Hayes Perkins — The “Magic Carpet” Man

“For 14 years I toiled to make true a dream I have entertained since I was a small boy. I wished to have a beautiful garden beside the sea and … have made it come true.”

Letter to Miss. Swallop, October 28, 1959

From 1950 to 1990 the Eastman Kodak Company presented 60 by 18-foot back-lit transparency images in Grand Central Terminal, New York. Photographer Peter Gales took this photo in Perkins Park in 1961. Photo: Courtesy George Eastman Museum

Gardener and self-styled adventurer Hayes Perkins (1874–1964) transformed a poison oak-covered ocean bluff in Pacific Grove, California into a dazzling springtime carpet of fluorescent-purple blooms. Photographs in Life and National Geographic, as well as a giant mural by Kodak in Grand Central Terminal, New York, enticed tourists from across the globe. One of the most loved and distinctive horticultural features of the Pacific Coast in the early 1960s, today Perkins’s garden is but a sad reflection of its former glory. And its creator is all but forgotten.

Hayes Perkins donated his set of Here and There to the Pacific Grove Public Library in 1962. Photo: David Laws

Perkins worked his way around the world, including nearly eight years in Africa and nine on publisher William Randolph Hearst’s California properties, before moving to Pacific Grove in 1938. He kept detailed diaries of his life and adventures from 1878 to 1936. A friend, Frank Preston, arranged for them to be typed in 1961. Five carbon paper copies of over 2,000 pages each were hard-cover bound under the title Here and There. [1] One is held by the Royal Geographical Society, London; Perkins gave his copy to the Pacific Grove Library. [2]

Living in a tiny cabin overlooking Pacific Grove’s Lovers Point, in 1943 Perkins began to clear, plant, and hand-water the coastal bluff with a mix of shrubs and Mediterranean-climate succulents that he knew from South Africa. Over 14 years he single-handedly created a nearly one-mile-long pathway lined by Monterey Bay on one side and a floral “Magic Carpet” of Drosanthemum floribundum [3] on the other.

Named Perkins Park in 1950, the garden played an important role in the town’s appeal as a resort destination but decades of municipal financial woes and neglect have led to serious deterioration of Perkins’s legacy.

From National Geographic magazine article “California’s Wonderful One,” November 1959 pages 590–1 Photo: By B. Anthony Stewart. Courtesy: National Geographic Creative

A “Bird of Passage”

Born on a homestead in the Coquille Valley near the Oregon coastal lumber port of Bandon on February 10, 1878, as a boy Henry Hayes Perkins was fascinated by tales of explorers and their adventures in Africa. In 1890 the family moved to an evangelical community in Hico, Texas. According to his diary, he left home at age 15 to escape abuse by his father William Perkins, “a Methodist of the strictest sort,” who beat the boy frequently for refusing to convert to the gospel. [4]

Perkins hopped freight trains and worked in fields, mills, mines, plantations, and ranches across the country before setting off to explore the globe. While his diary is filled with extraordinary tales of personal privation and appalling conditions endured by migrant laborers of the era, Perkins’s taste for adventure and desire to see the world remained strong throughout his life. A 1940 lecture in San Francisco billed him as a “bird of passage.”

Hayes Perkins in U.S. Revenue uniform. Photo: Courtesy John Martin

Perkins embarked on his first ocean voyage and experience of foreign travel from Portland, Oregon in October 1898. As a crew member on the schooner Austrasia, he survived a dangerous passage around Cape Horn to arrive in England in March 1899. He returned to the U.S. to participate in the Colorado mining boom. Later that year he joined the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, a forerunner of the Coast Guard, in order to see “other lands down the horizon line that need exploring” but deserted with other crew members to escape abusive on-board discipline after three months.

Over the next 25 years, Perkins alternated work in the Western U.S. and Canada with multiple ocean voyages, seeking opportunities abroad that culminated in eight circumnavigations of the globe. He wrote one of his rare descriptions of horticultural matters, while serving as a groundskeeper for the Heart of Africa Mission in the Belgian Congo. Within a month of arriving in 1941 he had planted 1,100 bananas and plantains, 1,000 pineapples, and more than 200 fruit trees: “Mangoes, avocado pears, limes, lemons, oranges, and custard apples.” “Daily the estate grows more attractive. One can accomplish so much in a short time in a land like this, where all produce grows an inch, or two inches overnight.” Although Perkins loved Africa and his success in the garden, angered by graft and abusive discipline by the mission leaders, he left before completing his term.

