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'Geranium George' Honored : Enlightened S.D. Leader Gave Parkland to City

November 03, 1986|GORDON SMITH

SAN DIEGO — A great store is more than a shop; it's a kind of institution, serving the community not only in business, but in civic affairs. It takes service from its employees, but should serve them also.

--George W. Marston

"Geranium George" ran for mayor of San Diego twice and twice was defeated.

He donated a park to the city and wound up paying to maintain it for the next 11 years.

But in recent years, San Diegans have shown increasing appreciation for George W. Marston--derisively labeled "Geranium George" during San Diego's mayoral election of 1917, when he argued that the city's development should be planned with parks and promenades. Marston died in 1946, but Marston Point in Balboa Park has been named after him, as has Marston Junior High School in Clairemont.

Last month, the San Diego Historical Society named and dedicated the main exhibition gallery of its Junipero Serra Museum in Presidio Park for George W. Marston, and an exhibit there now chronicles his contributions to San Diego.

"The exhibit touches on a lot of things, including his business--Marston's department store--which was the pre-eminent store in San Diego for many years," said Gregg Hennessey, an independent historian and curator of the exhibit, "but the main focus is on Marston's civic role as a philanthropist and reformer. He saw the money he made from business as a public trust, and he tried to put it back into the community. Dedicating the gallery to him is a way of celebrating him and his values."

Among those who attended the dedication ceremony were former employees of Marston's department store, which was sold to The Broadway chain in 1961. The former employees still have annual luncheons to reminisce and pay tribute to their old boss; nearly 100 people showed up for the luncheon this year in early October, said Rodolfo Aguilar, 81, a former display director who worked at Marston's for 33 years.

"It just goes to show you that the man was worth loving," Aguilar said. Marston is one of those seminal figures that every young city needs, and he is one whose influence on the area has become more noticeable with time.

He was 20 years old when his family moved to San Diego from Fort Atkinson, Wis., in 1870. In 1872 he took a job as clerk in a general store in downtown San Diego.

Less than two years later, he and another clerk, Charles Hamilton, bought out the owner and became partners in their own store. Marston and Hamilton subsequently split their partnership (Hamilton took the groceries and Marston the dry goods), but they remained friends throughout their lives. Marston later joked that Hamilton's only fault was that "he was too honest for me. . . . I thought it was a little too honest to advertise our butter as being 'as good as you could expect in the summertime after its long transportation from Poway.' "

Marston moved his store to several locations, all downtown, until he finally built a store at the corner of C Street and Fifth Avenue in 1912. For the next 49 years, it was one of the city's largest and grandest. Marston not only managed it, but also, in the early days, wrote most of his own newspaper ads, which gained a citywide reputation for their wit and literary flourishes.

In one ad, he told of a markdown on men's derby hats, writing that "the hats are still stiff but the prices have collapsed." In another, he noted: "A little monotonous, isn't it, to be directed every day to go to Marston's for hairpins, or to go to Marston's for this, that, etc. But we are at it again."

According to Hennessey, Marston was more than a witty entrepreneur, however. "He was a very progressive employer who was pro-labor at a time when the nation and San Diego were not. He supported child labor laws, workman's compensation, minimum wages and above all, the right for workers to unionize and strike. For an employer at the time, this was heresy.

"He believed in treating people in a decent fashion . . . and thought employers were only successful because of the work their employees did for them."

Marston's high ideals eventually led him to become involved in the city's cultural and political issues. He served two years as a city councilman and a total of nine years as a parks commissioner.

In 1907, during a time when San Diego was growing rapidly, he hired John Nolen, a nationally acclaimed landscape architect and city planner, to study the city and present a plan for its growth. Nolen's report was the first comprehensive planning document the city had.

Parks and other public facilities figured prominently in Nolen's plan. According to Hennessey, Marston shared with Nolen the idea that parks "offered relief from congested city living, morally uplifting surroundings, and a safety valve for class tensions."

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