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John Horace McFarland: Unsung Hero of the National Park Service

This is a joint post by Yvonne Dooley with contributions by Angel Vu.

John Horace McFarland, circa 1900. Credit: Courtesy of the Pennsylvania State Archives. http://explorepahistory.com/displayimage.php?imgId=1-2-18C4

John Horace McFarland, circa 1900. Courtesy of the Pennsylvania State Archives. http://explorepahistory.com/displayimage.php?imgId=1-2-18C4

Since August 25, 2016 marks the 100th birthday of the National Park Service, it seems appropriate to pay tribute to one of its lesser known heroes, Mr. John Horace McFarland – a successful businessman and civic leader who helped usher in the legislation giving birth to this relatively young agency.

Before J. Horace McFarland added civic reformer to his repertoire of activities, he ran a successful printing business in the 1890’s where he carved out a niche market within the horticulture industry. His biographer, Ernest Morrison, described the keys to his success as “single-minded perseverance…, personal integrity, and the ability to find the right individual” for the job at hand. He believed in paying his employees based on the quality of their work, not the quantity, offering superior health benefits, and supporting women in the workplace. His progressive nature didn’t stop there either; he continually incorporated technological advances into his printing operation resulting in the production of what may have been the country’s first color photographs featured in his exquisite gardening catalogs.

Panoramic photograph of Hetch Hetchy Valley, within Yosemite National Park. The damming of the Hetch Hetchy Valley helped justify the creation of the National Park Service in 1916 by raising public awareness about the importance of preserving nature. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pan.6a19572

Panoramic photograph of Hetch Hetchy Valley, within Yosemite National Park. The damming of the Hetch Hetchy Valley helped justify the creation of the National Park Service in 1916 by raising public awareness about the importance of preserving nature. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pan.6a19572

Advertisement used during McFarland’s campaign against power companies’ development of Niagara Falls.

Reproduction of 1906 ad sponsored by the American Civic Association to save Niagara Falls from being diverted for production of commercial power. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c00738

His introduction to civic duty came in 1902 as president of the American League for Civic Improvement, which later merged with the American Park and Outdoor Art Association in 1903 to form the American Civic Association (ACA). J. Horace was then elected ACA’s first president and held the title for twenty years. During that time he traveled the country advocating for the beautification of cities and the preservation of national treasures, such as Niagara Falls and Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley.

In an address on May 14, 1908 to the White House Governor’s Conference on Conservation, J. Horace argued that “[it] is the love of country that lights and keeps glowing the holy fire of patriotism. And this love is excited primarily by the beauty of the country.” He went on to paint the following picture for his audience, which included President Theodore Roosevelt, James R. Garfield, Gifford Pinchot, and Andrew Carnegie:

“We can not destroy the scenery of our broad land, but we can utterly change its beneficial relation to our lives, and remove its stirring effect upon our love of country…Shall we gaze on the smiling beauty of our island-dotted rivers, or look in disgust on great open sewers, lined with careless commercial filth, and alternating between disastrous flood and painful drouth? Is the Grand Canyon of the Colorado to be really held as Nature’s great temple of scenic color, or must we see that temple punctuated and profaned by trolley poles? Shall the White Mountains be for us a great natural sanitarium, or shall they stand as a greater monument to our folly and neglect?”

Print showing view of Niagara Falls from river below. McFarland successfully defended Niagara Falls from power company interest resulting in a resolution signed by President William Howard Taft on May 4, 1910. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.03251

Print showing view of Niagara Falls from river below. McFarland successfully defended Niagara Falls from power company interest resulting in a resolution signed by President William Howard Taft on May 4, 1910. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.03251

The drive to establish the National Park Service began in 1910 and was finally won six years and three secretaries of the Interior later. In testimony before the House Committee on Public Lands on April 5, 1916, J. Horace provided the following statement:

“In my own town, with 900 acres of parks, we manage to use quite a number of desks, and the time of three capable persons the year around to promote the interest of our people in our parks. If in this particular case it can not be found that 7,000 square miles of territory, unmatched anywhere else on the face of the globe, is worthy of efficient handling, and is worthy not only of one desk but as many desks and as many people and at whatever cost as may be necessary to give the people a chance to have these great national wonders preserved, then I should think that the United States ought to go out of business…

The American Civic Association is made up of a Nation-wide membership, and of people who feel what they believe with considerable intensity. These people want a national park service. In reporting this bill in such fashion as may seem best to insure its final passage, you will, I am sure, be following the desires of a very large majority of your fellow citizens.”

Although McFarland faced strong opposition, he was finally able to gain enough support to get the act passed on August 25, 1916. As we celebrate the National Park Service’s 100th birthday this year, let us sing the praises of leaders like John Horace McFarland that were willing to fight and win the political battles necessary to ensure the natural wonders of this great land would endure throughout the ages.

References/further reading:

Albright, Horace M. The Birth of the National Park Service: The Founding Years, 1913-33, Horace M. Albright as told to Robert Cahn, Howe Brothers, 1985.

Dock, Mira Lloyd. Mira Lloyd Dock Papers, 1814-1951 (bulk 1899-1945), Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Includes correspondence with John Horace McFarland.

McFarland, J. Horace. Memoirs of a Rose Man; Tales from Breeze Hill, Rodale Press, 1949.

Miller, E. Lynn. “McFarland, J. Horace.” Pioneers of American Landscape Design, edited by Charles A. Birnbaum and Robin Karson, McGraw-Hill, 2000: 249-251.

Morrison, Ernest. J. Horace McFarland: A Thorn for Beauty. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1995.

Morrison, Ernest. “McFarland, J. Horace.” American National Biography , edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, vol. 15, Oxford University Press, 1999: 38-39.

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