The later years show an increasing interest in exotic plants. He remarked on the ferns, fruits, and lush lawns of the Samoan Islands, Flame trees on Mozambique, and Baobabs in the Congo. He was particularly entranced by the exotic flora, “oleander, hibiscus, bougainvillea, eucalyptus, bamboo, banyan, gold mohur, and ironwood,” of Colombo. An index lists more than 30 varieties of trees across dozens of entries.

The Hearst Years (1928–1936)

In May 1928, Perkins found employment on the construction of publisher William Randolph Hearst’s “castle” near San Simeon, California. His diary entries at this time become more autobiographical in nature. They offer unique insights from the perspective of an hourly laborer into the people, politics, and setting of the extraordinary world being created on “La Cuesta Encantada” (The Enchanted Hill).

Although he abhorred Hearst’s infatuation with fascist dictators, particularly Mussolini, Perkins describes him as a fair, even a benevolent, employer. “He has an infectious grin that instantly puts all at ease. He will bestow this on his humblest employee as quickly as the greatest of men.” However, Perkins spares no kind words for the legions of sycophants and corrupt managers who ruled the roost in Hearst’s absence. He includes descriptions of the debauchery of visiting Hollywood figures and their ravishing of young women invited to party on the hill. As a non-drinker, he was especially troubled by late-night beach landings to replenish the castle liquor cellars during Prohibition. The Coast Guard ignored his whistle-blowing for fear of reprisal by Hearst.

Hayes Perkins mid 1930s. Photo: Courtesy John Martin

Perkins makes no direct comments on landscaping work, but does mention guests in “ecstasies of joy and wonder at the marvelous beauty of the gardens” and the expenditure of $10,000 to move a single tree. Because of his strong work ethic and aversion to alcohol, he was trusted to tend the animals in Hearst’s zoo. In late 1930, his boss severely injured a valuable white oryx and fired Perkins to deflect blame from himself. Learning of this injustice, three months later Hearst ordered Perkins rehired as camp janitor. In this role he was responsible for maintenance of worker housing on the hill. On his days off he enjoyed roaming the hillsides in search of wild honey. “Surely in all the world there is no more favored spot than this,” he wrote.

By mid-1931, even Hearst’s vast wealth could not sustain the project. Crew members were being laid off and work hours extended. Perkins “stole” water from a new reservoir to raise flower gardens around the camp to make it more attractive for the remaining employees. By early 1933, even the “harsh but square” head gardener, Louis Reising, had been let go. Perkins followed in March. He wrote: “When I took over the place it was a shipwreck. Grounds overgrown with jungle, gullies washed down the hill. Now the grounds are planted to ornamental flowers, [wisteria and passion fruit] vines, and shrubs.” He had lived and worked on the estate for 25 months without ever leaving the hill.

Hearst Castle Gardens. Photo: Courtesy Visit California

In 1902, the publisher’s mother, Phoebe Hearst, had contracted with Bay Area architect Bernard Maybeck, assisted by Julia Morgan, to build a massive stone, Gothic-style Rhine River castle on a compound in the rugged forest east of Dunsmuir in Northern California. Named Wyntoon, the castle served as a family summer retreat until it burned in 1929. Hearst asked Morgan to design an even larger replacement. Unable to finance the project while still committed to San Simeon, he scaled Morgan’s design back to a medieval-style “Bavarian Village” of multiple half-timbered buildings. Today the estate is owned by the Hearst Corporation and is closed to the public.

Wyntoon by Julia Morgan. Photo: Courtesy American Home & Gardens

Hired by his former San Simeon boss, George Loorz, to work on rebuilding the Wyntoon property, Perkins spent the summers of 1933 through 1936 living in McCloud and commuting daily to the site. His assignments ranged from moving rocks to building and painting the structures. For a short time, he maintained the lawns and gardens and frequently encountered Julia Morgan, Hearst, and his guests, including Marion Davies, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, and Herbert Hoover. On one occasion he, unsuccessfully, asked Hearst to fund another trip to Africa.

Construction on the Hearst estate ceased each fall before snowfall and the workers were laid off. For the winters of 1934 and 1936, Perkins traveled to Pennsylvania at the invitation of Frank W. Preston who he met on the steamship Vedic en route from Cape Town to Sydney in 1925. At the time he noted that “It was a treat to find a man who could converse on some other topic besides sex.” Preston arranged for Perkins to speak on his travels to Pittsburg society and supported his induction as a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society of London in 1937.

In July 1936, Perkins wrote that Preston had asked him to help build a game park around a research laboratory he was establishing near Butler Township, Pennsylvania. He mailed bulbs and seeds of gladilas and foxgloves from Hearst’s garden for planting prior to his arrival. The final entry in the nearly 60-year saga of Here and There is dated October 10, 1936 as he was waiting to travel east.

