The Life and Work of James Barto - Part II
By Carl Phetteplace, M.D.
Fig. 27. R. sutchuenense. A fine flowered form nearly ten feet tall from the
Barto Collection, and now growing in Dr. Phetteplace's garden.
As the plants grew, ground must be cleared so that they could be moved out of the lath house. There was no machinery for this purpose. The trees felled were cut up into wood for the home and the greenhouse and also for building materials such as were needed. The stumps were blasted out and pulled together with the one horse they possessed so they could be burned. Eventually five patches comprising at least five acres were cleared and planted with rhododendrons so thickly that later Merrill relates that he had to cut to the ground every other plant in each alternate row with the saw because of over-crowding.
With this, of course, was the necessity for some form of irrigation. As western Oregonians know, we have a superfluity of rainfall in the winter, but from May to June until fall, no successful gardening is done without water. Fortunately on some government land up a hill to the north there was a large spring. A water right was obtained on it for irrigation. He was able to obtain a quantity of two-inch black pipe. Everyone in the family remembers the exact length of pipe first laid, 2700 feet, because this corresponded to the number of miles the family drove in the old truck coming from Chicago to Oregon. A small dam was built for storage so the spring provided an abundance of water. There was tremendous pressure on the line. Small holes were bored in the pipes that were laid down along the plantings from which the water would shoot high into the air and scatter with the air currents, giving excellent distribution. This water system was a very large project in itself for a man with only one horse for power and the children for helpers, but it was adequate so long as it worked. Simple as it appeared, however, it frequently required attention because of plugging with leaves or other problems which Mr. Barto or Merrill usually could remedy in a short time.
As more seeds and many plants arrived, a second larger greenhouse was necessary. There was no oil or electricity or automatic control at that time, so that the heat was maintained by a wood fire in the furnaces, often requiring getting up at night to replenish the fuel.
Much more a lath house was required, so that second larger one was built below the dwelling near the creek. It was framed with poles and the "laths" were split out of logs and held in place by wires. Some boughs were laid over where the "laths" were not close enough to protect adequately.
In the past women often worked out of doors much more than they do today to help wherever needed. Children likewise often worked hard as soon as they were old enough to be of help. No story of this project would be proper if it did not give some credit to Mrs. Barto and the children, especially Pauline, Merrill and even little Donald for their part in making this garden possible. Pauline (Mrs. Sandoz) states, "The constant weeding, watering and transplanting was a never ending chore which involved the entire family." Each week end before returning to his work, Mr. Barto would lay out instructions for tasks that should be done while he was away.
Fig. 28. R. arboreum (white form). Dr.
Barnett obtained this plant from Barto
many years ago. It is now growing in a
garden on the McKenzie River east of
Eugene, Oregon. The tree is over 8 feet
tall, and the trunk is six inches in diameter
at ground level.
Fig. 29. R. racemosum originally from Barto
growing near the water's edge on the McKenzie
River. This fine pink was not quite fully
flowered when the photograph was taken
March 27, 1960.
Fig. 30. R. fargesii 9 feet tall from
Barto garden being grown in the Dr.
Phetteplace collection on the
During all of these years up until the late 1930s, there was never a thought of growing plants for any commercial purpose. It was an impelling fascination for him to collect and constantly learn more of these interesting plants and to watch them grow. As the result of his letter writing, he began to get visitors more from afar than from the local area to see what he was doing. During this time, it is Merrill's opinion he gave away thousands of plants to anyone who came and showed a kindred interest. Later in the thirties, he began to get requests for Davidias from such distributors as F. M. Ellis urging him to propagate them freely in order to help him supply his demand. Some interesting letters were exchanged on this subject. It seemed that Mr. Barto had had success in grafting Davidia first on Cornus florida root stock and later on Cornus nutalli, our native dogwood. There were repeated requests from Ellis for these grafted plants to supply his customers. Apparently Mr. Barto had written Mr. Wilson at Arnold Arboretum of his success propagating in this manner. A letter was found from Mr. William Judd, propagator at Arnold, doubting that such grafting could be successful and raising the question as to why he should even attempt it. Mr. Ellis also seemed to be in considerable need for young deciduous azaleas to supply his trade and repeatedly wrote for them. Apparently Barto did fill some orders for these plants, because one letter was found from a customer registering a complaint that his order was for eight to ten inch plants and that the plants received were only two or three inches in height. It is doubtful if Mr. Barto sold any appreciable quantity of plants, although at the time of the onset of his fatal illness, he was recognizing the possibility of earning a living from his garden and was anxious to quit the strenuous life that he had been carrying on and devote his full time at home.
