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William McMillan – Superintendent of Parks

I didn’t often travel that way. As I turned off the westbound Scajaquada Expressway at the Delaware Avenue South exit several years ago, I was surprised to glimpse amid unkempt shrubs what at first appeared to be a large pile of rocks. Then I realized that it had a more definite form, and I was just able to discern the name “McMillan” inscribed in large letters on the topmost stone before I was past and headed out onto Delaware Avenue. It took some time to place the name, but then I recalled I had encountered it while conducting some research on Cazenovia Park’s early history. The name was that of an early Buffalo Park Superintendent which appeared in several items of Olmsted’s Buffalo correspondence. I suspected that what I’d mistaken for a pile of rocks might be the remnant of a monument, perhaps the pedestal for now missing statue? Searching for answers, I delved deeper into the history of Buffalo’s parks; in the process, I learned a great deal about the man who had done so very much to shape them: William McMillan, Superintendent of Parks for Buffalo.

McMillan Fountain - Olmsted In Buffalo
McMillan Fountain, Delaware Park

Born in Nairn, Scotland, on December 19, 1831, William McMillan was the eldest of several children in a farming family. He was educated by the tutoring of the parochial schoolmaster whenever farm duties would permit, supplemented by intense home studies. As a young man, he was appointed (about 1855) as clerk of the works with an English firm erecting a bridge over the Ness at Inverness. The position gave him a foundation in the principles of civil engineering. The firm was impressed with young McMillan’s work, and offered him a position in England. He had decided to emigrate to America, however, and left his native Scotland in 1859, settling at first in New Jersey, near Orange. The following year he married Jane McNair, also a native of Scotland. They were to have two daughters, Annie and Jennie. Two sons, born while the family lived in Flushing, died in infancy.

Upon arrival in the United States McMillan found employment in New York city and its vicinity, learning horticulture and landscape gardening from his uncle, James McMillan, a recognized authority in the field. He, too, soon acquired a reputation as a naturalist, horticulturist and landscape architect. In 1860, he was employed in Orange, New Jersey, as the gardener for Dr. Lowell Mason, the wealthy and noted composer of church music including the hymn “Nearer My God To Thee”. When construction began on Brooklyn’s vast Prospect Park, George D. McMillan, William’s brother, also a horticulturist, found employment there, bringing him to the attention of Frederick Law Olmsted. William McMillan apparently was employed on the project as well. By 1869, McMillan had been engaged by William Proctor Douglas to act as landscape architect for his estate, “Douglas Manor” in Bayside, New York. According to McMillan’s daughter, his responsibilities were “to superintend the Estate, improve driveways, and lay out plantings and trees and ornamental shrubs.” He also operated a nursery farm simultaneously with his work for Mr. Douglas. By 1870, “Douglas Farm”, the nursery William McMillan operated in Bayside, supplied Prospect Park and several of Olmsted’s other projects (including Chicago’s South Park) with shrubs. Olmsted was sufficiently impressed with the McMillan brothers that when Buffalo’s first Board of Park Commissioners sought his advice concerning the appointment of a superintendent of planting for the newly designed Buffalo park system, he recommended George D. McMillan for the post. Unfortunately, in November of 1868 George McMillan died of a sudden illness, before he could accept the position. Olmsted then recommended William McMillan for the Buffalo position.

The Buffalo Board of Park Commissioners followed Olmsted’s recommendations, and in June, 1870, offered the position of Director of Planting to William McMillan, effective the first of September. McMillan at first worked under the general direction of Mr. George Kent Radford, Chief Engineer, who had previously been associated with Olmsted as engineer at the construction of South Park in Chicago. McMillan’s duties were much broader than his position title implied, as Radford acknowledged in his first annual report to the park commissioners: “I have great pleasure in acknowledging the efficient assistance rendered by Mr. McMillan, not only in his own department, but in that of general construction.” McMillan’s duties continued to expand, and in March, 1873, with the retirement of Mr. Radford, the title of McMillan’s position was changed to General Superintendent, and he became solely responsible to the Board of Park Commissioners for the construction and maintenance of the parks.

McMillan’s involvement in the design and maintenance of the parks was intense and personal. According to the Buffalo Commercial, “Year by year he planted and watered, he dug down and leveled up, always with an eye to appropriate landscape effects. There is hardly a spot anywhere in the system that does not bear witness to McMillan’s skillful touch.” The Buffalo Evening News noted that “His work was thoroughly done at all times, and nothing under his care was neglected.”

