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1957 to 1970: A Gift and a Puzzle
From a Park to a Botanic Garden


Seven years after Ruth Larabee gave her land to San Diego County, the first newsletter for the Quail Gardens Foundation, Inc. was written by Director Dale T. Wood and named Quail Call. Much transpired in those intervening years, and much more was to take place before the park opened its gates to the public in 1970, fulfilling Ruth’s wish. But when the gates did open, it was to “Quail Park Botanic Gardens” that people flocked. How and why did her 22.3 acres transition from a park to a full scale botanical garden?

Those questions were answered well by the aforementioned Dale Wood in his 1964 newsletter article entitled, “A Gift and a Puzzle,” as follows:

Part of the 26 acre ranch home of Ruth Larabee had become the showplace for her remarkable collection of plants. Few of them were common. Some were downright rare. This was particularly true of her remarkable collection of cacti and succulents. [Note: The actual size was 22.3 acres.]

A rugged area including bluff and ravine had been left in picturesque naturalness of chaparral. Mrs. Larabee’s interest in this remarkable natural collection was well placed as [over 70] species of local native plants grow here. It also served an additional interest— enjoyment of the bird life. This native cover furnishes the principal habitat for a hundred or more California quail. Her enjoyment of them—they became almost pets—suggested the name for the park.

To the west of the walled yard adjacent to Mrs. Larabee’s residence was a small avocado grove. And the few remaining westerly acres are being farmed by “The Poinsettia King,” Paul Ecke.

A long acquaintance with Gerald Cullison, Assistant Superintendent of County Parks and Recreation, led Mrs. Larabee to thinking of the enjoyment her property brought to her and her friends as something possible of perpetuation and improvement by becoming a park. Conversation with Mr. Cullison helped the idea to gel, and in 1957 the gift was made. Such an act is a demonstration of confidence and a high compliment to our County Park Commission and its executive officer, Cletus Gardner, Director of Parks and Recreation, along with his whole staff. Such things do not occur in an atmosphere of mistrust or lack of enthusiasm.

But now came the puzzle. How should the park be developed? In consultation with a committee chaired by Julia von Preissig [on a Vista park problem] Mr. Gardner placed the puzzle before them. With his agreement, she asked a number of persons to serve on a committee to formulate suggestions. Someone suggested that since the property already had the sizeable nucleus of a remarkable horticultural exhibit it might be well to devote the whole park to this type of development. The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden and the L.A. Arboretum were examples.

It was agreed that this should be studied. On September 25, 1959, the Quail Park Project Study Committee called a meeting held at the Park. Dr. William Stewart, distinguished Director of the [Los Angeles] Arboretum, had come to discuss the development. About fifty were present, representing the Parks and Recreation Department, garden clubs, horticultural societies, commercial nurserymen, and interested individuals from all of San Diego County. Dr. William Storey of the Riverside University of California Citrus Center was there.

A horticultural park was unanimously approved. From this point specific planning was begun. At the suggestion of Mr. Gardner, the advisory committee took steps to become a non-profit corporation: Quail Gardens Foundation, Inc. The policy was shaped to develop the park as a place of beauty as well as a practical specimen exhibit of native and exotic plants, ornamental and fruiting, suitable to our climatic region, for the enjoyment of the residents and guests of San Diego County.

With our growing population, Director Gardner was concerned with the future need for play space in the area. Would it not be practical to use a small plot at the west end of the property for playground development? In fact, as the demand grew, would the use of the entire park area for horticulture be politically tenable? This issue was settled at a meeting with the County Park Commission on March 1, 1961. Paul Ecke, one of those representing our Foundation, gave five acres of nearby land—now Ecke Field—for playground purposes. So the last item in the puzzle of policy was solved by this generous act.”

Wood went on to explain that Park Superintendent P.J. Miller was hired, the Larabee house was repaired, fencing was added to portions of the grounds, and money was made available for restrooms and a badly needed new water system. The County was responsible for the general grounds and planting layout, while the “development of specialized exhibit plantings and facilities” was the responsibility of the Foundation.

The Quail Gardens Foundation that he mentions, (before it became Quail Gardens Foundation, Inc.,) was composed of the following people: Officers: President, Mrs. M.J. von Preissig, First Vice President, Mrs. R.C. Lawton, Second Vice President, Mrs. Mildred Macpherson, Treasurer, Paul V. Lane, and Secretary, Mrs. Edwin Gould. Honorary Directors: Chauncey I. Jerabek, Dr.

G. E. Lindsay, and Mrs. Ruth Larabee. Directors: Mrs. Paul W. Behrends, Mrs. Clarence W. Benson, Dr. Ernest E. Dale, Mr. Paul Ecke, Mrs. Ralph Goldsmith, Mrs. Esther Nesbin, Dr. Ralph S. Roberts, James Saracino, Mrs. A.R. Seibert, Walter Watchorn, Nelson E. Westree, and Dale T. Wood.

The years of hard work and dedication that followed could fill an entirely separate publication. But ultimately the Foundation’s efforts came to fruition. On March 8, 1970—just months after Ruth Larabee passed away—Quail Park Botanic Gardens opened to the public. Julia von Preissig, Foundation President, addressed the gathered members, dignitaries and public at the formal opening with the following inspiring words:

We dream and work toward preserving the rustic charm of the estate, its fine, old plantings and its natural life; toward endowing the gardens with the choicest trees, shrubs, and flowers; toward cultivating a center for research and study; and toward developing all those features which will provide a quiet haven for the delight of people, young and old, from near and far.”

Note: This report was originally written for the book entitled Sowing Seeds of Wonder, by Sally Sandler, Docent and Historian, 2016.

Banner Photo: Rachel Cobb