More and more visitors came and Merrill relates that on a Sunday in May of about 1939 or 1910, there were approximately three hundred there to view the flowers. One visitor, whom I know, although he has never met Mr. Barto personally, describes seeing the garden about May, 1940, while it was still under his tender care. The hillsides all around were covered with flowers, a sight like nothing he had ever seen before. Up until this time, we know that everything was in good order and careful records kept. Pauline tells of his precision and orderliness in everything he did. Merrill states that the labels in the glass tubes which were originally thought to be so permanent were found to draw moisture and molded, so that it was necessary to replace them. Numbers were then stamped on copper plates and attached to each group and recorded.
Earlier his use of the white form of R. macrophyllum was mentioned. He must have had a high regard for this plant. The frequency with which it is mentioned in the letters received would indicate that it was his favorite present to those, both here and abroad, as a favor. He was much interested in the native rhododendron species, as well as the native R. occidentale, and made many expeditions in search of different forms. The best white R. macrophyllum was found in the Coast Range in the Alsea area. Attempts were made to propagate it from seed, but flowers were inclined to revert to the commoner type with more or less pink or even magenta shades. During the latter years of his life, he was employed by the government in the Civilian Conservation Corps camps and finally in the State Forestry Department. His ability for leadership and resourcefulness was apparently recognized. He was placed in the capacity of a foreman, first utilizing his skill as a carpenter in laying out and building the camps and then as an instructor to guide the boys. He held classes in rudimentary carpentry and also in the identification and use of plants in landscaping. Among the few of his papers preserved are pages of outlines and diagrams that were undoubtedly his work sheets for these classes. He even taught some of these boys to read and write. This period gave him welcomed opportunity to explore the mountainous forest country for plant material. Many boys in the camp sought the privilege of accompanying him on these expeditions. His final employment was with the State Forestry Department. Here he did some landscaping and planting about the Capitol Building and the Forestry Building. It was at this time that he began to develop the symptoms of his final illness.
From this point, the story is indeed a sad one. It seems that here almost every conceivable circumstance followed one after the other to work for the destruction of the fine thing he had expended himself so completely to achieve.
About May, 1940, he was so ill that he sought admission to the Veterans Hospital in Portland for medical care. Cancer was discovered and he was never to return to his home or garden again. In June the same year, the house caught fire and burned to the ground with all of his library and records excepting a few letters and "the wooden box" mentioned. The upper lath house was so close that part of it burned and some 2,000 small plants were destroyed. Mrs. Barto relates that this news was kept from him for two or three months, but finally disclosed because of his frequent requests for certain books or records which he wished brought to him at the hospital.
Later Merrill, the only boy at home really able to carry on, was called into the service in World War II. Mrs. Barto, Pauline and young Donald were all that remained to try an impossible task. Mr. Barto passed away December 22, 1940. (Mrs. Barto verifies that it was not 1941 as previously reported.) Almost at once the irrigation system became plugged to the point where Mrs. Barto was unable to irrigate at all. Consequently the plants that he had talked to as little seedlings suffered and many died. Mrs. Barto, seeing the hopelessness of her situation, began to sell the plants for next to nothing to the many visitors who now were coming from almost the length of our Pacific Coast. Some hauled plants, large and small, away in truck loads. In the lack of knowledge that prevailed at that time, it is said that some used these plants for understock for grafting with commercial hybrids. Others, upon arriving home, found that they had more plants than they could use and dumped them as garbage.
If I may be pardoned for a personal experience, my first visit to the place was in 1944, having at the time no knowledge of rhododendrons at all. Twelve or fifteen small plants were brought home which were perhaps a foot tall. They were growing in the lower lath house thick as weeds and selections were made, attempting only to get a different appearing foliage in each plant. All of them have proved to be worthy species and some are now the pride of my garden. One, for instance, is the R. augustinii, variety 'Barto Blue,' which many consider the equal of any of the selected form which have come to us from elsewhere. Many others in the area can report similar examples of bringing plants home with little knowledge of what they had and finding after a few years that they had something very choice. At one time it is recalled that these plants were referred to as "just an old Barto" when walking through someone's garden. Now, so many years later, they are sought after and referred to with pride as "an original Barto." The greater time necessary for species to be rewarding to the gardener as compared to our garden hybrids was not appreciated at the time. And by the same token, only with time and experience have we become aware of the superior quality of selected species over many of the hybrids which are so much more popular and often even more useful for some types of gardens.