Butler, Pennsylvania (1936 -1937)

A technical consultant to the glass industry, in 1936 Preston purchased a 100-acre abandoned farm where he opened Preston Laboratories to research manufacturing techniques for Corning Glass. He asked Perkins to landscape the property in the style of a park from his native England.

Preston Laboratory 1930s

Perkins lived over the laboratory for nearly two years. He removed rocks and debris and replenished topsoil that had been depleted over 200 years of farming. He planted a lawn, cleaned out a pond for ducks, built a bridge and a peacock shed, erected miles of fencing, and graded a landscape to accommodate “some 1600 trees, chiefly pine,” all without any mechanical aid. Preston, who described Perkins as “the curator and custodian” of the grounds, reported in 1959 that the trees were now 30–40 feet high and that “the most successful evergreens, Siberian spruce, reached 20–30 feet.” An orchard with trees cultivated in lines, stars, and other geometric patterns continues to yield today. Mrs. Preston said of Perkins that “He was an exceptionally good workman at any task he undertook.”

Active conservationists in their retirement, the Prestons left their estate to the community. Today the site is maintained by volunteers as an arboretum with a prairie, gardens, and ponds open to the public. The laboratory was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013.

Pacific Grove, California (1938–1964)

Although he enjoyed the work at Butler, Perkins found the winters too cold. Once a week he would go to the machine shop to shellac the soles of his feet. In 1938 he returned to the West Coast because of the mild coastal climate he remembered from his San Simeon years. He chose Pacific Grove, near Monterey, which, because of its legacy as a Methodist summer retreat community, was still dry and “wasn’t cluttered-up with bars.” He rented an 8 by 16-foot, two-room shack on Mermaid Avenue overlooking the bay. He again found work with Frank Loorz who operated a construction business in the area.

In contrast to most of his peers who spent their pay on drink and the “ladies of the evening,” while working for Hearst, Perkins had invested his paycheck in annuities. When they matured in 1943, at age 69 Perkins quit working for others and planned a retirement of reading in the library, lecturing about his travels, and light gardening for neighbors. Jerry Hurlburt recalls “During the war he came across the street and did some gardening for us when he thought my mother was letting the yard get out of hand. That irritated her and I’m not sure but what they may have had some words.”

Drosanthemum floribundum. Photo: David Laws

Children suffered painful skin rashes from playing in poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) growing on the unkempt bluff across Ocean View Boulevard from his home. As he was immune to the irritant effect of urushiol oil from the leaves, Perkins began clearing the area and planted Drosanthemum floribundum, a non-invasive succulent that forms a dazzling carpet of lilac-purple blooms in spring. He knew it as the genus Mesembryanthemum from his visits to Cape Town, South Africa, where it was favored for erosion control on steep slopes with poor soils, as well as being drought and salt tolerant — exactly the conditions that prevail along the Monterey Bay coastline.

John Bonnici, owner of Borg’s Motel, allowed Perkins to fill up to 75 buckets of water two days a week from his faucet and hand carry them across the street to irrigate new plantings. He began to add other plants tolerant of the windy, coastal climate. “Most of the plants in that park are African. I wanted to have something to remind me of the Dark Continent, for somehow I have always loved it over any other land.” A 1961 listing includes Aloe arborescens, a species from southern Africa with tough, green, succulent leaf whorls and scarlet blooms that tower over 6-feet high in late fall, as well as achillea, arctotis, calla lilies. cannas, century plants, dracaena palms, and veronica.

Perkins became a familiar figure to local residents. An article in the Pacific Grove Tribune noted that “Any day of the week, if you drive down by the ocean you will see a tall, spare, deeply-suntanned athletic-looking man with no hat and a bald pate working away … building paths, planting flowers, spading and cultivating.” Walter Wardle recalls “his bushy eyebrows and navy watch cap and pea coat walking along the trail in the morning fog, when I was 5 or 6 in the early ’40s. I spent many a day pestering him as he worked along the shore. As I would talk, every now and then he would look up from his gardening and wiggle his big bushy eyebrows like approving of what I said then go back to his day’s chores.”

By 1947 the garden extended 1,500 feet to the west. The city had given formal permission for the use of public land and neighbors who had originally resisted the change now supported the project. In June, the Service Club, forerunner of the Rotary Club of Pacific Grove, organized a Flower Day to collect funds to further Perkins’s efforts. He used the check for $185.15 to augment his personal contributions towards additional plants and supplies.

