Metro Park Tacoma archiveEbenezer Roberts, the man who played Father Nature to Point Defiance Park and its gardens, stands with a banana plant in a greenhouse where the Rose Garden is now.
Ebenezer Roberts loved nature so much that he named three of his four children after flowers or trees.
Daughters Reseda – the Latin name for the mignonette flower – and Trillium, and son Woodland, followed the birth of his first son, Ebenezer Jr.
When Roberts wasn’t busy chasing escaped zoo bears or booting squatters from Point Defiance Park, where he lived with his family after becoming Tacoma’s first parks superintendent, he was probably getting his hands dirty planting something.
“He was a gardener, first and foremost,” said Doreen Beard-Simpkins, historian for Metro Parks Tacoma.
In reviewing Point Defiance’s history during its centennial year, Roberts emerges as probably the single most important figure in the park’s early development.
Francis Cushman, the lawmaker who helped in the transfer of park ownership from the federal government to the City of Tacoma, is immortalized with a giant statue at the park’s entrance.
But it was Roberts who helped douse fires that imperiled the early park, Roberts who cleared away brush and Roberts who helped get a water tower built before pipelines were extended to the park.
The gardens, more than anything else, are his legacy.
"He was a gardener, first and foremost."
Roberts grew up in Wales and worked for seven years there as a gardener’s apprentice before coming to New York. He worked for Pete Henderson & Co., a well-known landscape firm of the time, and then came west to California, Arizona and New Mexico.
He met his wife, Mary, in Arizona and spent several years prospecting for rare plants in the southwest until the “use of bad water almost ruined his health,” the Tacoma Daily News reported in his obituary.
Roberts went to Santa Rosa, Calif., to recuperate and met a farmer from Ohio who told him to throw away all his medicine and “go to Puget Sound,” the newspaper reported. He took the man’s advice, and after regaining his health, Roberts toured Puget Sound cities and towns. There, he began “preaching the gospel of flowers.”
In 1888, Roberts came to Tacoma. A year later, he started as a foreman at Point Defiance Park. His job initially was to carry out the plans of landscape architect Edward Schwagerl. But Roberts’ influence grew.
Soon, he was promoted to city parks superintendent, overseeing all the parks.
The city later approved $2,000 to build a residence for Roberts and his family. The house, now known as the Lodge, served as a home for park superintendents until 1980.
In 1895, Roberts planted the Point’s original Rose Garden, using cuttings gathered by Tacoma schoolchildren, and as the park developed, he became renowned for his love of flowers and plants.
A July 1897 news release boasted of crowds flocking to Point Defiance Park: “… the people seemed most to enjoy Gardener Roberts’ beautiful bed of flowers and the lovely walks beneath forest trees.”
Roberts also played a role in helping the City of Tacoma take ownership of his beloved park. He worked hard on Cushman’s congressional campaign, the Daily News reported. When Cushman offered to reward him, Roberts replied: “All I want is that you get a deed from the government for the city to Point Defiance.”
“I kept pounding Cushman on the back about this business till I got it done,” Roberts told the paper.
But three years after Tacoma acquired the park, Roberts ran into trouble with the leaders of the newly created Metropolitan Park District.
Board member Marshall Snell called for his resignation, saying Roberts had a drinking problem that made him incapable of performing his duties.
Snell said he found Roberts wandering drunk through the park one Sunday afternoon, and there were charges of whiskey being “passed freely among the men employed at Point Defiance Park,” the Tacoma Daily Tribune reported.
Roberts submitted his resignation June 29, 1908. The park board also laid off nine other employees in what the newspaper called a “thorough house-cleaning.”
Although Roberts might have been a heavy drinker, he might also have fallen victim to the board members of a new park district who were intent on installing their own superintendent, Simpkins said.
“He probably was a hard-working and hard-drinking man,” she said. “It certainly doesn’t seem to have affected him other than this incident.”
In the decade that followed, Roberts became well-loved in the community for his work with church groups, schools, fairs and the Tacoma Rose Society and Tacoma Dahlia Society.
He wrote a horticulture column for The News and Ledger and dispensed gardening advice from his downtown office.
Until shortly before his death in 1918 at age 65, he delivered wagonloads of roses to Tacoma hospitals every year, according to The News and Ledger.
When he became sick with cancer in 1917, The News and Ledger wrote that Tacoma owed Roberts for much of the allure of not only Point Defiance, but also Wright, McKinley and Lincoln parks.
“All the rare beauty of Point Defiance Park today grew out of the plans that Eben Roberts had for the park, the rustic bridge, the lovely layout of plants, the duck pond,” the paper wrote. “Roberts understands the principles of landscaping as few men who have come to the northwest do.”
Jason Hagey: 253-597-8542