The Buffalo Commercial later recalled an incident which occurred during the construction of one of the Delaware Park bridges, when McMillan caught some men in the act of stealing building materials: “Mr. McMillan was driving through Delaware park and chanced upon the thieves. If the miscreants had been the original forty thieves instead of only four or five modern crooks, Mr. McMillan would have acted just as he did. He jumped from his carriage and ordered the thieves to depart. Instead of running away, one of them picked up a iron bar and struck him across the face, breaking his nose. Mr. McMillan fell to the ground unconscious …. The marks of the blow remained during his lifetime.”

William McMillan was much more than an administrator for the parks. He was a widely recognized practical horticulturist and landscape gardener. McMillan was considered one of the founders of the discipline of landscape architecture by his peers. He maintained a steady correspondence with Olmsted concerning Buffalo’s parks, landscape design, and general horticulture. He lectured in most of America’s prominent cities. Park authorities in cities constructing Olmsted designed parks, such as Rochester, sought out his advice. He was an active and respected member of the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences, with interests in ethnology, entomology, mineralogy, paleontology, and geology.

McMillan was the author of several papers, lectures, and articles concerning park design and management. In 1886, he was engaged by the Buffalo Daily Courier to write a series of articles describing the vegetation in what is now known as Delaware Park for its readers. The series was called “Park Notes: Vegetation in Our Park“. Over thirty successive weeks, McMillan described in clear and colorful prose the foliage features of the landscape, providing the reader with both a guided tour to the park’s ever-changing seasonal beauty and detailed but readily understandable lessons in botany. Notable among his lectures were those entitled, “The Embellishment of Public Pleasure Grounds”, read before the Western New York Horticultural Society at Rochester, on January 22, 1890, “Our Autumn Foliage”, read at the Western New York Horticultural Society meeting in January, 1892, and “Shade-trees in City Streets”, read at the Western New York Horticultural Society meeting in January, 1893, and later that year published as part of a volume he co-authored with Edwin C. Powell, assistant editor of American Gardening. His annual reports to the Park Commissioners were recognized as superb examples by his peers, and at least one was the subject of a lengthy article in Garden and Forest magazine.

Probably the most prominent among McMillan’s writings was an essay delivered before the Horticultural Auxiliary of the “World’s Fair” Congress (also known as the Columbian Exposition) at Chicago on August 22, 1893. Entitled “The Improvement and Care of Public Grounds, Conserving and Developing Natural Beauty”, magazines including Garden and Forest and The Florists’ Exchange carried lengthy comment on it. Garden and Forest lavished praise upon the essay, on not one, but two, occasions and reprinted a lengthy excerpt. Calling it work of “uncommon merit”, editor Charles S. Sargent wished it could be enlarged into a treatise, for it concisely stated the views espoused by both Frederick Law Olmsted and Sargent concerning the value of public parks as rural respites from urban daily life.

The fervor with which William McMillan held such views, however, led in time to conflict with the Board of Park Commissioners. Successful time and again in preserving Buffalo’s Olmsted designed parks to the manner in which he felt Olmsted intended, gradually resentments grew concerning what appeared to be his refusal to accept the wishes of the commissioners and obstinate views concerning modernization of the parks.

In times which were increasingly political, McMillan kept politics out of the parks. Resisting what he regarded as extravagant expenditures, he was always frugal. Universally regarded as scrupulously honest, McMillan was just as universally felt to be firm in his opinions. Opponents called him “obstinate, unconciliatory, and chronic in his opposition to almost every measure proposed for popularizing the Parks.” The Buffalo Evening News once described him as “ugly honest”. As The Buffalo Express summarized the situation, “His regard for Mr. Olmsted’s ideas was reverential. He ever tried to order the parks as he thought Mr. Olmsted would have them. In fact, Mr. McMillan regarded no man’s opinion save Olmsted’s and his own.” The problem was, the paper continued, “His views were too fixed, his methods too arbitrary, to be tolerated in a subordinate.” The same newspaper declared, “If he was suspicious, reserved and stubborn, it also is admitted that he was thoroughly honest, sincere and loyal …. He had no use for politicians, he never went a step out of his way to make a friend to use in rainy days, he ignored political influence when it came to making appointments and he ran his department irrespective of the wishes of individual members of the Park Board and sometimes irrespective of the wishes of the board itself.”

