by Gregg R. Hennessey
George White Marston and Anna Gunn Marston came from surprisingly close and similar backgrounds. Though they met and married in frontier San Diego, their roots and shaping forces were deeply imbedded in the soil of New England. The strict religion and ardent reform traditions of their ancestors, which were softened by western experience, took strong hold in these two people, greatly affecting their lives and in turn the impact they had on their family and on their town. Together they grew and prospered with San Diego and for over seven decades influenced its development from a town into a city.
Born in 1850 in the hamlet of Ft. Atkinson, Wisconsin, George Marston spent his first twenty years absorbing an important blend of different yet reinforcing influences. The village, settled in 1837 by New England Protestants, was a safe and comfortable environment for a boy, one that offered little to challenge the accepted values of its founders and did much to reinforce them. Marston’s parents, distant cousins, were both born and raised in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and brought the region’s cultural and religious beliefs with them as they moved west. His mother Harriet’s strict Congregationalism, to which he closely adhered most of his life, was given balance by his father George’s more relaxed Unitarianism. During these years, Marston also developed an abiding love of nature playing out a Tom Sawyer-like boyhood on the local streams and in the surrounding fields. Before moving west, Marston spent two years at Beloit Academy and one year at the University of Michigan, experiencing the joy of learning and the excitement of a larger world.1
In 1870 Marston came to San Diego with his father who was seeking a more healthful climate for his chronic respiratory ailments. He was immediately hired as a clerk in the new Horton House hotel where he was exposed to an eclectic assortment of people unlike any in Wisconsin. He later described his first San Diego job as a great adventure. Six months later, following his father’s wish that he enter the mercantile life, young Marston became the book keeper and clerk at Aaron Pauly’s general store on the wharf at the end of Fifth Avenue. “I learned more in my year there than in any other year of my life,” he recalled many years later.2 By mid-1872 Marston had moved on to Joseph Nash’s general store, where his new friend Charles Hamilton worked. After a year they bought out Nash, with borrowed money, and ran the business profitably for the next five years. During this period Marston began his involvement in numerous civic activities, along with Hamilton, including the Benevolent Association, the Free Reading Room Association, the volunteer fire department, the Chamber of Commerce, and the city council. Years later Marston referred to the two of them as the “young ‘reformers’ of the seventies.” This was a indication of his larger role in the development of San Diego. In 1878, Hamilton and Marston dissolved their partnership with Charles taking the hardware and grocery business, while George took over the dry goods.3
Anna Lee Gunn’s family, like Marston’s, had its roots in New England, as well as New York and Philadelphia. Her father Lewis, born in New York City, was a teacher, printer, and anti-slavery activist in Philadelphia. Her mother, Elizabeth Le Breton Stickney, was a Quaker from the same Newburyport as George Marston’s parents. In 1849, after ten years of marriage, Lewis Gunn responded to the clarion call of gold in California and was subsequently followed by his family two years later in an arduous trip around Cape Horn. Anna was born in 1853 in Sonoma, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Though she described the countryside as lawless and violent during the 1850s, Anna remembered an “orderly and happy” world created by her parents for the children, which “gave us a very normal childhood.” They played in surrounding hills and streams taking donkey rides, flying kites, and keeping pet goats with names from Greek mythology.4 The family moved to San Francisco in 1861 and remained there until Anna’s older brothers Douglas and Chester came to San Diego in 1869. The rest of the family soon followed, but she stayed to teach school. In the early summer of 1875 Anna Lee Gunn came to San Diego to live.5
San Diego, she discovered, was “scarcely more than a village.” The social life was mostly informal and friendly, punctuated occasionally by public receptions for visiting dignitaries. People would periodically come together in the evenings for reading, music, dancing, and entertainments. It was at one such entertainment soon after her arrival, “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” she recalled, “that George Marston and I began our intimate acquaintance.” He, of course, was John Alden to her Priscilla. Their own courtship led to an engagement in April 1876 and marriage in May 1878.6
In the 1870s San Diego was a town of great expectations, like so many others in the West. Two railroad generated booms, 1870 and 1872-73, produced short periods of economic excitement, but the decade was generally one of slow growth. Marston had ended his partnership with Charles Hamilton a few weeks before he married Anna and, with help from his Uncle Stephen in Massachusetts, later opened his own store. He recalled that there were “eight competitors in our very small town and it took courage to open at all.” At the end of the first year Marston’s store was in the red. After that he moved his business to a better location on Fifth between G and H streets.7 The following years proved more profitable for both the Marstons and the town.
