Who really deserves credit for the Cherry Blossoms?
With today's official opening of the Cherry Blossom Festival, once again, all sorts of people -- including Thomas Jefferson -- will be given credit for the whole idea: the trees, Potomac Park, even the free band concerts.
And once again the Cherry Blossom Festival fathers will make a pilgrimage to Arlington Cemetery, place a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns and in the process, unwittingly snub the woman who began the blooming by marching past her tomb in Arlington.
Helen (Nellie) Herron Taft -- wife of President William Howard Taft -- is the forgotten woman of the Cherry Blossoms.
Tourists and natives alike will continue their rides around the drives of Potomac Park. The melodic strains of free Marine Band concerts from the steps of Jefferson Memorial will give hours of pleasure to blossom-watchers. And, once again, Mrs. Taft -- a musician, founder of her hometown symphony and the woman whose concept it was for the government to schedule free band concerts at the Tidal Basin -- will be little remembered.
Though the seeds were carried by an obscure but social spinster, Eliza Rudamah Scidmore, it was Nellie Taft who rightfully claims fame as a national landscaper.
Scidmore was fascinated by Japan. She wrote several quaint books about the country and her brother, George Scidmore, had long been the American consul general in Yokohama. Familiar with the bursting blossoms of the Rising Sun, she thought that Washington would be perfect for the cherry blossoms. She also knew that you never get anything moving in Washington without the support of the powerful. And Mrs. Taft was interested.
Nellie Taft, fresh from single-handedly getting political support of outgoing President Teddy Roosevelt for her husband's Republican presidential nomination -- was a woman who liked projects. In addition to serving as her husband's political adviser, speech editor and Cabinet-maker, Nellie helped form the Cincinnati Symphony in her home city and the Women's Relief Association in the Philippines (Taft was civil governor there from 1901-1904).
And as the first lady in 1909, she became an "enthusiastic supporter" of the Scidmore concept. Scidmore herself recedes into the woods throughout the trials andld,10.4 tribulations of the blossoms. Although Nellie Taft suffered a stroke that resulted in a partial speech loss only a few months after she entered the White House, the first lady remained enthusiastic about the blossoms project.
Taft loved Washington, and saw tremendous potential for its beautification. In an interview with a New York magazine in 1909, she talked about the city:
"It seems to me that, geographically and logically, Washington should be the representative social city of the land. Here are the headquarters of the country's official and diplomatic life, and every distinguished visitor to our shores comes to Washington for a time. The home life is more representative, too, than in any other city. No city in the entire country is more beautifully laid out or has more natural charm during the months given over to official and social life than Washington. I hope one day to see it as the recognized social centre of the United States."
* But she wanted more than cherry trees around the Tidal Basin. She wanted to transform Potomac Park from what one writer called "a mosquito-infested swamp, rendezvous of tramps, and hiding place of criminals" to an American version of the "Luneta."
The "Luneta" was an elegant, grassy, flower-filled park in Manila "whose usefullness to society in the Philippine capital," Mrs. Taft wrote in her memoirs, "is not to be overestimated." Mrs. Taft was an avid gardener, and while in Japan she was charmed by the delicate beauty of the cherry trees. She said she felt the soil and climate of Washington "encouraged such an ambition," so she quickly suggested that all the Japanese cherry trees in the United States be uprooted, sent immediately to Washington and planted. Only about 100 trees sprung forth to her beckoning, but, undaunted, she had them planted between the Tidal Basin and the polo grounds in the spring of 1909.
Unfortunately, most of the trees died. Dr. Jakichi Takamine of Tokyo, who isolated Adrenalin and other chemicals, learned this and jumped into action. He contacted the mayor of Tokyo, a Japanese liberal leader, Yukio Ozaki. Ozaki, upon hearing of, as Nellie put it, "our attempt to bestow the high flattery of imitation upon his country," promptly donate 2,000 Japanese cherry trees. They reached Seattle on the Japanese steamer Kaga Maru on Dec. 10, 1909, and were accepted by Mrs. Taft as a personal gift, which she gave to Washington.
It looked like a perfect planting until the trees were examined more closely. The delicate trees were infected with a variety of rare botanical diseases and the Department of Agriculture ordered all 2,000 trees destroyed. When the U.S. Secretary of the American Embassy broke the news to Ozaki, the Tokyo mayor managed a grin, replying, "I believe your first president set the example of destroying cherry trees, didn't he?"
Mrs. Taft was undaunted. This was a lady who could put Teddy Roosevelt in his place. One of her closer allies in her husband's Cabinet, Philander C. Knox, had gotten his position as secretary of state partly through Nellie's persuasions and firm vetoing of any other possible candidate. He owed her a favor.
