Helen Herron Taft, Nellie, was the most well-traveled First Lady that the United States had seen when she entered the White House with her husband President William Howard Taft in 1909. She had seen more of the world than most Presidents much less First Ladies. So after settling in to the routines at the White House and hosting her first few events, Nellie was bored. For so many years, her husband and his career had been her purpose and now that her ultimate goal had been achieved, she needed a project.
Nellie had heard of plans to beautify the city during the time she was a Cabinet wife. She loved the idea and decided to look for a place that she could develop. She had in mind something like Luneta Park in Manila, her favorite place in the Philippines. Luneta Park was a large open space with two bandstands at opposite ends of the park overlooking the bay. Concerts were held there and it was frequented by people of all races and classes. She wanted to do something similar for the people of Washington, so at the beginning of April she went driving alone and found the perfect place along the Tidal Basin with a “road” leading to it that people had begun to race their cars on. She imagined the “Speedway” as it was called lined with beautiful Japanese Cherry trees leading down to the bandstand.
The original idea of planting cherry trees in the nation’s capitol belongs to Eliza Scidmore, an author and inveterate traveler. She published numerous books based on her travels and joined the National Geographic Society in 1890. She became a regular correspondent and later the Society’s first female trustee.
On Eliza’s return from the Far East in 1885, she proposed the idea of the cherry trees to Washington officials, but there was little interest at the time. Her proposal was to the US Army Superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds. After the first rejection, she continued to propose the idea to each new Superintendent over the next 24 years.
Around 1906, another person became interested in the trees. Dr. David Fairchild, an official at the US Department of Agriculture, imported close to 100 trees to plant on his property to test their hardiness for the region. They did very well and in 1908 he gave trees to each District of Columbia school to plant for Arbor Day. During his speech he expressed a wish that the Tidal Basin could be transformed into a “Field of Cherries.”
Eliza Scidmore was in the audience that day and decided to try to raise the money herself to plant the trees. Either as a courtesy, or because she knew a First Lady could get things done, she sent a note to Nellie Taft to tell her about her plans for a field of cherry trees. This was just what Nellie was looking for and she quickly responded.
April 7, 1909
Thank you very much for your suggestion about the cherry trees. I have taken the matter up and am promised the trees, but I thought perhaps it would be best to make an avenue of them, extending down to the turn in the road, as the other part is still too rough to do any planting. Of course, they could not reflect in the water, but the effect would be very lovely of the long avenue. Let me know what you think about this.
Helen H. Taft
Never shy about taking charge, Nellie took it upon herself. As soon as the First Lady made the request, the Superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, Colonel Spencer Cosby, initiated the purchase of the first Japanese Cherry trees. Around the same time, Dr. Jokichi Takamine, a Japanese chemist, was visiting Washington with the Japanese consul, Mr. Midzuno. The good doctor asked if Nellie would accept a gift of another 2000 trees, given in the name of the City of Tokyo and she accepted them.
Unfortunately, the 95 trees ordered by the Superintendent of Grounds turned out to be the wrong variety, but the worst blow was to come. The next January when the 2000 trees arrived from Japan it was discovered that they were diseased. Infested with insects and nematodes, they had to be burned to protect American growers.
Because of the nature of the gift, President Taft had to give approval for the destruction of the trees and the State Department expressed regret to the Japanese Ambassador. They understood the problem, in fact the mayor of Tokyo, Mr. Yukio Ozaki, suggested that another gift be sent. The Tokyo City Counsel approved the donation of 3020 more trees and the scions to be grafted were taken from the famous collection along the bank of the Arakawa River in Adachi Ward, a suburb of Tokyo.
After grafting and preparing the trees, on March 27, 1912, Washington DC’s first Cherry Tree celebration was held when First Lady Helen Taft and Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese Ambassador, planted two cherry trees on the banks of the Tidal Basin. These original trees still stand with a plaque located near by to commemorate the occasion.
Over the next seven years the Cherry trees were planted around the Tidal Basin and in East Potomac Park. Over the next two decades, the first official Cherry Blossom Festival was held, a pageant was started, and they came to symbolize something important to the citizens of Washington. In 1938, a group of women chained themselves to some of the trees to prevent their destruction for the building of the Jefferson Memorial. A compromise was reached and the trees were moved and more were planted to frame the memorial.
The trees have continued to connect the Japanese and American people. During WWII, a few were vandalized and the trees were referred to as Oriental Cherry trees instead of Japanese Cherry trees. But after the war Japan’s trees needed help. The trees along the bank of the Arakawa River in Adachi Ward, where the Washington stock originally came from, were badly damaged during the war. The city of Washington DC was able to give new stock to the city of Tokyo to replace the very trees from which they had come.
In 1965, there was another First Lady who would be known for her beautification projects. The Japanese Government gave another gift of 3,800 trees and Lady Bird Johnson with Mrs. Ryuji Takeuchi, wife of Japan’s Ambassador, reenacted the original planting ceremony of 1912.
The National Cherry Blossom Festival is held for two weeks each year beginning on the last Saturday of March.
Nellie Taft: The Unconventional First Lady of the Ragtime Era by Carl Sferrazza Anthony
History of the Cherry Trees