The Marstons led their lives together in the traditional and accepted Victorian manner of separate spheres for husband and wife. Husbands, in this scheme of things, went out into the world and worked for a living while wives raised a family and maintained the home as a place of virtue and as a refuge from an unpleasant world. During the 1880s George worked hard to establish his business while Anna cared for a growing family. Mary Gilman, their first child, was born in 1879 and was followed by Arthur Hamilton in 1881. Besides the retail business, Marston searched around for other profitable ventures during slack times, trying banking and giving consideration to farming. Sticking with dry goods, he eventually prospered, moving his store twice to bigger and better locations during the eighties. Marston made frequent buying trips to San Francisco, Chicago, and New York, which left Anna to cope with a multiplying family — Elizabeth was born in 1884, Harriet in 1889, and Helen in 1892 — and growing domestic and social responsibilities. The great boom of the late eighties, which swept over all of southern California, added to their financial well being through increased business activity and profitable land speculations. Both parents entered more fully into the town’s public life as well, with George expanding on his earlier activities and helping to establish the first YMCA, the library, and, with Anna, the Congregational Church. 8
During the 1890s San Diego grew in a modest but steady fashion. George and Anna, living in their own home at Third and Ash streets, prospered with their town and became part of the community leadership. By the turn of the century, The Marston Store was located in a large new four-story building at Fifth and C with an electric elevator and a hundred employees. With a very secure financial position, Marston entered more directly and actively into the public affairs of the town. Responding to deeply seated impulses born of his upbringing and his own personal beliefs, Marston became the leading reformer and moralist in San Diego.9
In the early years of the new century, as he became a more prosperous and public figure, Marston determined to have a new home, one that would perhaps reflect his enhanced position in the growing community. He choose a ten acre site along the barren northwest corner of City Park (now Balboa Park), an area to which many other prominent community figures were moving. William Hebbard and Irving Gill, San Diego’s most prestigious architects, designed a large, elegant Craftsman style house on four acres overlooking the park and its winding central canyon. Roads were built while the grounds were graded, planted, and landscaped to soften the stark surroundings.10
This house, built during the height of the Arts and Crafts movement in California, reflected the conservative nature of both the movement and the owner. Featuring a simplicity of design both inside and out, Craftsman houses focused on the contemporary values of hearth and home as a criticism of the shattering impact of industrialism on urban families. While the movement’s condemnation was a telling one and lined up well with other Progressive era critiques, many of its prominent architects served mostly well-to-do clients and did little to seriously help the urban poor.11 For Marston the house exemplified his public demeanor of simplicity and propriety as much as his well-to-do status in the community. As he pursued his public life, Marston always sought to avoid conflict and controversy and preferred to achieve his goals working on his own or with small groups of his peers. Moving in his own way, he established a great many public benefactions for San Diego and southern California. While he didn’t address all of the most pressing human needs of his time, he helped many people and created a legacy of public parks that later generations view as his great contribution to the quality of the whole community’s life.
