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Stephen Tyng Mather


Early Life (1867-1887)

Stephen Tyng Mather, the great-grandson of Deacon Joseph Mather who built the Mather Homestead in 1778, was born on July 4, 1867 in Berkeley, California. He was named after the prominent New York Episcopal Minister, Stephen Tyng, who married his parents, Joseph W. Mather and Bertha Walker Mather, three years earlier in New York. Another son, Josie, was born in 1869. He passed at the age of 19 from spinal meningitis. Mather was educated at Boys' High School (now Lowell High School) in San Francisco, and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1887. While Mather grew up in California, he spent summers at the Mather Homestead in Darien, CT and considered it his "true home." He loved the outdoors and spent much time both in California and Connecticut exploring. 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 New York Sun (1887-1893)

Mather worked as a journalist for the New York Sun for five years following his graduation from Berkeley in 1887. By family lore, he met Jane Thacker Floy of Elizabeth, New Jersey whose father did not think journalism was a suitable career for his daughter. Mather left journalism in 1893 and joined the Borax Company where his father worked.


Jane Thacker Floy (1868-1944)

Jane Thacker Floy was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey on February 7, 1868. She and Stephen Mather were married in October 12, 1893 in New York City. She gave birth to one daughter, Bertha in 1906. Following her husband's death in 1930, she lived with her daughter's family at the Mather Homestead until her death. She passed on August 19, 1944 and is buried in the Mather Cemetery on Stephen Mather Road.


20 Mule Team Borax (1893-1914)

After leaving the New York Sun in 1893, Mather joined the Pacific Coast Borax Company, where his father worked, in the New York office. In 1894, he moved with his new wife to Chicago, where he established a distribution center for the company. Mather proved to be a marketing genius and is credited with creating the slogan "20 Mule Team Borax" which propelled Borax to become a household name throughout the country.

In 1898, Mather helped his friend, Thomas Thorkildsen, start another borax company. After suffering a severe episode of bipolar disorder in 1903 and having his salary withheld during extended sick leave, Mather resigned from Pacific Coast and joined Thorkildsen full-time in 1904. They named their firm the Thorkildsen-Mather Borax Company. Their company became prosperous, and they were millionaires by 1914. He then retired to pursue his interest - the National Parks.


1904 Trip to Europe

Mather’s interest in national parks was influenced by a 1904 trip to Europe he took with his wife, Jane. Climbing the Swiss Alps and seeing how accessible they were to visitors inspired Mather to bring this model to park management in the United States. On his return, he became a dedicated conservationist, a friend and admirer of the influential John Muir, joined the Sierra Club, and climbed Mount Rainier. Through his activities in the Sierra Club, Mather made numerous allies who supported the creation of the National Park Service. In 1916, the Sierra Club made him an honorary vice-president. Note: vintage photo of the alps from "The Alps 1900. A Portrait in Color" published by Taschen.


Assistant to the Secretary of the Interior - 1915

Mather traveled to Yosemite in 1914 and noticed the abysmal conditions of the park which were then managed by the US Army: bumpy, dangerous roads, inadequate lodging, cattle and sheep grazing and destroying pristine meadows, plus logging, hunting, mining and more. Mather wrote a letter to Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane, also from the University of Berkeley, espousing the deplorable conditions in the park. He received a letter back stating, "Dear Steve, If you don't like the way the parks are being run, come on down to Washington and run them yourself." And so he did. Mather went to Washington and became Assistant Secretary of the Interior in January 1915 and tirelessly made the case for the National Park Service.