Conflict between the Park Commissioners and the Superintendent was inevitable. On May 4, 1897, Commissioner David F. Day attempted to have McMillan dismissed as Superintendent. After a tumultuous and heated session, Commissioner Day’s motion failed, but two weeks later he was successful in securing a restriction of McMillan’s authority. Effective June 1, 1897, his title was changed to Superintendent of the North Parks (responsible for the parks north of Seneca Street) and a new position, co-equal with McMillan’s, was created for a Superintendent of the South Parks (with responsibility for the parks south of Seneca Street), to which John Cowell, formerly the Director of the Botanical Gardens, was appointed. After much debate, McMillan retained his former salary of $3,000 a year, while Cowell’s was set at half that amount.

McMillan’s relations with the Park Commission failed to improve, however. In September it was privately suggested that he resign, but he refused. On December 7, 1897, the situation came to a head. A resolution had been presented to the commission to grant a contract for the daily cleaning of the ice at Humboldt (now Martin Luther King) Park. McMillan stated that he always kept the ice clean and voiced the opinion that the contract would be a “foolish waste of money”, sparking a heated debate. The Commissioners entered executive session after McMillan spoke; after a spirited session in which McMillan was staunchly defended by his supporters, the Park Commission voted 10 to 4 to dismiss McMillan effective December 31, 1897. He was allowed to continue to occupy the Superintendent’s residence at the Park Farmstead until May 1, 1898.

On March 1, 1898, William McMillan departed Buffalo, whose parks had employed him as Superintendent for 27 years. After a brief trip to Scotland, he accepted a position as superintendent of the Essex County, New Jersey park system, which was beginning a major park construction project, designed by the Olmsted firm. Before his departure from Buffalo, he was afforded a farewell dinner and presented with a fine gold watch and chain commemorating his long service to the community. Apparently, however, his new labors did not allow him to overcome his grief at being forced to leave the Buffalo parks.

McMillan’s health began to fail. Stricken by apoplexy in June, 1899, McMillan at first appeared to be recovering from his illness. Then he took a turn for the worse, and on August 1, 1899, died at his residence in Newark, New Jersey. He was buried several days later in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, close to his life’s work.

It was not long after his death that his friends began efforts to commemorate his name. Park Commissioner Andrew Langdon, who had voted with the majority in removing McMillan, declared at the end of his term of office, “The one act of my career as park commissioner that I bitterly regret is the vote I cast to dismiss that competent official. He surely had heart and soul in the interests of his work, and I believe that the insult we then offered him materially hastened his death.” Led by Langdon (a prominent civic and business leader who had also donated to the city the Delaware Park’s statue of David) and the St. Andrew’s Scottish Society, funds were raised for the purpose of erecting a tribute to McMillan.

On September 12, 1905, a large fountain was dedicated along the concourse in Delaware Park. (The format was chosen to respect his family’s opposition to a statue, echoing McMillan’s strong belief that statuary had no place within a landscape park.) Constructed of rough hewn blocks of red Scotch granite, consisted of basins intended for horses, dogs, and birds, as well as a place where for park visitors could drink. McMillan’s name was inscribed in the topmost stone in large letters. Water flowed from a concealed pipe, cascading from beneath the uppermost stone as if from a ravine into the basins and cups. The back of the fountain was inscribed:

William McMillan
First Superintendent of
Buffalo Parks
1870 – 1898
Erected by a Few of His Friends

William McMillan’s memorial fountain in time became neglected and fell into disrepair: the water was shut off and weeds and neglected shrubbery until recently all but hid it from view. Similarly, time came to shroud us from the man and his achievements. His beloved parks often fared little better. From literally the day he died (the lease of Gala Water and surrounding Delaware Park land for the Pan American Exhibition was approved on August 1, 1899) the parks were often neglected or abused. The vision and love lavished by their first superintendent were too often lacking.

Today, just as the almost forgotten tribute to McMillan’s memory is essentially intact, if somewhat battered, so too the parks continue to provide the public with pleasure, however much they have become in places shopworn or damaged. The memory of William McMillan, Buffalo’s first Superintendent of Parks, should remind us of our opportunity to return the parks he built to their full glory. Whatever becomes of the fountain his contemporaries intended as his tribute, William McMillan’s true monument will always be the Buffalo parks. In the words of his friend Andrew Langdon, “Let us remember that no memorial is more beautiful, no tribute more lasting, than the lovely surroundings of nature, radiant with life and beauty encircling this spot, which was first improved by the hand and brain of Buffalo’s first superintendent of parks.”