The Life and Work of James Barto - Part I
by Carl H. Phetteplace, M.D.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The saga of the Barto garden as related by Dr. Phetteplace, in this, the first of two installments represents a vast amount of research into an effort by a man that was truly unique and amazing. As the story unfolds one cannot help but liken Barto to the destitute nineteenth century artists who used the oil of a can of sardines and the leftover yolk of an egg to paint a masterpiece. It must be in the order of life to forget quickly, for many of the facts relating to his work are already unanswerable. In a very short time the once lush garden will have disappeared, so will many of the persons who knew James Barto personally. Dr. Phetteplace is to be congratulated on the many hours of his valuable time that he spent interviewing, and searching out so many facts, and perhaps best of all finding the one rare photograph of him known to exist. After reading the entire paper one must concede that fast profit was not amongst James Barto's immediate aims, since his work was basic pioneering in the truest sense. In 1935 very few persons in his area knew what a rhododendron was, and there were no garden groups or Societies to acquaint those even mildly interested. Here on the Pacific coast after thirty-five years, thousands of his plants are now reaching maturity, no garden would be the same if it were not for his determination, so singular and so monumental.
Fig. 10. R. rex. One of the hardier large leaved species from the Barto
Garden now found in numerous gardens in the northwest coastal states.
Cecil Smith photo
It is with a sense of humbleness and inadequacy that the project of gathering up what information that at present seems available about the life and work of James Barto is undertaken. My own interest in rhododendrons dates back only about fifteen years, but each year as I appraise my own garden and visit those of others about the area, I am more and more impressed with the great contribution this man has made to the rhododendron world. Only now, a full twenty years after his death, are many of the fine things originating from the seeds he grew mature enough to be fully appreciated. It can now assuredly be stated that almost nothing he grew was inferior, but on the contrary, many of the species from his garden were of a quality and form that has not been equaled or surpassed by specimens that have come to us from other sources. Yet how little we seem to know about this man and how he was able, under the most adverse circumstances, to accumulate perhaps one of the most complete and choice collections of rhododendron species ever achieved by a single independent individual. At present I know of only two or three people outside of his surviving wife and two of the children who live nearby who knew Mr. Barto personally. Mr. Del James in The Bulletin of April, 1950, has given us a very valuable sketch of his work, and this has been summarized in "Rhododendrons, 1956." There is almost nothing additional recorded in our literature. Although the following leaves much to be desired, it is hoped that it will first establish what information that is to be gotten through the help of his family before even that source is lost to us and secondly, it may move others to bring forward some hitherto undisclosed information about him and his work. Although it is known that he was a prodigious letter writer and communicated thusly with rhododendron people over a large part of the world, yet at present there is only one of his letters that has ever been made available to us. This was the one that Mrs. Chauncey Craddock kindly sent to Mr. James and is included in his paper. There must have been scores of other equally interesting writings to his many correspondents and it is possible that this might serve to uncover some of them.
The Early Life and Migration to Oregon
James Elwood Barto was born in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, June 14. 1881. As a child he was considered "sickly" and consequently was started to school late. He made rapid progress, however, and was graduated with his age group from what is the equivalent to the twelfth grade. At fourteen he moved to Kansas with his father, who was a judge. Later they moved to Joliet, Illinois, where his father died. At some time in this early period, he must have taken training as a carpenter, because he was regarded as an excellent cabinetmaker and finisher all his life.
In 1905 he enlisted in the regular U.S. Navy where he served two enlistments ending in 1913. On November 1, 1913, he married Miss Ruth Ellen Lampson and they made their home in north Chicago. Six children were born to them, five boys and a girl. Merrill, born in 1919, Pauline, the present Mrs. Fred Sandoz, born in 1921, and Donald, born in 1928, still live in or near Eugene, Oregon.
At the outbreak of World War I, he re-enlisted as a warrant officer in the Navy for the duration. Mrs. Barto, who still lives in the original Oregon home, states that he was always interested in flowers and shrubs, that he was an ardent reader and student, and that once he became interested in a subject, he pursued it exhaustively. Chickens, rabbits and goats of special breeds, as well as mining and minerals and honey bees were subjects explored in this pre-rhododendron time of his life.
Soon after the armistice, he heard that certain lands in Oregon were open to homesteading for veterans. In 1920 he came west to investigate. Before returning to Chicago, he had filed on the place ten miles west of Junction City in the Coast Range Mountains which was to become the Barto home. It was entirely unimproved, rough, hilly, brush and timber land through which flowed a very small stream called Bear Creak.
Fig. 11 James Barto. This rare picture taken
shortly before his death is the only photograph
of him known to exist.
Returning to Chicago, the children and all belongings were loaded into an old chain-drive truck and the trip, taking several weeks, westward was made. They arrived in Eugene in October, 1920. A camp was made north of Skinner's Butte where the winter was spent. He was able to find employment as a carpenter building a fraternity house at the University of Oregon, Eugene. Over week ends, he was able to clear a small spot of ground on the homestead and started construction of a log cabin which they moved into in June of 1921. This was enlarged and covered with sawed lumber within the next few years.
