January 22: The U S National Park Service’s Founding Champion and First Director

 

Although born in San Francisco and educated at the University of California at Berkeley, Stephen Tyng Mather always considered the 1778 Mather homestead in Darien his home. Built by his great grandfather Deacon Joseph Mather during the American Revolution, Stephen spent summers there as a boy, inherited the house and 22 acres from his father in 1907, and was buried on the grounds following his death, which occurred today in 1932.

Mather’s Connecticut roots gave him an appreciation for the nation’s origins and history and his western upbringing instilled a strong interest in the country’s extraordinary natural landscapes. So, after achieving successes – first as a journalist-turned-marketing-executive and later as an industrialist – Mather deployed both interests and professional skills toward putting the country’s historic and natural treasures on a solid footing. He  helped lobby for the  establishment of  the United States National Park Service and served as its first director.

Mather’s “20 Mule Team Borax” concept turned his company’s commodity chemical cleaning agent into a popular national brand.

Mather’s formidable marketing reputation came while working in New York as sales manager for the Pacific Borax Company. Borax, which the company mined in Death Valley, California, was a chemical salt and generic commodity used in laundry and household cleaning. To set his company’s product apart from competitors, Mather conceived of and marketed  “Twenty Mule Team Borax” as a distinctive brand, which proved extraordinarily successful. On the strength of that achievement, Mather and a friend established their own borax company, through which they quickly became millionaires.

Young and wealthy, Mather was now able to focus attention on his personal interests. An early conservationist and frequent visitor to American parklands, he had joined the Sierra Club in 1904, and was a firm advocate for the conservationist principles of club founder John Muir. Mather was attracted to nature in part because he found it helpful in  moderating the debilitating bouts of chronic depression from which he privately suffered, while presenting to the world as ever-charming, friendly and garrulous.  The wilderness was a  sanctuary to Mather, and by 1914 he had become  appalled at the terrible conditions  found in many of the country’s  early parklands. He was convinced they simply could not be managed properly by the US Army, the agency then charged with their oversight.  So the tall, handsome former sales manager embarked on a personal mission to save the national parks.

The “Mather Mountain Party” – one of the great all time lobbying efforts – gave Mather a platform in which to make the case for the national park’s importance to a captive – and captivated – group of the country’s most important influencers.

After leveraging connections to secure a position as assistant secretary to the US Department of the Interior, he used that  post to  lobby tirelessly for the parks’ distinctive importance. In addition to pacing the corridors of power in Washington D. C., Mather traveled over 30,000 miles in one year promoting the importance of the national parks. This included one of the country’s most unique and impressive lobbying campaigns – an expedition which attracted 19 politicians, the editor of National Geographic, business leaders, naturalists, and other notable influencers on a climbing and hiking expedition the press promptly dubbed “The Mather Mountain Party.”  By car, foot and horseback, the expedition toured Yosemite and Sequoia national parks, where Mather won  converts by personally paying for expensive dinners he had catered on the trail, joking enthusiastically about how a waterfall could be a “free shower” (while giving demonstrations of the same), and, more seriously, pointing out how the trails could benefit from increased stewardship, funding and protection.

“If he was out to make a convert,” one participant said of Mather, “the subject never knew what hit him.”

Mather’s efforts helped win victory for the 1916 legislation creating the National Park Service to which Mather was appointed the first director. Working closely with his assistant Horace Albright, Mather proved a natural at publicizing the benefits of America’s national parks, creating a structured professional organization (including inventing the distinctive Park “Ranger”) to administer them, and building public appreciation for preserving and protecting the nation’s natural beauty and history.

Mather served as NPS director until 1929, when a stroke forced him to resign. He died on January 22, 1930 and is memorialized in places across the United States. The Mather family homestead in Darien is a National Historic Landmark.

 

Two Views of the Mather HoMestead in Darien

 

Further Reading

Stephen T. Mather, “Progress in the Development of the National Parks,Internet Archive 

Stephen T. Mather Memorial Plaque, Acadia National Park ,” National Park Service

The Triumph of Manic Mather,” Psychology Today 

Larry A. Neilsen, “Stephen Mather, Director of the National Park Service, Born (1867)Today In Conservation

The Mather Homestead“, Mather Homestead.org