By Brandon Marrow
On April 24, 1930 the president of Reed College, Dr. Norman F. Coleman, shoveled dirt onto the first oak sapling planted in the new Shakespeare island garden in the middle of Crystal Springs Lake. Present at this planting were the superintendent of parks, C.P. Keyser, the landscape architect designing the park, Florence Holmes Gerke, and the president of the LaBarre Shakespeare Club (the club which conceived of the garden), Mrs. D. L. Rich.
The land to which the Parks Bureau granted the LaBarre Shakespeare Club is called “Crystal Springs Island,” a land mass which is actually a peninsula acquired by the Park Bureau in 1923 as part of the Eastmoreland Park Land which includes the Eastmoreland Golf Course.
From the late 30s through the 40s, community preoccupation with the economic depression and the war effort saw the garden on the island slip into neglect allowing Reed students to treat the overgrown, untended land as a private spot for keg parties and romance. Though the Park Bureau donated the Island for the purposes of the Shakespeare Garden in 1930, the success of the garden and the fulfillment of Gerke’s architectural plan depended on community labor and financial gifts which were not forthcoming given the pressures of war. Plus the LaBarre club compounded the neglect in 1945, when it decided to reestablish the Shakespeare Garden in the International Rose Garden in Washington Park, where it remains today.
It was in this context of community neglect and private student use of the island that the American Rhododendron Society fenced off Shakespeare in September of 1950. Reed students protested their loss of access to this private space by marching down to the island in Elizabethan attire and crying “Good friend for Jesus’ sake forebeare….”
Bradford Henderson, then editor of the Quest, (Reed’s newspaper) articulated what was perhaps the central question in this student protest when he queried: “What right has the city council to fence the public off from public parks?” This question sparked a debate about the use of park land between Reed students and the city, the public, and the American Rhododendron Society (A.R.S.).
Coverage of this debate in the Oregonian and the Oregon Daily Journal also led to a discussion about college publicity among Reed students themselves. In bitter protest, they [Reed students] questioned whether the parties vying against them had the ecological and communal benefit of the island at heart.
One of the main motifs of the protest was expressed in a Quest article which contended that Shakespeare Island was “Nothing less than a Walden for the Reed community” and a “…scene of high communion between man and nature.” By fencing off the island, the article contends that the city and the Portland public merely wanted to “…frustrate the enthusiasms of the [Reed] community.”
In the Oregonian’s piece on the protests, the paper notified the public that: “Those Reed college cutups, who like nothing better than twining vine leaves in their crew cuts and staging mass demonstrations about something or other, were at it again Wednesday to the surprise of practically nobody on Eastmoreland golf course.”
In an attempt to debunk Reed students’ nostalgia for the Shakespeare memorial, the Journal contended that the original “Shakespeare Island never fully bloomed.”
In the debate surrounding the fencing off of what was known to Reed students at the time as Shakespeare Island, Reed students, the city, the Portland public, and the American Rhododendron Society justified their claims to the island with arguments about community and ecology.
Ultimately, the city and the public favored the Rhododendron Society, a group committed to community education, as the most capable of rallying community support for the island and bringing the park land out of its wild, inaccessible state.
Justifying their decision on the grounds of communal and ecological benefit, the Rhododendron Society soon established a test garden on the wild remains of Reed students’ memorial to Avon’s Bard.
Ironically, after the garden’s establishment, many of the associations Reed students had originally developed with the island were incorporated into public views of the island. Thus, what had originally been a space driven by the Reed community became a space frequented and supported by the greater Portland community.