Mr. Burbank, meet Mr. Ford and Mr. Edison

IT was early afternoon of a pleasantly cool and overcast October day in 1915 in Santa Rosa, California, a town about fifty miles north of San Francisco, and the great crowd of Santa Rosans shuffling on the depot platform were suddenly loud in relief and exultation. The one-fifteen Northwestern Pacific from San Francisco was chuffing in, two minutes late, and the thing many of the town's eighty-two hundred souls had been half-doubting would really happen was now magnificently happening. The one-fifteen was pulling along a private railroad car, that era's cachet of rank, and inside it were two of the best-known Americans in the world. They had come to visit a third one. He was Luther Burbank, and the visitors were Thomas Edison and Henry Ford....

Now they were actually here, and beaming and waving from a window of the varnished private car was extrovert Thomas Edison, looking exactly like his pictures. He was the oldest of the three, sixty-eight, but moments later as the newsreel cameras caught him on the train steps beside 60-year-old Burbank, Edison could be taken for a much more mature and bearlike brother of the boyishly slender wizard of horticulture. The 52-year-old Ford was not noted for shyness, but this day he hung back, as if murmuring, ``Age before riches, friends.''

There were about 20 persons in this visiting party altogether. ... One was Harvey Firestone, already a big man but here today so overshadowed that the bedazzled local newspaper reporters failed even to get his name.

Like Ford and Edison, he had come out to the West Coast to see San Francisco's Panama-Pacific International Exposition. The next day he wrote his wife Idabelle of this richly rewarding side trip to see the only man in this world who ever made botany as exciting as a horse race, the man who had created huge new industries and built communities through boldly joining often strikingly different fruits, vegetables, flowers, grains, and nuts, ... and then - with a gift even he could not quite understand - swiftly and almost without error pick from the constellations of intriguing new children the ones destined to be champions. He was the one and only horticulturist the world had ever known whose name millions of ordinary people all over the world recognized....

The automobiles with the Edison-Ford party turned off Santa Rosa Avenue, jammed with people, into Tupper Street. There on the northeast corner of the intersection was Burbank's two-story squarish pink-stucco house surrounded with lawns and with flower beds that often served also as little extra experiment gardens for their owner. Across Tupper on the southeast corner, the official experiment garden was enclosed like the house grounds with a white picket fence and included Burbank's rococo greenhouse and stable and his old white frame cottage that the 1906 earthquake cracked like an egg.

Edison had hoped this would be a nice private visit, and Burbank had tried his best. ``... No bands, no racket. They wish to come quietly,'' he had wired home on Monday from San Francisco where he had extended the invitation.

Edison now saw he had been hoping for the impossible.... Also there were the newspaper and newsreel photographers - the latter so insistent that Edison, whose inventive genius had largely created their business, finally grumbled wryly, ``Darn these movies,'' and Burbank shortly afterward got his guests inside the house for a quiet hour of visiting.

IT was a big house - fourteen rooms - and while Burbank chatted with Edison and Ford in the library, where a eucalyptus-wood fire was burning, the flames reflecting on the polished redwood of bookcases and window framing, the others strolled about, escorted by two women [Burbank's younger sister, Emma, and his secretary, Elizabeth Waters] who for this one day acted as cohostesses there....

Edison could have stayed there all afternoon. Slumping happily in Burbank's big old leather arm chair, the most comfortable seat in the library, he exclaimed, ``Oh, I feel so much at home with Mr. Burbank here.'' First naming was not yet the custom, and Burbank and Edison would mister each other to the end of their days.

But the library clock was striking three, and Tupper Street was already full of schoolchildren, let out of class early for this express purpose. Burbank led Edison and Ford and their wives, trailed by some others in the party, up the wide stairway from the reception hall and into his cluttered little study that adjoined his bedroom on the second floor....

Burbank led the Edisons and the Fords out onto a balcony, and at the instant of their appearance an eagle-eyed teacher on the sidewalk raised her arms and brought them sharply down, and a hundred young voices burst in ragged time into song.

Edison, dressed in the same sort of black business-formal attire and stand-up collar as Burbank, smiled benignly down on the multitude; he could have been the host, he looked so paternal. His wife spoke into his right ear:

``They're singing `I Love You, California.'''...

They went back inside at the end of the song, and Burbank gave an order: ``Let the smaller children come inside the yard.'' And nearly three hundred of them had entered by the time the three men returned downstairs and stepped out onto the tile-floored veranda, with ``BURBANK'' centered in brown tiles on the white basket-weave pattern.

