Skip to main content Skip to navigation
Connecting curious minds with uncommon, undeniably Northwest reads

Frederick Law Olmsted and the Staten Island Farm

By the time John Charles Olmsted arrived in the Pacific Northwest in 1903, he was a seasoned landscape architect who had worked with Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. in his Brookline, Massachusetts, landscape architecture office at his 99 Warren Street home (now a National Park Service historic site). This chapter takes place in the 1850s and tells the story behind his first American home.

After Frederick Law Olmsted (FLO) settled on scientific farming as his life’s work, and a decade before he won his first Central Park assignment, his father, a Hartford, Connecticut, resident, purchased a small coastal farm on an isolated peninsula near Guilford on Sachem’s Head. The year was 1847.

The farm was not far from Yale, where FLO’s brother (and best friend), John Hull, and other friends were still studying. Although they could visit on weekends, the rocky soil and isolation were great obstacles to success.

Earlier, while visiting Staten Island, FLO’s father had seen Tosomock Farm. Situated near the southern shore of the island, it was closer to New York City. In 1848, FLO’s father loaned his son $12,000 for the purchase. The 140-acre property had splendid views of the waterfront between the island and the Atlantic.

Surrounded by a more lively farming community and closer to his brother and friends, the new farm was more agreeable to FLO’s future plans than Guilford farm. Its old Dutch stone farmhouse and surroundings also suited the new farmer. With his brother John embarking on a medical career and many Yale friends still nearby, the Staten Island farm, Tosomock (also known as Southside), soon became a weekend gathering spot.

Neighbors also came to call or invited the new farmer to dinner. One was Dr. Cyrus Perkins, a retired medical professor, who gave FLO four grapevines from his Holly Farm. He also introduced his granddaughter, Mary Perkins, who had come to live with him after the death of her parents. A friendship soon blossomed between her and John Hull. She also became a bedrock of stability for FLO in the decades to follow.

By the early months of 1850spurred by the engagement of John Hull and Miss Perkinsthe families drew closer. Eager for one last overseas adventure before settling down, and hoping to improve his health, John Hull and his friend Charles Loring Brace planned a walking trip through England. Caught off guard, Frederick wrote his father for help in joining his brother abroad.

Father Olmsted of course agreed, and the three boys set sail for England on April 30, 1850. FLO brought his notebook, intending to write about his travels and learn from farmers abroad about the craft and crops of farming there. At sea, the three passed the time playing chess matches using improvised playing pieces made from cork, and reading aloud to one another. They eventually docked near Liverpool in late May—high springtime in England.

Learning as much from the preserved—or historically designed—country landscapes surrounding each farm and village as from his interviews with local farmers, FLO’s first visit to the English countryside proved a turning point. His successful 1852 book about that English adventure initiated his landscape (and publishing) future.

After the tour, John Hull returned to Staten Island, married Mary Perkins, and headed back to Europe for a honeymoon. In 1853 he, his bride, and their new baby, “Tot” or “Charley” (in time they settled on the name John Charles Olmsted), came home to live in the nine-bedroom Southside farmhouse.

The brothers soon set off together to explore the vast Texas territory—eventually on horseback. The New York editors of FLO’s newspaper column (written under the pen name “Yeoman”) awaited news from San Antonio. FLO had already published coastal South news and views of plantation owners on the topic of the day—slavery. Edited by John Hull, this last installment produced the final touches to the Olmsted literary endeavor, bringing much-needed publishing notoriety and setting the stage for FLO’s next achievement—Central Park.

A decade of living, farming, and writing for New York newspapers and publishing houses from his Staten Island farm was drawing to a close. The loss of his best friend and a chance conversation in a Connecticut Inn would dramatically change Frederick’s life.

Next month, we’ll explore FLO’s move from Southside Farm across the water to New York City and into the abandoned Mount St. Vincent Convent building in the city’s sprawling, recently-acquired Central Park property.

—Joan Hockaday

 

Line drawing of the Staten Island farmhouse

The Staten Island farmhouse, “Southside,” sketch attributed to Frederick Law Olmsted in 1848.

Photo of John Hull Olmsted

John Hull Olmsted (1825-1857). His medical career on hold, by the end of the decade his tuberculosis was causing concern. John and his family (including John Charles Olmsted) took one last trip to southern Europe to enjoy sunnier, warmer, winter weather. He never returned. With his wife and children nearby, he died in Nice, France, on November 24, 1857. FLO lost his best friend—”You, almost your only friend” his father wrote—and traveling companion.

(From Olmsted’s personal collection of photographs, The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, Boston, Mass.)

