Cultivating Their Place in History


The Story of Ruth and Charles Larabee,
Founders of San Diego Botanic Garden

First published in April 2011 To Educate and Inspire
Those Who Visit This Garden

First published in April 2011
To Educate and Inspire Those Who Visit This Garden

Condensed from the original narrative and research
by Sally Sandler, SDBG Docent.
All sources are cited in the document collection in the SDBG offices.

Download the Larabee’s complete story and additional photos (PDF File)
Download the Larabee image portfolio
(PDF FILE - 113 MB)

Ruth and Charles Larabee, founders of San Diego Botanic Garden, were both born in the Midwest and became heirs to considerable family fortunes. Ruth Robertson Baird was born in 1904, the daughter of a successful bank owner in Kansas City, Missouri, whose holdings included several thousand acres of farmland in the south plains of Texas. She was well educated, graduating with a major in Latin from Vassar College in 1926.

Charles Wright Larabee was born in 1901 in Stafford, Kansas, where his father and uncle established a prosperous bank and developed Larabee Flour Mills, which eventually became the base of their extensive fortunes. At his death, Charles’s father, Frederick, was referred to as a “millionaire mill owner.”

Ruth and Charles grew up within a block of each other in Kansas City, Missouri, and they married in June 1926, just days after her graduation from Vassar. Ruth was a public school teacher, while Charles was co-owner of a nursery in Kansas City. During the late 1930s and mid-40s, shortly after he inherited a fortune of his own, Charles gave lectures on gardening topics and traveled extensively throughout the Southwest, capturing stunning black and white photographs of scenery, cowboys, ranchers, rodeos, and indigenous people.

In 1942/43, Ruth Larabee purchased 26.5 acres of ranch land in Encinitas, California and together they made their home in the modest dwelling we now know as the Larabee House. Since neither of the Larabees was gainfully employed during residence here, there was ample time to travel, acquire plants, and establish gardens on the property. They did not have children of their own, but generously sponsored young students involved in scouting, treating them to camping adventures and river trips to share their love for the outdoors.

After only six years on the ranch, Charles moved to the marina on Balboa Island in Newport Beach, California, and in 1950 he and Ruth were divorced. By then, Charles was widely known for his photography, had become an expert lecturer on the Old West, and guided boating expeditions on the Green and Colorado Rivers. Ruth stayed on the ranch for another six years, cultivating the gardens and nurturing its wildlife resources. She was particularly fond of the quail and collaborated with fish and game officials to enhance their survival.

In 1957, Ruth donated her 26.5 acres in Encinitas to the County of San Diego to be preserved as a public park. She told friends that she considered attending nursing school in Mexico to help the poor. While there are no records to validate this, her will and trust make several references to specific people in nursing school in Puebla, Mexico. Later, she lived in Lubbock, Texas, and returned to Kansas City, Kansas in 1966.

In December 1969, Ruth Larabee died in a tragic hotel fire in England. She was returned to the United States and buried in the Baird family plot in Kansas City, Missouri. While her history between 1957 and 1969 is vague, much can be learned about Ruth’s friends, her generous nature and philanthropic interests from the will and trust she left behind. She inherited thousands of acres of farmland in Texas, most of which she entrusted to Texas Tech University; she also named 70 beneficiaries, people who had been her friends and loved ones, from all over the country and around the world; she bequeathed $10,000 to the San Diego Camp Fire Girls organization and she directed money to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to establish scholarships for African American women.

Charles was eventually remarried to Lila Pihlblad Hopkins and inherited two stepchildren who reside in southern California. He was a lifetime member of the Encinitas Rotary Club and sponsored underprivileged local students through college. In addition, Charles and Lila pursued numerous other philanthropic interests of their own.

In 1954, they moved to Palm Desert, California, where Charles managed the Larabee Family Trust until February 1968 when he died from lung cancer. His name can be seen today on a crypt in the Larabee family mausoleum in Stafford, Kansas. In reality, his stepchildren took his ashes from the crypt, and together with those of their mother Lila, who passed away in 1988, they delivered them to the desert sky and sand from the top of Shadow Mountain.
Ruth Larabee’s determination to preserve the ranch as a public park was an act of true generosity and vision. And through his photography and philanthropic endeavors, Charles Larabee demonstrated a love for the Southwestern United States, documenting and preserving it for those who followed. Together they were generous benefactors, passionate about the outdoors and dedicated to sharing their discoveries with others, particularly the younger generations.