Fig. 12. Back of the Barto home June 1939
taken from atop the goat fence. A few months
later the home was destroyed by fire along with
the valuable records and correspondence.
In the years that followed, Mr. Barto continued to work at his trade throughout the week, mostly in Eugene, but some in Corvallis and other surrounding towns, coming home week ends to work most of Saturday night, all day Sunday and then getting back to his job early Monday morning. There was the home to make more livable, accessory buildings to erect and land to clear. Mrs. Barto describes how she and the children would hold the lantern while he worked into the night. For the nineteen years of his life that remained for him, he continued this grueling existence, working at his trade to obtain the money so badly needed and pushing himself every hour available over the week ends to accomplish as much as possible about his home.
The Development of Interest in Rhododendrons
For a time after he first became interested in rhododendrons, he also worked with many other types of ornamental plants. He imported seed and grew quite a variety of magnolias. Many tree peonies were imported from Japan, as were long lists of camellias which, by the way, proved unsatisfactory and were soon dropped. Davidia or dove trees, Viburnums, Gordonias, Lillium giganteum, Delphiniums and holly were among the others grown to some extent. He was much interested in native Oregon plants and shrubs and collected a variety of seeds from our flora which were sent often in exchange for rhododendron seeds to correspondents, both domestically and abroad.
Apparently the circumstance that started his special interest in rhododendrons came in 1925. He was employed by the firm of Raup and York to construct a greenhouse. Mr. Raup still operates a large greenhouse facility in Eugene, mainly growing potted azaleas for the florist trade. In his conversations with Mr. Raup, he was told that rhododendrons and azaleas were not yet fully appreciated and that they would eventually be recognized as the finest of all shrubs. He gave Mr. Barto some seeds which were brought home and sowed in a small box. Mrs. Barto had a small chicken incubator going at the time which was heated by a kerosene lamp. The flat of the newly acquired seed was placed on the top of the incubator and thus got bottom heat. The seedlings did well and were later moved out into a little cold frame which he built against the house.
As he was watching over these first seedlings, he began to make inquiries as to who might know something more about these plants. As he heard of names, he began to write letters, first to those in our country and then to England, Scotland, Japan and even in China. His son, Merrill, believes that Mrs. A. C. U. Berry of Portland was the most helpful of anyone in the early period. He found that she already had a wide experience and told him of many people she knew with whom he began communicating. It is said that she recommended him for membership in the Rhododendron Association of England and this membership he maintained throughout his life. Mrs. Berry also shared seed with him which she received as a contributor to some of the major collecting expeditions into the Orient.
Mrs. Chauncey Craddock of Eureka, California, who also had had a considerable experience with rhododendrons, was much interested in his work and made a number of visits to the Barto place. She is credited with being of great help. It is believed that she knew more about the material he was growing, details as to source, and the ideas and plans he had for the future than anyone at the time. The loss of such people as Mrs. Craddock before any information about him could be obtained, plus the other disastrous events near the close of his life, make it necessary to rely to a large extent on indirect information about the things he grew.
Sources of Material
About fifteen years ago, Mrs. Barto showed Mr. James a record book which Mr. Barto had carried with him much of the time while at work with his plants. It was neatly kept and showed lists of collectors' numbers representing the expeditions of Kingdom-Ward, Sheriff, Forrest, Rock, Dr. Hu and others. In his first visit to Barto's in the early 1940s, Mr. James reports finding these numbers written on paper tags sealed in small glass tubes in the lath house with the plants. Mrs. Barto recalls this handbook and has tried to find it for me, but so far has been unable to do so. Merrill was recently interviewed on this subject and tells of his familiarity with this record. He tells of other records with numbers and sources, however, which he felt were so important that he began early in 1940 to type out the complete list better to preserve them. Before it was completed, however, the fire which destroyed the home also destroyed the original book and the newly typed pages. It seems now that perhaps the book which Mr. James saw later was not the key or master record, but rather a handbook which Mr. Barto carried with him much of the time in the garden. This, although surviving the fire, seems to have disappeared completely now. There is one "book" still in good condition which Mr. Barto called "the wooden book." He had often cautioned everyone in the household that in case of fire this "book" must be saved. Actually it is a wooden file which he had made and is a foot or so in length. In it are index cards showing the names of all the rhododendron series. Under each heading are all of the loose pages of the entire first edition of "The Species Rhododendrons" edited by Mr. Stevenson in 1930. These pages had evidently been sent him in loose form as they were printed and this was his way of keeping them in order. This "book" shows signs of much use. Merrill states that at one time he and his father went over their records checking with this species file and found that they had over 500 rhododendrons and azaleas listed in the species book.
Mrs. Barto has recently found a bundle of some fifty old letters that have been received from his correspondents and Pauline has come up with a similar number. These have been gone over in an attempt to gain some information about his sources. These represent only a small portion of the hundreds of letters that he had received and although they were a disappointment regarding collectors' numbers, they do give other information of interest, such as the scope of his acquaintance and friendships in the rhododendron growing world, the high esteem with which he was regarded, and of course, some idea of channels of supply. One interesting point was to note how many instances he received a warm response from someone, either in this country or abroad, for sending them a layered plant of our native R. macrophyllum - white form which he had found in the wilds of Oregon and propagated.