DUCKING low tendrils of the climber that garlanded the cream-colored veranda columns, the men stepped out to speak to the children, and Burbank put a hand on Edison's shoulder. ``Children,'' he said, or almost shouted in his rather thin voice, ``this is Mr. Edison, the man who gave you the electric light and many other things that you enjoy....

``And this is Mr. Ford,'' he said. ... ``You all know him and have learned of his acts of philanthropy.''...

The children then presented Edison, as the visiting lion of the party, with a small American flag, and he handed it to his wife, who was still holding it when a group photograph of the visitors was taken soon after on the veranda. Then all walked across the street through the pressing crowd, to tour the experiment garden. Edison put on his porkpie hat and Henry Ford a black fedora with a swoopingly curved brim, much like the style Burbank used. Ford in particular was full of questions, viewing Burbank's system of myriad crossings, to produce vast numbers of original new plants to select from, as a horticultural assembly-line technique, in a sense.

Then Edison asked, ``Mr. Burbank how do you make things grow so big?''

``Well, you see,'' Burbank said, ``some big cannery man, perhaps, sends me specifications, and I get to work and give him what he wants.'' It was, in fact, exactly what he once did when a canner asked him to develop a pea like the French petit pois, uniform in size, sweet, and maturing all pods at the same time, except that in this case Burbank was trying for something smaller, not larger than usual....

[Next] was the famous spineless cactus, smooth as polished soapstone, the cactus Burbank labored so long and so painfully over, forced even to shave his hands and arms each night to remove the tiny, painful spicules his flesh kept picking up from the thousands of other cacti he was working with. Burbank would never produce a more controversial plant than the spineless cactus, and it was a splendid example of his flair for doing things that electrified the public imagination.

``Do you know,'' he said casually to his guests this day, ``I built that house of mine with the sale of five leaves of these cacti?'' That was nine years before. A dealer in Australia bought the leaves, and the price was indeed close to what the fourteen-room house cost Burbank.

There was an information headquarters in a substantial, small mission-style building at the street-corner entrance to the experiment garden, and there everyone stopped on the way out, to sign the guest register. It had been Burbank's pleasure to include in the blanks to be filled: ``Particularly interested in - '' and after it, Edison instantly wrote in his precise and vertical hand, with a stub-point pen, ``Everything.''

On the way back to the train, due to leave for San Francisco at five forty-two o'clock, Edison and Ford were given a quick tour of two or three ranch showplaces near the town, and when they were back at the depot and aboard the private car again, there were waiting for them half a dozen baskets heaped with Burbank creations - walnuts, chestnuts, almonds, late plums and apples, Christmas grapes, and a great display of the huge and regal Shasta daisies.

As it neared departure time, Burbank, having glanced at his heavy gold pocket watch, said his farewells all around, and Edison climbed back down to the platform with him for a moment....

Just before he turned to swing himself back up the train steps, the electrical wizard of the east shook hands once more with the horticultural wizard of the west, and nearly everyone on the platform heard him, in the over-loud voice of the deafened: ``Good-bye, Mr. Burbank. This has been the happiest day of my life.''

The excerpts on this and the facing page were taken from ``Luther Burbank: the Wizard and the Man,'' by Ken and Pat Kraft (1967), Meredith Press, New York, and are reprinted with the permission of the authors.

Burbank's place in history

Self-made men, it has often been remarked, usually are openly proud of the job. Not only was Luther Burbank self-made - he was an original, something fresh in his world, a man who invented a brand-new career out of thin air without knowing of any model he could follow. ... He revolutionized the fruit industry where he was most successful - with plums above all. We eat Burbank's plums today. Over half the plum trees now growing in California's immensely fertile valleys, their fruit shipped all over the country and in some cases abroad, are Burbank's old champions. ... All told, he introduced an immense number of fruits, more than 250 varieties, many of them vital stepping-stones to good things we have today.

Counting up all the new plants he introduced in his lifetime, there were by the most conservative estimate over eight hundred. That means that, if his discoveries had been spaced evenly over his working life, he would have come up with something brand-new, and never seen on this earth before, every three weeks....

One of the biggest things he did was to make horticulture interesting and exciting, which attracted more talent to the field. He made it seem like a good, continuous detective story. Decades before the Army and Navy expediters were saying it, Burbank was running his career on the principle that the difficult he could do immediately, the impossible only took a little longer.

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