The James Barto Farm Revisited
James Elwood Barto died of cancer in a Veteran's Administration hospital in Portland, Oregon, Dec. 22, 1940. An interesting account of his life and work, written by the late Carl Phetteplace, M.D., was published in the Quarterly Bulletin of the American Rhododendron Society in 1960 (Vol. 14:2 and 3). The article details Mr. Barto's brief 15 year experience with rhododendrons and particularly describes his efforts to carve a garden out of the Oregon wilderness, mostly without the modern equipment we now take for granted. Perhaps because we have recently completed (more or less) a 15 year effort to tame a similar bit of Oregon wilderness, I felt a strong identification with Mr. Barto's effort, if not his horticultural accomplishments, for his legacy of fine rhododendron species is legendary. But we, at least, had the benefit of modern equipment of which Barto could only have dreamed.
The Barto farm was situated about ten miles west of the town of Junction City, Oregon, in the eastern foothills of the Coast Range Mountains. It consisted of about 160 acres, mostly relatively steep woodland, densely grown to Douglas fir timber, interspersed with oak, maple, alder, wild cherry and red cedar. An under-story of wild blackberry, salmonberry, huckleberry, Oregon grape, salal, vine maple and various other small shrubs created a sometimes almost impenetrable jungle. As related by Phetteplace, about 5 acres of this jungle was tamed by Barto with the help of his wife, a daughter, Pauline, three sons, Elwood, Merrill and Donald, and one old horse, "Shorty".
My wife, Elaine, and I recently arranged to meet with Elwood and Merrill Barto and their wives at Elwood's home located on part of the original James Barto farm. The house is on a high bench overlooking the little valley where the nursery used to be. There is presently very little evidence of what was once a thriving enterprise: some stones that once were part of the foundation of the family home; some rusting, bent pipes that once were part of the irrigation system; and, we were told, a half dozen or so rhododendrons scattered here and there through the brush, unidentified, uncared for and seldom noticed.
Looking out over the little valley on a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon it was not hard to imagine the ring of an axe, the whisper of a distant hand saw with the resulting crash of a giant fir and the squeak of the leather harness as old "Shorty" strained to pull a stump that had been partially blasted from the earth. But it was difficult to imagine that the thriving forest now existing was for a short while interrupted by row upon row of tiny rhododendrons.
And what of the people? We enjoyed an afternoon orgy of reminiscence with these fine people. They remember so much and it came rushing from many mouths at once so that it was sometimes hard to follow the several conversations occurring simultaneously. The trip from Chicago in an old chain-drive truck was relived, as was the hauling of 2,700 feet of irrigation pipe up the mountain trail behind old "Shorty", and the stoking of the wood fired furnace during the cold winter nights to keep the greenhouse warm.
But a good deal of time was spent in updating the family. Mrs. Barto passed away about three years ago. The younger brother, Donald, was tragically killed when struck by a falling spar pole in a woods accident in 1977. Elwood, at 75 years, retained 40 acres of the original place but has distributed all but five acres to some of his six children. He recounted with understandable sadness the tragic demise of one of his grown sons when a tractor overturned on his back, crushing him to death.
Merrill, at 69 years, has retired from his job as transit bus driver in Eugene and is proud of his two children, one of whom, a girl, he emphasizes, drives an 18-wheeler for a living. Pauline has two children and owns 120 acres of the original place, on which she raises fir timber. Of the two additional children of the James Barto marriage, one died in infancy and the other, Phillip, has remained in Chicago.
While Pauline, Merrill and Elwood were all greatly instrumental in the clearing of the land, construction of the nursery facilities, cultivation and weeding of the plants and were once conversant with rhododendron lore, it is interesting that none of them developed the consuming interest in the genus that so motivated their father. Merrill still has a number of rhododendrons in his home garden, several of which were grown from the original Barto plants. He obviously cares greatly for these plants due to their origin and history.
We truly enjoyed meeting and visiting with the Bartos and appreciated their fine hospitality. But the experience leaves one wondering about the temporary nature of our best gardening efforts. What is to be done with a laboriously constructed large garden, with its collection of hundreds or even thousands of plants, when the originator is no longer here and his heirs have no interest in maintaining a large garden? Must it return to the jungle? Is it enough that we return in 50 years to ponder what once was, and yet, what might have been?
Clarence "Slim" Barrett, a retired attorney, serves on the Eugene Chapter's Board of Directors and often writes for the chapter's newsletter.