Tuesday, June 30, 2015

What happened after E.C. Balzer left?

Last week, we read a report issued by the Park Improvement Board stating all the reasons that Mr. E.C. Balzer was not a fit Park Superintendent.  This week we find out what happened after the release of that report.

Following the presentation of this report, a motion was made and immediately passed by the board to accept the recommendations and notify Balzer of their findings.  Throughout the previous year, correspondence from the board to Balzer had been of a terse and somewhat demanding nature.  Four months after the improvement committee submitted their report, the board called for Balzer’s resignation.  He submitted it to them on December 23, 1909, as follows:  “Gentlemen:  I hereby tender my resignation to go into effect on the first of the year or as soon as possible thereafter as Superintendent. “  Although early news accounts relay a story of a congenial departure from his position, park board correspondence suggests otherwise.

During this same time frame, Aubrey White met the assistant park superintendent for the Boston parks system, John W. Duncan, at a park convention in Seattle, and they struck up a friendship.  On January 3, 1910, White received a telegram from John Duncan stating, “Will accept offer as per letter of the 24th.”  As prearranged by White, following Duncan’s acceptance of the offer to be superintendent of the Spokane park system, he was to report to work “not later than March 1st, 1910.”

John Duncan became one of Manito Park’s best known figures.  He served as Spokane’s park superintendent for 32 years, retiring in 1942 at the age of 77.  Born in Aberdeen, Scotland, he moved to Boston with his family when he was a boy.  He learned the nursery trade from his father.  Although White and the Park Board Commission gave the appearances of seeking someone with a technical education to replace Balzer, there is no record in the available archives indicating Duncan had ever received a formal education.

After taking over as superintendent, Duncan spent the first couple of years primarily doing maintenance and cultivating a nursery at Manito Park.   The nursery bordered the present Duncan Gardens to the East.  By 1912, it had 212,000 plants, which would be planted in the various city parks.  Over the years, the nursery contained assortments of flowering and ornamental trees, shrubs, and various experimental trees and plants.

During Duncan’s tenure as superintendent, he made a number of trips to the eastern states to gather ideas from established parks in larger cities.  His first was in 1912, a year in which a new wave of changes happened in the park.  Old greenhouses and superintendent’s house were torn down and a new greenhouses built; the upper level at the southern end of the park was graded to create a level ball field, tennis courts, bowling green, and playground (to which a wading pool was added in 1920); and, of greatest interest to Duncan, work began on the formal European-style gardens.  He transformed the sunken dirt pit into a masterpiece, which received national acclaim.  In 1941, the year before Duncan retired, the park board honored his years of fine service as superintendent by renaming the Sunken Gardens to the Duncan Gardens.  This garden has undergone numerous transformations over the years, the most recent being in 1996.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

More about the demise of E.C. Balzer, Park Superintendent

With the sudden passing of the zoo, the only tangible reminder of the Balzer era was the bandstand (torn down in 1946).  However, Charles Balzer had left a legacy – he secured Manito’s place in the hearts of the Spokane residents.  His contribution could be summarized by a sentence in a 1907 brochure on Manito, prepared by the Spokane-Washington Improvement Co. as part of their intensive marketing campaign.  It read:  “The district now occupied by the city’s largest park was but a few years ago a succession of barren ledges, and to the genius of the landscape gardener has fallen the task of bringing beauty from the rough.”  During Balzer’s tenure as park superintendent, his main focus was on Manito Park.  Much of what he did was at his own expense and beyond the expected duties.  Park records reveal his dedication to Manito; the early photographs attest to his accomplishments.  However, the park board wanted more.


In 1908 Aubrey White, president of the park board, addressed the board with the following letter:

I think we all realize that very excellent work has been done under trying conditions, and yet I think we can all see many mistakes in judgment have occurred and are occurring which will justify at this time certain necessary changes.

Mr. Balzer, our present Park Superintendent, was advanced to that position from City Florist, because he was the only local man available at the time, and his Commission lacked the means to look for a properly qualified man….

Mr. Balzer has good recommendations and certificates as a gardener, and his success with plants and flowers has been very satisfactory, therefore as City Florist having charge of the Greenhouse and flower gardens, his service would be valuable to the park department, but he is not an engineer and cannot take the necessary levels nor run his lines when required, neither can he work out his own plans to scale, as such work has been outside of his experience.

I can therefore see at this time the necessity of employing a man as superintendent of parks who is qualified by experience and technical education to do the planning and laying out of our new development work….

Following White’s advice, the board ordered the Park Improvement Committee to investigate Balzer’s work as superintendent and make a recommendation.  On August 6, 1909, the committee reported the following:

The Park Superintendent, Mr. E.C. Balzer, has failed to comply promptly with the orders of this Board and has shown a disposition to evade the spirit of his instructions.  We recommend the Secretary be instructed to write Mr. Balzer that the Board insist on prompt and complete compliance with its orders….

Mr. Balzer having undertaken park improvements on his own initiative without consulting your Improvement Committee, we advise him that park improvements outside of maintenance, are under the direction of the Improvement Committee, and orders for such improvements must issue from the Chairman of Improvements direct, through the Secretary of this Board.

In order to enforce discipline without delay, your Improvement Committee requests complete authority to discharge the Park Superintendent, with the wages necessary to obtain a man equal to the responsibility and dignity of the position – one who will have the personality requisite to assist the Board in promoting the work of impressing the urgent need of funds for park areas upon our community. 

Next week we will hear more about what happens after this report is released.  I’ll bet you can already guess….

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Manito Park Zoo Becomes a Blessing And a Curse....