In Celebration of Frederick Law Olmsted

For this important anniversary year, we invited Olmsted family chronicler Joan Hockaday to write a series of essays. This is her first installment, with more to come:

 

Happy New Year to all Washington State University Press book readers, writers, and editors.

This year, park-maker, landscape architect and author Frederick Law Olmsted (FLO) turns 200! There are bicentennial events planned across the country on his birthday, April 26. Happy birthday, FLO!

On the 26th of each month throughout 2022, 200 years after his birth in Hartford, Connecticut, we will explore the family ties that helped FLO achieve one of the highest profile professional standings in America. His own father willingly helped finance each of FLO’s whims—and there were many—preceding his 1858 early career start with Central Park’s design.

FLO, along with his best friend and younger brother John Hull Olmsted, explored the English landscapes from Liverpool to London. Mostly traveling on foot to save money, the trip provided FLO with the visual inspiration for a lifetime of landscape design and park-making. He soon produced a book (pictured below)—his first—of those 1850 travels abroad.

Back in the States just before the Civil War, the pair explored the South on horseback together—despite his brother’s poor health and recent marriage to Staten Island neighbor, Mary Perkins. After John Hull Olmsted died of tuberculosis in 1857, FLO married his brother’s former bride and kept his promise to take care of their children, including John Charles Olmsted. It was a lifelong gift to honor his beloved brother.

Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (Rick) was born in 1870, just a decade before the Olmsted Boston office opened, and he joined his father FLO and brother John Charles (JCO) during the early years of their landscape architecture venture. After FLO and JCO (profiled in Greenscapes) died in the early 1900s, he helped carry on the Olmsted Brothers office with his own successful career. Indeed, family ties led to a thriving business, and then to the profession of landscape architecture in America in 1899 with the younger Olmsted, JCO, as its first president.

Without these young men helping father FLO, would his new profession and firm have flourished? This is one of the questions we’ll explore throughout 2022.

We look forward to seeing you for the next essay in the “Greenscapes/Earlyscapes” series.

—Joan Hockaday 

Watercolor painting of the south front of an English estate, Chatsworth, with Santa canoeing in the pool.
Happy New Year, FLO! Let us hope Santa Claus floating in Sir Joseph Paxton’s pool brings back your first impressions of the English countryside that inspired a lifetime of landscape interest to bring home to America. (1992 watercolor by Peter S. Hockaday)

 

Photo of book by Frederick Law Olmsted titled Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England
Frederick Law Olmsted’s first book. He wrote about his discoveries abroad while on a walking tour through the English countryside with his brother in 1850. Reprinted with new notes in 2002 by the University of Massachusetts Press, through the Library of American Landscape History interest.

 

Come and enjoy our 30th Annual HOLIDAY BOOK FAIR!

3 photos: a wrapped gift, a display of books, and snow on a branch with berries

DATES

December 8, 2021 from 11 am – 3 pm in the Terrell Library Atrium on the Pullman campus!

Festivities include steep discounts of 20-50% on all titles, drawings for free books, and complimentary refreshments.

Sale prices will also be valid for phone and online orders during the online Holiday Book Fair timeline, December 6 – 12, 2021, but you can start your browsing now!

SALE DETAILS

The fair highlights books published throughout the year. With every $45 purchase (pre-tax), choose one of these four books from our FREE book table! For qualifying online orders, the option to select one of the four free books will be available at checkout.

If you’re nearby, you can save on shipping. Stop at the Cooper Publications Building on the Pullman campus to pick up your order between 9AM and 4PM on Friday, December 10th, and Monday, December 13th, or request a convenient time. Just choose Pullman pickup when you check out, and indicate in the notes the day and time you expect to arrive.

As usual, shipping is free on orders above $50.

NEW TITLES

The fair features new titles on a variety of subjects, and all are 30% off! Psychiana Man is a biography of Moscow, Idaho’s mail order religious prophet, Coming Home to Nez Perce Country, traces the Nez Perce struggle to regain their exploited heritage.  Echoes of Exclusion and Resistance examines Manhattan Project-era racism in the Tri-Cities. Pull Hard! is a history of WSU’s rowing club. Outside Looking In explores political incivility in state legislatures, Teaching Native Pride looks at the Upward Bound program at the University of Idaho, Rocky’s Rail shares a Spokane railroader’s experiences, and Butch’s Game Day offers a celebration of Cougar game days for kids.

EBOOKS

We have added new titles to our selection of Ebooks, discounted and available for download!