The Mather Mountain Party - 1915

In his first 12 months as special assistant for national park concerns to the Secretary of the Interior, Mather worked the corridors of Washington, D.C., traveled 30,000 miles and hosted one of the most spectacular lobbying sessions in American history. Nineteen politicians, businessmen, and scientists, along with the vice-president of the Southern Pacific Railroad, the editor of National Geographic, the president of the American Museum of Natural History and a congressman, who later became the Speaker of the House, accepted Mather’s invitation for a two-week camping trip in July of 1915 through the Sierra Nevada mountains. Known as the Mather Mountain Party, the purpose of the trip was to lobby this captive audience to support the creation of the National Park Service. Mather paid for the entire trip, hiring touring cars, horses, mules, and providing everyone with the latest in camping comfort–an air mattress. He hired a cook to prepare gourmet meals served on white linen tablecloths with fine china in remote areas of the park. In addition to having a memorable experience, the members of the Mountain Party saw the poor conditions of the campsites, the barely passable roads, the vulnerability of the ancient Sequoia groves to logging interests, and how grazing cattle were decimating meadows. At the end of the trip, Mather said to the group: "I think the time has come … that I should confess why I wanted you to come along with me on this adventure–not only for your interesting company, but to hope you’d see the significance of these mountains in the whole picture of what we are trying to do. Hopefully you will take this message and spread it throughout the land in your own avenue and style." In the end, Mather’s charisma coupled with the amazing scenery of the Sierra Nevada mountains created a memorable trip that won everyone over. “If he was out to make a convert,” one participant said of Mather, “the subject never knew what hit him.” Back in Washington, D. C., the men from the Mather Mountain Party lobbied successfully to create the National Park Service.


Director of the National Park Service

On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act, thereby creating the National Park Service. Mather was appointed its first director in May of 1917. During his tenure, and working closely with his assistant Horace Albright, Mather created a professional and highly respected organization to administer the parks, including a cadre of Park Rangers to oversee the parks and educate visitors. He expanded the parks, nearly doubling the land in the system to include some of the nation’s best-known natural wonders and landscapes such as Grand Canyon, Zion, Hawaii Volcanoes, Denali, Acadia, Hot Springs, and Shenandoah. Mather hired, with his own funds, Robert Sterling Yard, a former co-worker at The New York Sun and friend, to publicize the parks and promote American tourism. He initiated the development of lodges and campsites, as well as railroad access and new roadways to make the park lands accessible. He even contributed generously to the parks from his personal fortune. Mather was firm in preventing private development in the parks that would mar their natural beauty. He built public appreciation for preserving and publicized the nation’s natural beauty and history.


The Mather Homestead (1906-1930)

In 1906, Mather became the sole owner of the house and 22 acres following the passing of his father, Joseph Wakeman Mather, in 1905. He immediately made changes to the house, giving the house a more Colonial Revival appearance, building a barn, a cottage for a gardener, and in 1909, establishing a sunken garden designed by Walter Burleigh Griffin who went on to design Canberra, Australia's new capital city. In 1927, Mather nearly doubled the size of the house using architect Thomas Harlan Elliott. He added a porch to the side of the house and a two-story addition to the rear included a modern kitchen with bedrooms upstairs, and the portico over the main entrance was renovated. The interior of the house retained its original character and finishes during these renovations except for the old kitchen ("keeping room"), which was converted into a living room.


Death and Legacy

Stephen Mather suffered a heart attack in 1927, ten years after he became director of the NPS. A month later, he was mountain climbing and back at his desk maintaining his frantic work schedule. One year later, he suffered a massive stroke that left him incapacitated, forcing him to retire. He died on January 22, 1930 and is buried in the family cemetery on Stephen Mather Road in Darien. He left behind a huge legacy. Stephen Mather recognized the need for and met the challenge of creating a National Park system. He expanded the park lands and created the first parks in the East (Shenandoah and Acadia). He established professionals to manage the parks - the National Park Rangers who are among the most respected professionals in our country. He prevented industries from destroying park resources for their own gain. Most importantly, he welcomed Americans to the parks and encouraged them to experience the natural wonders of their country. His life is well summarized — on a series of bronze markers which were posthumously cast in his honor and distributed through many parks:
"He laid the foundation of the National Park Service, defining and establishing the policies under which its areas shall be developed and conserved, unimpaired for future generations. There will never come an end to the good he has done . . ."

Stephen Tyng Mather
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