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The chemist and the cherry trees

John Conway
Posted 3/31/23

On March 27, 1912, the first two of thousands of Japanese cherry trees were planted along the banks of the Potomac River in Washington, DC by First Lady Helen Taft, the wife of President William …

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The chemist and the cherry trees


On March 27, 1912, the first two of thousands of Japanese cherry trees were planted along the banks of the Potomac River in Washington, DC by First Lady Helen Taft, the wife of President William Howard Taft, and the Viscountess Chinda, the wife of the Japanese Ambassador to the United States. 

The 3,020 cherry trees, as well as thousands of other planted in New York City and Detroit, were officially a gift to the people of the United States from the Japanese government, but the gift was financed by Japanese American chemist Jokichi Takamine, who lived for many years in Merriewold Park in the town of Forestburgh here in Sullivan County. 

Dr. Takamine, the first scientist to isolate adrenaline, one of several discoveries that made him a wealthy man, was married to Caroline Hitch, whose younger sister was married to the son of the Merriewold Park founder, the economist Henry George, and the couple purchased land in the park in 1902. Two years later, the Japanese government honored Dr. Takamine by presenting him with Sho Fu Den, the “Pine Maple Palace” the three buildings that had served as the Japanese exhibition at the St. Louis World’s Fair. The exhibit was disassembled and shipped to Forestburgh to be erected on Takamine’s Merriewold property, where it still stands. 

According to the book, “Merriewold: The First Hundred Years,” by David Colson, Dr. Takamine sent Alexander Moore, Jr., the superintendent of Merriewold Park, and a team of carpenters to St. Louis, “to watch and learn as Japanese craftsmen took the buildings down. Each piece was numbered and its position diagramed. Then it was all shipped to Merriewold via railroad.” 

Famed dancer and choreographer Agnes deMille, who was the granddaughter of Henry George, grew up at Merriewold. She recalled in her memoir, “Where the Wings Grow,” that the pieces of the palace arrived at the St. Joseph’s station of the Port Jervis & Monticello Railroad in freight cars. 

“Thirty-five sleigh loads were drawn through the winter forest,” she wrote.  

Even with the precise plans, it took the skilled workmen-- and six gardeners sent over from Japan-- 17 years to complete the reconstruction of the palace and grounds, which eventually comprised a small lake, as well. 

“As long as the doctor lived, he worked on the building of those terraced gardens, adding farm sheds and kitchen patches and rustic devices as the grounds opened toward the highway, until finally there was a country bridge and a water mill and thatched fence as a definition of property and in the thinning woods pump houses, all with charming red roofs,” deMille wrote. 

But back to the cherry trees. 

The idea to plant the trees in Washington originally came from Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, a young writer who had visited Japan in 1885 and fallen in love with the cherry tree there. For 24 years she proposed the idea of bringing similar trees to the nation’s capital with no success. 

Finally, in 1909, she became aware of Helen Taft’s project to beautify Potomac Park, and sent a letter to the White House offering to raise the money to purchase 100 cherry trees a year for ten years as part of the beautification project. Mrs. Taft, who had lived in Japan herself and was familiar with the trees, was intrigued, and on April 8, 1909, wrote back to Scidmore that she liked the idea. 

“The very next day, Dr. Takamine was in Washington with Mr. Midzuno, the Japanese consul in Manhattan where Takamine operated his research laboratory and had founded the Nippon Club and the Japanese Society,” Debra Conway wrote in a Times Herald-Record blog in 2015. “When he was told that Washington was to have Japanese cherry trees planted along the Speedway, Takamine offered to donate an additional 2,000 trees to fill out the area. Mr. Midzuno thought it was a fine idea but suggested the trees be given in the name of the City of Tokyo. Within days they met with First Lady Taft and she agreed to accept the donation.” 

Unfortunately, the initial shipment of trees had to be burned. 

“To everyone’s dismay, an inspection team from the Department of Agriculture discovered the trees were infested with insects and diseased,” Conway wrote. “To protect American growers, the department recommended the trees be destroyed.” 

Dr, Takamine was not deterred, however, and arranged for another 3,020 trees to be sent to Washington, where they were all planted, beginning with the ceremonial planting of those first two on March 27. Those two trees survive to this day. 

“In New York, another 2,500 cherry trees (another anonymous donation from Takamine) were quietly planted along Riverside Drive surrounding Grant’s Tomb, in an area renamed Sakura Park, along what became known as “Cherry Walk,” and in Central Park,” Conway wrote. “And, for an additional expression of gratitude, Takamine sent 50 trees to the headquarters of Parke-Davis in Detroit, Michigan for planting on its front lawn.” 

Dr. Jokichi Talamine died in 1922. Although the cherry trees proved immediately popular with tourists, and to this day Washington celebrates them with its annual Cherry Blossom Festival, he never received recognition for his generous donation during his lifetime.

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian and a founder and president of The Delaware Company. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com.  


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