Founded in 1928 and revitalized in the 1980s, WSU Press concentrates on telling unique, focused stories about the Northwest. For information about the book fair, contact WSU Press at 509-335-7880.

How an exploited Nez Perce collection finally came home

Photo of Nez Perce woman's dress

In 1847, missionary Henry Spalding shipped two barrels of “Indian curiosities” to his friend Dr. Dudley Allen in Kinsman, Ohio. Inside were exquisite Nez Perce shirts, dresses, baskets, horse regalia, and more—some decorated with porcupine quills and others with precious dentalium shells and rare elk teeth. Twenty-five years ago, after more than a century away, they returned to the Nez Perce. The extraordinary pieces are intimately connected to their home region, and their close proximity helps preserve cultural traditions. Homecoming commemoration events included a lecture series and a June 26, 2021 collection renaming celebration. The newest title from Washington State University (WSU) Press, Coming Home to Nez Perce Country: The Niimíipuu Campaign to Repatriate Their Exploited Heritage, draws on interviews with Nez Perce experts and extensive archival research to delve into the collection’s fascinating story. In addition, the book examines the ethics of acquiring, bartering, owning, and selling Native cultural history, and can serve as a case study for those seeking to restore their own ancestral heritage.

Donated to Oberlin College in 1893 and transferred to the Ohio Historical Society (OHS) in 1942, the Spalding-Allen Collection, now renamed wetxuuwíitin’ (“returned after period of captivity”) languished in storage until Nez Perce National Historic Park curators rediscovered it in 1976. The OHS loaned most of the artifacts to the National Park Service, where they received conservation treatment and were displayed in climate-controlled cases. Josiah Pinkham, Nez Perce cultural specialist, notes that they embody “the earliest and greatest centralization of ethnographic objects for the Nez Perce people. You don’t have a collection of this size, this age, anywhere else in the world.”

Twelve years later, the OHS abruptly recalled the collection, but after public pressure and extended negotiations, agreed to sell the articles to the Nez Perce at their full appraised value of $608,100. Given a scant six-month deadline, the tribe formed the Nez Perce Heritage Quest Alliance and mounted a brilliant grassroots fundraising campaign and sponsorship drive. Musicians created an MTV video. Schoolchildren, National Public Radio, and artists contributed.

Author Trevor James Bond participated in the commemoration as a Nez Perce National Historical Park Lecture Series panelist. He is co-director of the Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation and associate dean for digital initiatives and special collections at the WSU Libraries. He recently was named director of WSU’s Center for Arts and Humanities. He holds a Ph.D. in history.

Read an excerpt

True crime tale tells bizarre story of flamboyant false prophet

Psychiana leader Frank Robisnon on stage speaking before a large audience

Shortly after the 1929 stock market crash, a flamboyant false prophet and mass-marketing genius decided to reinvent himself. Utilizing $2,500 from investors, he printed 1,000 sets of Psychiana lessons (the first and only religion with a money-back guarantee), 10,000 sales letters, and placed a $400 ad in Psychology Magazine. Soon rural Moscow, Idaho, became home to one of the era’s most successful New Thought religions. Award-winning author Brandon R. Schrand’s newest book, published by Washington State University Press and titled, Psychiana Man: A Mail-Order Prophet, His Followers, and the Power of Belief in Hard Times, tells the story of Frank Bruce Robinson, his correspondence gospel promising health, wealth, and happiness to anyone who believed in the “God Power,” and his unwavering followers—from a desperate dust bowl farmer to a former heavyweight boxing champion. Despite their faith, he was not who he claimed to be. Officials investigated Robinson for mail fraud and immigration violations, eventually indicting him for falsifying information on his U.S. passport application. As Latah County’s largest private employer, his small-town trial packed the courtroom and made national headlines.

Schrand first learned about Robinson and Psychiana entirely by chance from a brief entry in a local history book. “The story was so bizarre and baffling that it seemed like bad fiction. But it wasn’t. It was all too real. The more I looked into it, the more fascinated I became,” he explains. To tell the story, Schrand drew from Robinson’s prolific writing, the Psychiana papers housed at the University of Idaho, Latah County Historical Society materials, and other primary sources. Surprisingly, in combing the archives—including more than a thousand pages of letters from and to Robinson’s students—he found no instances of anyone requesting a refund, and almost no negative feedback. Indeed, when Postal Inspector Stephen Howard Morse dispatched a form letter to Psychiana students asking for negative experiences, he received only praise and stalwart defenses of the religion and its leader.