VII. Comments and Summary
Much speculation has existed as to hybridization that Mr. Barto may have done. It is known that he had thought and talked considerably about hybrids that would be promising. However it seems likely that up until the last, his time and energies were so completely occupied with collecting and maintaining the whole project that he had been unable to accomplish much in the way of plant breeding. It is known that he had been quite interested in the use of R. macrophyllum as a parent and used it on R. thomsonii, R. 'Luscombei' and R. fortunei. Some of these are still to be seen in some of our northwest gardens as large plants today, but probably none are outstanding. Perhaps the one cross which gave him greatest satisfaction was R. indica x R. oldhamii. This was considered an unusual cross inasmuch as R. indica had a full double flower. R. oldhamii was a brick red single. Examination of the hybrids would leave little room for doubt that the cross was successful as characteristics of the male plant were unmistakable. Three different forms resulting from this cross have been considered of real merit and are still grown in our gardens.
He had an interesting theory that has been mentioned in Mr. James' article regarding hybridization of two widely different species, such as a lepidote and an elepidote. He felt that if, after applying the pollen of the male flower thoroughly to the stigma of the female flower, then overlaying it with self-pollen, some chemical reaction was set up, making the foreign pollen effective in fertilization. It is doubtful if this experiment was ever carried out successfully to establish proof, although he was convinced of its soundness and believed he had evidence to support it. It would be interesting to know if anyone else has ever tested this theory.
There are four or five choice items that have come from Bartos which are presumed to be hybrids, the parentage of which have been in some question and in fact there has been question raised in some instances as to the possibility that they may be, in fact, species which have not yet been identified or described. It is not known if they were crosses made by Barto or if they were grown from seeds that he received resulting from crosses made elsewhere. None of these have been widely propagated or distributed. They are: (1) A beautiful large, deep rose, flowered one with a small blotch in the throat and broad rounded leaves. It was quite rare and very few of the plants were found in the Barto gardens. Locally it has been called "Bartos Cornish Cross." This was probably incorrect since our Cornish Cross should have no blotch. A very fine form of R. 'Luscombei' could be a possibility, but there are those who feel that it could very likely be a fine form of R. electum. (2) A pink flowered plant strongly suggesting R. griersonianum parentage that the James have named 'Esquire'. It is a very heavy bloomer and an excellent garden plant, especially with a little age. It has been suggested that this may be a species from the R. auriculatum series not previously described. It has proven to be dominant when used as a parent rather more than is usually observed with a hybrid. (3) The well known plant resembling R. 'Temple Bells' that has been named R. "James Barto, P.A." by Mr. Clarence Prentice. There were many of these plants and they are frequently seen in northwest gardens. It has been suggested that this might be a species, possibly in the orbiculare subseries because of the great uniformity of the plants wherever seen and also because not quite fitting the usual R. 'Temple Bells' cross. Some of these are now ten feet across and near six feet tall and still growing. It is a very compact and beautiful plant with clear pink flowers.
Perhaps the size that it attains in itself would be against its being a child of the smallish R. williamsianum. (4) R. 'Renaissance' named by Mrs. Horace Fogg of Tacoma, Washington. (5) R. 'Peachblow' named by Mr. Arthur Wright. I am not familiar with either of these plants, but all reports are to the effect that they are excellent rhododendrons.
Actually Mr. Barto grew rhododendrons only fifteen years, during which time he was very busy collecting and it is probable that he never really got into the field of hybridizing before his untimely death.
Perhaps there is much more about this man and his work that should be included in any sketch of his life, but this may serve to show something of the remarkable person that he was.
Greatness, it has been said, may not be measured so much by the achievements by which one gains great public acclaim, but rather by the completeness with which he sacrifices himself without thought of personal gain for an honest cause, whatever that may be. In this respect he amply qualified.
Like so many people of great achievement, he died in very modest circumstances, still reaching for higher goals when neither he nor many others realized that he had done anything of consequence.
The question has been often asked, "How far along would we be in the knowledge and culture of rhododendrons in this area if it were not for Mr. Barto's contribution?" Someone has said that it would have taken a generation to become familiar with so much that we now know. Perhaps we might have grown hybrids rather extensively in the area because of such favorable natural conditions here, but it probably is true that our knowledge of species would have been much retarded. On the other hand, it is even more interesting to speculate on the achievements that might have been possible had he lived to grow out the hundreds of thousands of plants we know he had, and had it not been for the fire that destroyed so much, including his records. This, of course, is inestimable. Even so, there surely is cause for undying gratitude among us for the great contribution to our knowledge and enjoyment made by this humble man.