So, in January of 1910, Knox conferred with Yasuya Uchida, the Japanese Ambassador. Knox suggested that the trees sent by Tokyo, although possessing artistic shape and brilliant blossoms, were also the most bug-infested and disease-prone.
Uchida immediately wrote to his government with the suggestion that Tokyo send a batch of newer, healthier trees. They took to the idea, and Nellie was heartened when the number was increased from 2,000 to 3,000. This time the trees were slowly cultivated and constantly examined for two years. In February 1912 they arrived and passed inspection.
The first lady and Viscountess Chinda, wife of Uchida's successor, arrived at the Tidal Basin in cartwheel hats, toting parasols and spades, on the morning of March 27, 1912. In the days before photo opportunities only a handful of people were present at the official tree planting, including Scidmore and Col. Spencer Cosby, the watchful superintendent of public buildings and grounds.
Nellie Taft planted the first of Washington's Japanese cherry trees. The Viscountess planted the second. The ceremony broke up, and government workers had the honor of planting the other 2,988. Legend has it that the arrangement of the trees in groups of odd and even numbers is a symbol of welcome in Japanese characters.
Mrs. Taft's plans were not over yet, however. There was the development of Potomac Park to be finished. She turned over the details to presidential aide Archie Butt. The Army officer presiding over the public grounds had a large bandstand built on the lawn near the trees and the road running to Hains Point. The Marine Band, upon the first lady's suggestions, planned its premiere public concerts there every Wednesday and Saturday from 5 to 7 p.m.
Nellie earns yet another Tidal Basin footnote by deciding "that the long drive theretofore known as 'The speedway' should be renamed Potomac Drive." Opening night was Saturday, April 17, 1912 at 5 p.m. The first lady filled with pride as she and the president proceeded past the crowds "in a small landaulet motor-car" and "went down to the driveway and took our places in the throng."
Not everybody thought Mrs. Taft's park and concerts were peaceful, social events. The year 1912 also saw Nellie's political demise. It marked Theodore Roosevelt's split from William Howard Taft's and the Republican party. Teddy's witty offspring, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, had never been fond of Mrs. Taft, and never made a point of hiding her dislike. Doing a perfect impersonation of what she later called Nellie's "hippopotamus face," Mrs. Longworth said that Potomac park was a nightmare as the new tin lizzies spewed ashes, dirt and smoke upon people sitting on the lawn and in those cars behind them.
"Motors . . . did not lend themselves to driving slowly around in one's best clothes, with large hats, gloves and parasols; we should have had to return to victorias and landaus for that. So those somewhat ritual afternoons did not continue for very long," Longworth later said in an interview. Neither, unfortunately for Mrs. Taft, did Mr. Taft's presidency.
But the cherry blossoms endured. By 1915 they matured into their first full pink blossoms. The "speedway" along the Potomac and out to Hains Point was soon compared to Paris' Champs Elyse'e. In 1927 the cherry blossoms became so popular that an unofficial pageant was held at the Tidal Basin for the thousands of tourists who were beginning to pour into town to see them.
The Cherry Blossom Festival became an annual event, with the first formal festival, complete with beauty contest and a crowned queen, taking place in 1934. That year the District's president of the Board of Trade estimated that the Cherry Blossom Festival brought in more than $500,000 in one week.
There was even a brief shining moment for Mrs. Taft and Viscountess Chinda in 1931 when Colonel Ulysses S. Grant III, director of public buildings and public parks, decided to designate the first planted trees with two bronze tablets. The Cherry Blossom Festival was discontinued from 1942 to 1946 while America was at war with Japan. In that interim, unfortunately, Helen Taft saw her last blossom time. She had returned to Washington when her husband was appointed Chief Jus-endcol tice in 1921, and remained in the capital after she was widowed in 1930. She died on May 22, 1943, in the city she loved.
By 1947, however, the Cherry Blossom Festival was back in force, with hundreds of thousands of jubilant Americans, in postwar revelry, flooding the Basin to catch a glimpse of the fragile and short-lived blossoms.
In 1950, the spry 92-year-old former mayor of Tokyo, Yukio Ozaki, traveled to the United States to see the trees he had donated 38 years earlier.
One of the festival's annual events is a wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery. Approximately half a mile away in the cemetery is the grave of Helen Herron Taft, the only first lady buried there.
No official wreath, bouquet or even blossom is placed there for her during the festival. There's a Dolley Madison Boulevard in Northern Virginia, a Lady Bird Johnson Park along the Potomac River and even a Lucy Hayes nursing school library at American University, but the plaque marking the first tree she planted is the only notation of Helen Taft's contribution. Almost 75 years after her project was completed, Nellie Taft's final words on the cherry blossoms are a gross understatement:
" . . . they seem to be doing very well. I wonder if any of them will ever attain the magnificent growth of the ancient and dearly loved cherry trees of Japan."