbank during the present year. This furnishes an idea of the attraction the great scientist and his work really affords. The visitors have included prominent men and women from all parts of this country and some from other countries. In addition to visiting Mr. Burbank here many of his callers have also inspected the large experimental farm near Sebastopol.
Prior to two years ago the number of callers was largely in excess of the figure give for this year. Then, it will be remember, a number of Mr. Burbank’s friends, in order to prevent the great strain upon his health, and in order that he should not be molested in his work, sent out a letter which was given wide circulation, asking people to refrain from paying curiosity calls. The letter had the desired effect and since then the number of callers has been diminishing. In 1905 something like 6,000 callers came to the Burbank place.– Press Democrat, December 5, 1907
Tuesday last the National Educators, 700 strong, swooped down upon Santa Rosa. They came to see, hear, and admire our distinguished townsman, Luther Burbank. They arrived at noon and departed at 3:30 p. m., apparently in a perfect state of rapture, because they had seen, heard, and admired Mr. Burbank. Being of a curious turn of mind, I wondered, as does all of Santa Rosa, what Mr. Burbank has in this wonderful workshop of his that brings distinguished visitors such distances.
Very few people in Santa Rosa scarcely any in fact, know anything about Mr. Burbank’s work. They know what he has accomplished in a [illegible microfilm]. It occurred to me if I went through the grounds possibly I could relate something of the work he is doing at the present time but–after two and a half hours of seeing, hearing and admiring, I must admit what I can say will be only brief, because the mystery enveloping his wonderful work so winds itself around one’s brain that mere description becomes impossible and inadequate. To properly describe Mr. Burbank’s grounds with the wonderful creations in state of process would take days of study and weeks of careful preparation, therefore what I can tell you is in no way a full or accurate account of all Mr. Burbank’s work. It is merely a glimpse.
The first wonderful creation we inspected was the spineless cactus, “Santa Rosa,” the result of ten years of labor and created from the desert cactus. Aside from the remarkable fact that it is absolutely spineless it has another remarkable feature. It stands in a bed surrounded by the original desert cactus from which this new creation apparently draws away all the strength. The two varieties were planted at the same time. At present the spineless flourishes its smooth leaves to the height of five feet, while the original desert plant has a hard time to live at all. What this will mean to the arid regions of our country and foreign lands it takes but a glance to see.
The red canna bed that can be plainly seen from the sidewalk is the same creation that took the first prize at the Buffalo Exposition. From a novice’s point of view I should judge it is remarkable for its wonderful deep red coloring of the flowers and the apparently hardy condition of the plants.
A dried-up bed, from which arose tall yellow stalks that here and there were tied with unornamental white rags, next occupied our attention. This, explained my guide, was a Canassia bed. To my uninitiated mind this information produced nothing but a blank. I had never heard of Canassia. But when my guide described the flower I recognized the tall, graceful wild flower we all know by the name of “wild onion.” It is curious we should call it “onion” when in reality it is the Indian potato. The Comanche Indians had many a fight with the white in the early days because they would not respect their Canassia beds. Mr. Burbank has increased the size of the flower, making it much more beautiful and has enlarged the size of the bulb from the size of a walnut to that of an apple. Think of the feast a Comanche Indian could have if he could get into that bed.
The poppy beds are scattered around the grounds and included among the varieties the Shirley, Opium, Oriental, Alaskan, Mexican, Mediterranean, Iceland Poppy. All are remarkable for some particular development. The Crimson Rhubarb bed with its green tops, supported by the crimson stems, waving gently in the afternoon breeze, hardly would impress you with the thrill it really ought to, for this creation of Mr. Burbank’s gives to the world Rhubarb the entire year, has received praise from almost every country in the universe.
The Primrose bed was most wonderful to see. These flowers have developed until now they are 5 inches in diameter. These flowers are a perfect white in the morning, but by night have changed to a most delicate pink.
The bed of Bee larkspur, which can be seen plainly from the street, was all propagated from the deep blue variety. The flowers now are all much larger in size and are pale blue, lavender, pale pink, lavender tipped with pink, blue tipped with pink, combining these colors and making beautiful the flowers in a most amazing way.
There are Trigridias from Mexico that were originally red and now bloom in purple, yellow and white; there are gladiolas that are magnificent in size and colorings such as we only see on the Bird of Paradise; there was the yellow calla lily; there was the Potatoes growing in sand, 50 feet away the potato growing in adobe; there was the many seedless young plum trees, not far away from which were the young apple trees raised from seed; there was the white blackberry, the white strawberry, and the lazy wax bean; there was the “Santa Rosa” rose that blooms all the time; there was the Deadly Night shade; the Monkey tree; the Elm tree; the Guinea, commonly called pig weed, remarkable for its beautiful green and crimson foliage; the grasses–including grass from the Philippines, South America and other foreign lands; all these and many more are being cared for and watched by Mr. Burbank with an idea of improving and creating something more beautiful and beneficial for mankind.
Basking in the sunshine by the gate lay a cat, just a plain black and white cat, all unmindful of the fact that above him towered the wonderful apple tree, upon which at one time there grew 526 varieties of apples and caused one little boy in the East to exclaim upon being told that story, “Oh, Mama, is Mr. Burbank God!”, equally unconscious of the proximity of a Catillina cherry tree that is ever green; he paid no attention to the fig tree on the north and did not seem to sleep any of the less well because within the radius of a few feet, a $10,000 cactus grew! Happy cat! Happy cat!
Wonder you gentle reader that hundreds of visitors come from all parts of the world to see, hear, and admire Mr. Burbank and his wonderful achievements? Wonder you that last Tuesday 600 educators returned home with their faces wreathed in smiles at the close of what one visitor exclaimed, “A perfectly happy day” — even if some did not find trained in the proper manner the “Human Plant,” for which they sought so diligently! It is to be hoped that some day not too far distant that Mr. Burbank will find time to have a “Santa Rosa day,” so that his own townspeople, who love and admire him, will be able to see and admire for themselves his wonderful work, and remarkable workshop.– Society Gossip by Dorothy Anne, Press Democrat, July 28, 1907