The largest number of letters came from Mr. E. H. (Chinese) Wilson, keeper of the Arnold Arboretum and from Mr. E. J. P. Magor of Cornwall, England. Both of these men wrote repeatedly and sent many choice items. One from Mr. Wilson informed of sending a considerable quantity of seed resulting from hand pollinating many selected forms of Ghent and Mollis hybrids. Many early visitors to Bartos have attested to the large planting of fine Mollis azaleas seen there. One letter from F. M. Ellis of Griffin, Georgia, contained an invoice of 100 Davidia involucrata seed for $35.00 cash. Species rhododendron seeds were sent a number of times by Mr. Wilson, beginning in 1939 or earlier. Mr. Magor shared seed and pollen over a period of years and was believed to be one of his most valued sources of supply. One letter from the Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh, Scotland, announces the sending of fourteen packets of species seeds, including R. diaprepes and R. griersonianum in appreciation for receiving one layered plant of white R. macrophyllum. Merrill states that his father many times received material from this source which he prized greatly.
Over the years, many transactions occurred with Mr. F. M. Ellis, who stated in one letter that he had a reliable source of rhododendron seed material in England which he shared and he also told of sending a collecting expedition of his own into China. Mr. Ellis, from time to time, sent many eastern American native azaleas and rhododendrons, including one especially select red form of R. calendulaceum.
Hillier & Sons of England was a very frequently used commercial source, as were a number of Japanese concerns. A copy of one invoice from K. Wada lists a surprisingly large order of camellia plants and hand pollinated seed, including many C. reticulata and C. sasanqua. Incidentally the camellias were found to be very difficult and he quickly lost interest in them. A large number of tree peonies and azaleas of the R. obtusum, subseries were also received directly from these Japanese dealers. Hillier & Sons also sent a number of rhododendron plants designated "for propagation only." Mr. Joseph Gable exchanged seed with him and azaleas from the subseries R. obtusum were obtained from the U. S. Department of Agriculture. Gomer Waterer of Knaphill and B. W. Crisp of Waterer & Sons & Crisp were among correspondents and sources of material. Rev. J. Farnsworth Anderson of Leicester, England, sent a number of species rhododendron seeds he had "obtained from friends." One letter from The Chinese Nursery, Ltd., of Nanking, China, recognized an order for material.
The only additional clues we have as to sources come from the knowledge we have of the plants he grew. There are a number of species or forms that are distinctly from certain expeditions. The lovely R. decorum with the small blotch in the throat, for one example, is generally recognized as the form brought out by Dr. Hu with Professor Wu. Other forms were sent by Wilson and by Kingdon-Ward, while the name of Cox is associated with the form with the greenish-yellow tint. All these variations and more have been identified among the Barto R. decorum.
His collection seemed to cover the range of rhododendrons from the small lapponicums to a considerable variety of the so-called big leafed specimens. Among the azaleas, he had representatives of nearly all of the various subseries.
The question has been asked, how could one man required by necessity to work full time away from home to provide necessary funds accomplish so much, starting with no knowledge at all on the subject. It is believed that while away during the week he had no more regard for sleep than he did at home week ends and did much late oil burning, studying from the numerous books he was said to possess and also carrying on his almost world-wide exchange of letters.
Fig. 13. R. fargesii. Many fine forms of this
species ranging in color from dark pink to white
originated in the Barto garden.
The Work of Developing the Planting
The first seeds germinated over the chick incubator as mentioned were started in 1925. Within a year or so, his letters began to bear fruit in the form of quantities of seed from various sources. Any of us who have tried to grow the seeds from a few rhododendron crosses realize the pressure these growing plants can apply. They require constant care, ever expanding facilities, details of labeling and keeping records, transplanting, sorting, watering and control of weeds. Add to this the circumstance of starting with no physical equipment, funds or even cleared land and the difficulties would, indeed, seem great.
There were two favorable factors, however. First, as Mr. Wilson and Mr. Ellis both mentioned in their letters, the climate was very favorable for this type of plant, which, of course, we in the northwest all know. Second, the soil that was so difficult to wrest from the forest was ideal. It was quite virgin ground upon which leaves from the trees had fallen and decayed for many, many years. It was loose, porous and high in humus. Being on hillsides, it was well drained.
In 1926 the first greenhouse was built. Heat was provided by a wood stove with pipes circulating warm water under the beds. Soon it was filled with flats of small seedlings carefully labeled and recorded. It was said that the flats soon presented the appearance of a green lawn. Mrs. Barto relates that she would at times hear him out in the greenhouse talking to the little seedlings as if they were people. The necessity for a lath house soon followed. The first one was built just above the house and was really made with laths and was soon filled with plants. In the fall, not knowing how much cold the small plants could tolerate, the children sacked up and carried down large quantities of maple leaves to cover the plants for the winter.
END OF PART I