During the zoo’s 28 year history, there were a few incidents of injuries caused by the caged animals.  The most serious sent a chill through the community.  On July 10, 1923, nine-year-old Elizabeth Harris was feeding bread to the polar bears.  One of the bears pulled her right arm into the enclosure and the other, smelling blood, attacked and severed it.  Throughout this entire trauma, Elizabeth was remarkably brave.  She insisted she was at fault and that no harm be done to the bears.  Her wishes were honored.  Elizabeth overcame any suggestion of a handicap and lived a normal life.

The zoo had been in existence for almost three years when the Olmstead Brothers made their recommendations to the park board in 1907.  Had this report been presented prior to the zoo’s inception, it is doubtful Manito Park would have ever had a zoo.  The following are excerpts from this report:

For a few years it may continue to be advisable to have the zoological show in Manito Park, but all arrangements in connection with it there should be made with the idea of eventually removing the show to a larger park… In parks, the zoological collection should always be regarded merely as an incidental attraction, and it should not be allowed to absorb an undue share of the park appropriation.  A complete zoological show is a very expensive affair, particularly in maintenance.

Contrary to the recommendations of this report, the zoo remained a focal point of the park through 1932.  Like the rest of the country, the Parks Department was suffering the effects of the Depression.  The annual cost to feed the animals had risen to $3,000, which the park budget was straining to cover.  In addition, there was a constant concern about the park’s potential liability, as well as the neighbors’ complaints about the stench and nightly screeching or howling from the zoo.  The zoo’s days were numbered, but the park board did not make the decision lightly; some members even argued to close the greenhouses instead of the zoo.  When the issue was finally put to a vote, the zoo lost by a 6-5 vote.

On October 13, 1932, a terse letter from the secretary of the park board was delivered to John Duncan, then park superintendent:  “Dear Sir, At the adjourned regular meeting of the Park Board held this date, the Park Superintendent was instructed to dispose of the animals now at the Manito Park Zoo, to the best advantage without cost to the city, prior to January 1, 1933.”  As 1933 dawned, the zoo fell quiet.  Many of the animals were sold or given to other zoos, and some were turned loose in the wild.  But some Spokane residents still remember the trauma of hearing gunshots ring out from the zoo, sealing the fate of those animals for which no homes had been found.  Many of the animals were stuffed and, for years, stored or displayed at the Cheney Cowles Museum.  At one point, Zero, the polar bear who tore Elizabeth Harris’ arm from her body, was among the collection.  She had met her demise when her mate jumped on her back, breaking her neck.

Next week, we will learn something about the aftermath of the zoo’s closing.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A Verbal Image of The Zoo At Manito Park

The park’s center of activity was at the present intersection of Tekoa, Loop Drive and Manito Place.   Standing in that intersection facing north, around 1910, in front and to the left would be a little fenced pond (one of three naturally occurring spring-fed ponds in the park).  In the pond was an island on which the “swan house” provided shelter for numerous species of waterfowl.  Beyond that, the bear cages nestled up against the rock formations behind the present Park Bench Café.  (In 1923, the duck pond was filled in to build the café.)  Looking directly left, the monkey cages were in the foreground, and in the distance (on what is now Rose Hill), the elk and deer barn.  Atop the hill directly behind our position in the intersection was the aviary – the Owl Castle.  The Brotherhood of Owls donated the first owl.  Straight ahead in the distance, the United States flag blows in the wind up on flag hill.  To the right, the hill above the pond was an array of beautiful gardens, with a floral sculpture of the Masonic Lodge emblem as its centerpiece.  On the next hill north, the bandstand was at a perfect location to broadcast the music over the activity below. 

The present Rose Hill west to the Japanese Garden was the elk and deer enclosure.  Parts of the rock wall enclosure still remain in this area.  The enclosure extended north to the point Loop Drive skirts the crest of the hill, encompassing another small pond.  Cages for the skunks, coyotes, bobcats and other smaller animals lined the area of the present rock garden bordering the rose garden.  Ostrich, emu and kangaroo lived in the area of the present Japanese Garden, and buffalo roamed the current lilac garden.

Be sure to come back next week for more interesting information about Spokane’s own zoo in Manito Park.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Remember The Sunken Gardens We Learned About?

Sections of Manito have always been left in a natural “undeveloped” state, which appeals to the adventurer in all young children.  During Balzer’s early years as superintendent, his young son, Norb and his friends found the present-day Duncan Gardens an exciting place to play their games.  The area was covered with fir and pine trees and the boys needed a good hideout.  They proceeded to dig a seven-foot deep cave, which they covered with boards.  One day Mr. Balzer followed his son to the hideout and, to the senior Balzer’s delight, discovered the boys had dug into rich, dark soil – perfect topsoil.  With much of Spokane’s soil being very poor and rocky, Balzer recognized its value and began using this soil for the Manito gardens.  Neighbors would also come to take rich earth home for their own gardens.  According to Norb Balzer, in an April 18, 1968 article in the Spokane Daily Chronicle, “Eventually he had hauled out 42,000 loads of loam to parks all over the city.”  As a result, the present level of Duncan Gardens is now much lower than it had originally been, given it its first name – the Sunken Gardens.

In 1905 Charles Balzer began acquiring animals for a fledgling zoo in the park.  The first residents were beaver and muskrats, located at the present Manito duck pond.  Within a short time, the zoo grew into as major attraction.  At times it contained as many as 165 various animals.  Among the animals at the zoo were deer, elk, deer, monkeys, buffalo, mountain lions, coyotes, foxes, badgers, bob cats, skunks, goats, kangaroos, beavers, muskrats and numerous species of birds.  The zoo covered nearly a third of the park.

Next week we’ll discover more about this interesting zoo right in the heart of Manito Park.