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Mildred L. Macpherson (1918-1973)
Founder, Designer and Educator



Mildred L. Macpherson dedicated herself to landscape architecture and was a close friend of Ruth Baird Larabee. Born in San Diego in 1918, she attended San Diego State University and later became a certified landscape architect. She and her husband James H. Macpherson (1905- 1949) lived near Vulcan Avenue in Encinitas, less than a mile west of the Larabee ranch, and operated the Williams-Macpherson Nursery where today’s Lumberyard Shopping Center stands on Coast Highway. In the 1950s, Ruth Larabee was a frequent customer at their nursery and stocked her garden with many of their new and unusual plants.

After Ruth Larabee left her property to the County, Macpherson was a member of the original Quail Gardens Foundation, (now Quail Gardens Foundation, Inc.,) and she served as Chairman of the Foundation’s Landscape Committee during the formative years of the 1960s. She worked tirelessly with County staff as the Foundation’s representative in planning garden restorations and future projects.

A moving testimonial was paid to Mildred Macpherson at the spring, 1979 Arbor Day Dedication at Quail Park Botanic Gardens. These words were read by Foundation President Florence Seibert:

“It seems like yesterday but in reality it was eighteen years ago that Mildred and I walked these acres together speculating on the development of the Gardens. This was before any plans had been made. We knew we wanted no geometric flower beds, no floral clocks or marble statuary. We wanted a rustic garden in keeping with the wishes of Mrs. Ruth Baird Larabee who gave the property to the County for a park and bird sanctuary.

Mildred visualized a garden where artists would paint; where camera buffs would take floral pictures; where busloads of school children could come for nature studies; where bird watchers could enjoy the song birds as they migrated through this area; and where the weary or sorrowful could find peace and healing of their grief in our tranquil setting.

Mildred’s plan was to feature plants native to Africa, New Zealand and Australia and to that end she developed areas in which such plant material could be displayed.

Mildred was an optimist and a far-seeing planner. The Gardens bear testimony of her ability as a designer and her dedication to the ideals which motivated the members of the Foundation from its inception.

She was vivacious and charming with a wide smile and sparkling eyes. She made one feel instant friendliness and sincere admiration. She was very generous giving us many gift plants. When Highway 5 destroyed her home ranch, she transferred many rare and tropical fruit trees and other plants to the Gardens.

In those early days she often said, ‘What this garden needs is a nice stream of running water. Wouldn’t it be great if we could have a waterfall coming over the top of that cliff and falling in a brook to end in a pool in the Palm Canyon?’”

Mildred Macpherson didn’t forget that dream. When she died in 1973, she had left a bequest to install a dramatic waterfall (later named in her honor) at the head of the canyon that is now the Tropical Rain Forest. The installation of the Mildred Macpherson Waterfall at Quail Park Botanic Gardens was a major project for the late 1970s. After extensive planning between the County and the Foundation, the spectacular project was dedicated on March 11, 1979. Designed and built by Torzeski Studios, the complex installation required a crane to set huge boulders in place in a naturalistic fashion. Gardener Gil Voss acquired plants from a wide variety of nursery sources and was in charge of landscaping.

Outside the world of plants, Macpherson was committed to education. Though childless herself and a widow at age 41, she was a distinguished educator beloved by hundreds of school-age children. She was a teacher and principal at Central School in Encinitas (now Paul Ecke Central School,) became the first Dean of Girls at San Dieguito High School, and was the first president of the County Board of Education in California. As the first woman in the state to be elected to any county board of education, Macpherson served continually for twenty-four years, and her leadership helped San Diego County during a period of great growth between 1949 and 1973.

One of Macpherson’s best friends was Magdalena Ecke, wife of Paul Ecke, a famous poinsettia grower. Macpherson taught their son Paul, Jr., for eight years. According to Maura Wiegand, Ph.D., author of San Dieguito Heritage, (1993), “Paul recalls . . . Mildred and Jim came over [to the Ecke’s] frequently on weekends and played the role of aunt and uncle to the Ecke children . . . and Magdalena Ecke and Mildred met in a monthly book club and enjoyed traveling together.”

Also in her will, Macpherson donated her land on Vulcan Avenue between I and J Streets to the residents of Encinitas, and the acreage was named the Mildred Macpherson Community Park in honor of her lifetime of dedication, generosity and perseverance.

Banner Photo: Rachel Cobb