The new house on Seventh Avenue became the hub of an extended family life and the nearly constant public activities of George Marston. He believed that well planned, beautiful, and healthful surroundings made people’s lives better and more productive. In pursuit of his beliefs, he tirelessly sponsored city planning, park development, education, political reform, church work, and welfare and relief work. In a less public way, Anna pursued her own work serving as president of the Congregational Women’s Missionary Society of southern California, as a founder and board member of the San Diego Children’s Home, and as a Wednesday Club member. In addition, she managed an increasingly complex and complicated home that supported, and indeed made possible, her husband’s expanding public life. The Marston homes, particularly Seventh Avenue, saw a constant stream of guests. George and Anna’s daughter Harriet recently recalled that her mother could be very social, was a gracious hostess, and that visitors ranging from ministers to former President Theodore Roosevelt to African-American leader Booker T. Washington filled the dinner table nearly every Sunday afternoon.12
Besides a public life, the Marston homes also had their private side. Elizabeth Marston Bade recalled that “Life moved along serenely” at the Ash Street house in the 1890s. Both parents were strict about Sunday church observances, yet “Our Puritan upbringing [was] enlivened by my father’s sense of humor.13 Anna had a more serious and sober personality than her husband. She was more actively involved in raising the children than George and ran her home with strength and determination. In this sphere she was a meticulous person carefully controlling the domestic staff, keeping precise records, and imbuing her home with a dignified, even austere quality. Yet her family remembrances of her were also of a woman with a mirthful laugh, who was a good mimic, loved music, and read aloud to them as children. She took a keen interest in gardening, created beautiful knitting and tatting, retained her adolescent fluency in French, and compiled an important book of recollections about her family’s life during the gold rush.14 George was a strong and vigorous man who loved the outdoors and sports all his life, from baseball in his twenties to climbing mountains in his sixties and playing golf in his eighties. Belying his formal public image, at home he was often the life of parties doing parlor tricks, slight-of-hand, and impersonations, the zenith of which, according to his daughter Mary, was his 1932 Christmas Eve rendition-in costume-of “The Dance of Salome.” He also loved to sing and would render sentimental Scottish favorites with little prompting.15
During four decades at the Seventh Avenue home George Marston became the most prominent and remembered San Diegan of his era. His most renowned legacy was his work to build and preserve public parks and open spaces. From his earliest days in San Diego he played a key role in saving Balboa Park from developers and later contributed tens of thousands of dollars and innumerable hours to improve it for public use. Marston also privately developed, at a cost of $400,000, the forty acre Presidio Park and its Junipero Serra Museum. The museum also served as the first home of the San Diego History Center, which Marston created to help preserve the region’s history. In 1929 he donated the park and museum to the city as a gift for its citizens. During this same busy period, George Marston also led the effort to create a series of parks in San Diego county to become part of the newly forming state park system. Financing and leading the local State-County Parks and Beaches Association, Marston and the group succeeded in setting aside nearly 500,000 acres of open spaces for state parks from the coast to the desert. In line with his confidence that parks improved the urban environment, Marston also led the effort for rational city planning in San Diego beginning in 1907. Over nearly three decades he sponsored two plans by the preeminent John Nolen that ultimately guided the city’s expansion into the post-World War II era.16
As a reformer, Marston was active in the politics of his day. He was, as he called himself, an independent in political matters. Raised a Republican, he never hesitated to vote for the person or party that seemed most likely to push for reform, and ended his days a strong supporter of the New Deal Democrats. In the early twentieth century Marston was a leader in California’s Progressive Party and helped to establish the party locally. In 1913 and 1917 he ran unsuccessfully for mayor but made concerns for the environment and rational development a legitimate part of the local political dialogue.17 Marston’s reform drive led him into non-political projects as well. For sixty plus years he was a leading light in the local YMCA serving on the Board of Directors and raising money for buildings in the city and camps in the mountains. He helped lead local efforts to provide earthquake relief for San Francisco in 1906 and Santa Barbara in 1925. In 1916 Marston headed the relief work for victims of San Diego’s devastating floods. The Mexican Revolution in 1915 and World War I also drew him into local and state-wide relief work.18 In a similar vein, Marston generously supported the missionary work of the Congregational Church overseas, especially in the fields of education and health. At home, he was a long-time benefactor of the Benevolent Association, Community Chest, Red Cross, and Braille Club among others. His keen interest in education found its highest expression in his major involvement with the founding and developing of the prestigious Pomona College in Claremont, California.19
George Marston’s distinctive blend of reform mindedness, concern for the environment, and Christian charity produced an uncommon man at a propitious time in San Diego’s history. He grew with the town from its early days influencing, as much as anyone, the type of city San Diego became. As a merchant, reformer, and churchman he established standards of public conduct and propriety that called for the best from individuals and from the community. In the role of father and husband, he and Anna Lee Marston exemplified the traditions of their day and in their public and private lives gave support and meaning to the best values of their heritage. Together they helped build an important community, elevate its principles, and provide models that in many ways have important things to say to us today.