Brandon R. Schrand is the author of The Enders Hotel: A Memoir, a 2008 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers summer selection, and Works Cited: An Alphabetical Odyssey of Mayhem and Misbehavior. His nonfiction has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Utne Reader, The Georgia Review, North American Review, and numerous other publications. A winner of the Pushcart Prize, he has also been a resident at Yaddo. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing, Nonfiction, from the University of Idaho, and an MS in American Studies from Utah State University.

Psychiana Man is paperback, 6″ x 9″, 414 pages, and lists for $24.95. It is available through bookstores nationwide, direct from WSU Press at 800-354-7360, or online at wsupress.wsu.edu. A nonprofit academic publisher associated with Washington State University in Pullman, Washington, WSU Press concentrates on telling unique, focused stories of the Northwest.

Read an excerpt

First-hand accounts highlight value of University of Idaho’s Upward Bound Program

Teaching Native Pride cover

Based on interviews with students and staff, Teaching Native Pride: Upward Bound and the Legacy of Isabel Bond by Tony Tekaroniake Evans, offers first-hand accounts by Native people and highlights how one person can make a difference. In it, Native and non-Native voices tell the story of the federally sponsored Upward Bound program at the University of Idaho, intertwining personal anecdotes and memories with accounts of the program’s inception and goals, as well as regional Native American history and Isabel Bond’s Idaho family history. Dedicated to helping low-income and at-risk students attend college, its unique curriculum celebrated that heritage, helping Native students break cycles of poverty, isolation, and disenfranchisement, and non-Indians gain a new respect for Idaho’s first peoples.

More

Thank you!

We thank you all for your support during this challenging year, and wish you wonderful holidays! We’ll be in the office through Wednesday this week, and then the university will be closed until Monday, January 4, 2021. We hope you can find extra time to read and enjoy being with friends and family!

Our 29th Annual Holiday Book Fair is going virtual!

Sign that reads WSU PRESS HOLIDAY BOOK FAIR

DATES

Now extended through December 13! Sale prices will be valid for phone and online orders throughout Holiday Book Fair timeline, December 1 – 13, 2020, but you can start your browsing now!

COUPON CODE

Use coupon code HBF2020 at checkout to receive 30% off on all titles in your order!

SALE DETAILS

The fair highlights books published throughout the year. With every $45 purchase (pre-tax), choose one free book from our FREE book selection. Simply fill out the form, or wait for us to send you an email.

If you’re nearby, you can save on shipping. Stop at the Cooper Publications Building on the Pullman campus to pick up your order between 9AM and 4PM on Thursday, December 10th, Monday, December 14th, Thursday, and December 17th, or request a convenient time. Just choose Pullman pickup when you check out, and indicate in the notes the day and time you expect to arrive.

As usual, shipping is free on orders above $50.

NEW TITLES

The fair features new titles on a variety of subjects—a natural and environmental history of Mount Rainier, how Ezra Meeker saved the Oregon Trail, how explorers and fur traders influenced Lewis and Clark, legacies the Manhattan Project left behind, Idaho’s World War II Japanese incarceration, the marketing behind early 19oos West Coast fairs, and Butch T. Cougar’s superhero ways.

EBOOKS

Also new this year is a selection of Ebooks, 30% off and available for download!

Founded in 1928 and revitalized in the 1980s, WSU Press concentrates on telling unique, focused stories about the Northwest. For information about the book fair, contact WSU Press at 509-335-7880.

To Honor Our Heroes

photo of Doc Wright sitting at a desk n his office, circa 1906

To honor our health care professionals and other essential frontline workers during this trying time, we are posting a chapter from Rugged Mercy, about a western frontier doctor who exemplified rugged courage and devoted compassion, and who—like our modern heroes—risked his own life on multiple occasions. We hope you enjoy reading.

The photo above, taken in the early 1900s, shows Dr. Wright in his office.

More

WSU Press is Open and Accepting Orders

Front door of WSU's Cooper Publicatons Building

Thank you for your business. We deeply appreciate our customers! First and foremost, we hope you are all staying well during these difficult circumstances. Our warehouse is right across the hall from our offices, so although our front office is closed and we have mostly transitioned to working remotely, we are still processing and shipping orders twice a week as we normally do.

We also appreciate your support of the local independent bookstores who are so important to our success. If your store doesn’t have an online option, you can check out bookshop.org, a new online bookstore with a mission to financially support independent bookstores and give back to the book community. Affiliate bookstores earn 25% direct commission for any sales they generate on the site. For non-affiliate bookstore sales, 10% goes to an overall earnings pool that is evenly divided and distributed to stores every six months.

Thanks again and keep on reading!