Anna Gunn Marston with three of her grandchildren, Doonie, Annalee and Hamilton, the children of Arthur Marston.
The Marston children and all of their first cousins are seen in the photograph taken about 1910. Front row left to right: Richard Kew, Elizabeth Marston, Harriet Marston, Marston Burnham, Helen Marston; second row: Arthur Marston, Margaret Kew, Theda Burnham, William Kew, Lilla Burnham, Mary Marston, Katherine Burnham.
Marston’s department store on the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and C Street, ca. 1911.
George Marston invited his employees to a picnic at his home on August 27, 1921.
Ed Fletcher was the driver when George Marston and John Nolen visited Pine Hills in 1907.
1. Mary Gilman Marston, comp., George White Marston: A Family Chronicle, 1 (Los Angeles, 1956), 66-67, 88-92, 110-49.
2. Marston, Family Chronicle, 1:171-75; San Diego Union, 21 January 1938, n. p., quoting. In October of 1871 George’s mother and sister Lilla arrived in San Diego, followed in 1872 by his other sister Mary.
3. Marston, Family Chronicle, 1:174-75.
4. Anna Lee Marston, ed., Records of a California Family: Journals and Letters of Lewis C. Gunn and Elizabeth Le Breton Gunn (San Diego, 1928), 3-10, 245-52, quoting 251.
5. Ibid., 259-60, 265-66, 269-70.
6. Ibid., 270-71, quoting; Marston, Family Chronicle, 1:190-92, 205-06.
7. William E. Smythe, History of San Diego, 1542-1907, (San Diego, 1907), 338-40, 345-61, 366-75; Union, 21 January 1938, n. p., quoting.
8. Marston, Family Chronicle, 1:226-49.
9. For an intrepretation of Marston’s reform activities see Gregg R. Hennessey, “George White Marston and Conservative Reform in San Diego,”Journal of San Diego History, 32 (Fall 1986), 230-50.
10. Marston, Family Chronicle, 22:222-23.
11. Richard Guy Wilson, “American Arts and Crafts Architecture: Radical though Dedicated to the Cause Conservative,” in Wendy Kaplan, “The Art that is Life”: The Arts & Crafts Movement in America, 1875-1920 (Boston, 1987), 103-05. Irving Gill was one of the few architects, Wilson says, “[that] embraced modern technology as an opportunity to create cheap and economical housing.” Ibid., 103-04.
12. Interview with Harriet M. Headley and Margaret Headley, San Diego, CA, 16 May 1990.
13. Elizabeth Le B. Bade, “Recollections of Elizabeth Le B. Bade,” in Marston, Family Chronicle, 2:169.
14. Headley interview; interview with Doonie and Gordon Pettit, Julian, CA, 7 April 1990.
15. Marston, Family Chronicle, 1:171-75, 2:170-80, 252, 54-55, 57; Headley interview; Pettit interview.
16. Hennessey, “George White Marston and Conservative Reform,” 242-50; Gregg R. Hennessey, “George White Marston and the Creation of Anza-Borrego Desert State
Park,” paper presented at the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association’s lec ture series, Borrego Springs, CA, 22 April 1988.
17. Hennessey, “George White Marston and Conservative Reform,” 241-42.
18. Raymond Starr, “The Beginnings of Philanthropy in San Diego, 1900-1929,” Southern California Quarterly, 71 (Summer/Fall 1989), 250-57; Marston, Family Chronicle, 1:311-25.
19. Marston, Family Chronicle, 1:291-303, 332-51. Irving John Gill (1870-1936)