Pacific Grove Honors Hayes Perkins with a plaque. Perkins is third from left with the mayor and other civic officers, September 22, 1950. Credit: Heritage Society of Pacific Grove

Increased publicity generated more activity along the waterfront paths. Not all users were respectful. In 1949 Perkins announced that “discouraged by careless or deliberate vandalism … he could no longer continue work … and plans to leave town.” [8] Fortunately, he did not follow-up on this threat and in 1950 the city named the waterfront area Perkins Park. The mayor and other dignitaries posed with Perkins for a photograph in front of a bronze plaque mounted on a large boulder in his honor. He commented, “I appreciated it all, but I didn’t want it. I don’t believe in personal advertising.”

Last foreign trips

In August 1952 Perkins embarked on one last trip to Africa. On the journey across the U.S. he stopped at Butler and was surprised by the rapid growth of his forest. From Algiers, he set out on a primitive bus loaded with water-filled goatskins and eight passengers to satisfy an ambition to “ramble around the Sahara.” After 2,500 miles of bone-shaking travel and encounters with Tuareg “pirates of the desert,” his health deteriorated and he flew home in December.

On his return, Perkins made a proposal to extend the park by another 1,200 feet. He requested that the city add water pipes and that he be given a helper. In 1953 the council authorized a budget of $2,700 per year for manpower, water, and equipment. He accepted payment of $14.75 per month “to give me a modicum of authority to hold back vandals, dog owners who trained their pets in the park, and bicyclists.” By 1954 the Monterey Herald reported that, assisted by city employee Manuel Rego, the garden had been extended five-eighths of a mile and another 1,100 feet cleared for future planting.

In 1955, Perkins sailed on a Norwegian passenger-carrying cargo vessel for a four-month voyage around South America. His growing dissatisfaction with the level of city support for Perkins Park is evident in a letter he wrote from Chile to Monterey County supervisor A. B. Jacobsen. “These Latin people are a hundred years ahead of us in creating lovely flower gardens, and all, the few rich and the many poor, unite in making the best of what they have. One sees no ‘No Trespass’ signs, they are not needed, but it would be bad indeed for anyone who touched a flower … I have seen no place with the beauty of the Monterey Peninsula but if you people would get together in the matter of parks, as do these South Americans, its fame would be worldwide.”

After Perkins’s death, Preston arranged for the notes of these two final trips to be typed and copied. The final entry reads: “Thus ends my 130th sea voyage. I have no plans for further travel, there are no new lands to explore, and I don’t care to go over old ground.”

Union Pacific Railroad Domeliner breakfast menu card. Photo: David Laws

In 1957 Perkins moved to Forest Hill Manor, a senior retirement home one mile inland. Daily he walked down the hill to continue working on the garden but, despite his concerns about the quality of the city maintenance, its fame had spread. Photographs showing the springtime carpet of bloom appeared in National Geographic (November 1959), Life (October 1962), United Airlines Mainliner magazine (1962) and numerous other publications. Union Pacific Railway featured the scene on menus for the Domeliner breakfast service. The garden’s fame inspired international imitators. In 1963 the Monterey Herald photographed Perkins supervising the shipping of succulent cuttings to the coastal city of Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador.

LIFE magazine October 19, 1962

“Many cars per hour, to say nothing of the huge transcontinental buses” loaded with tourists stopped to photograph the scene. Postcard views mailed across the world attracted even more attention. The Chamber of Commerce ordered aerial photographs to feature on tourist guides. In 1961 Kodak sent photographer Peter Gales to shoot the image for an 18 by 60-foot mural in Grand Central Terminal that featured changing views of scenic America. Perkins declined to pose for the picture in protest against showcasing his hated hordes of cyclists in the picture.

Final years

A storm in February 1960 did considerable damage to the park. The city allocated $9,000 for repairs that included building concrete seawalls but for the rest of his life Perkins engaged in constant battles with city hall to improve maintenance, repair damage by dogs and cyclists, and prosecute plant thieves. “I’ll bet I get in the can some of these days, the way I keep hounding the authorities.”

A petition to local businesses to raise private funding in 1962 generated a $5,000 donation to install a sprinkler system. To Frank Preston, he mailed a copy of a 1963 election flyer for Don Grafton who was running for the council: one of Grafton’s platform points promised attention to Perkins Park. In his typical thrifty manner, Perkins typed a letter on the rear of the flyer.

He was particularly incensed when the superintendent of parks, a man Perkins claimed knew little about landscape gardening and was only appointed through political connections, did not replace Manuel Rego after he retired and attempted to take credit for ongoing public acclaim for the garden. “If they will only keep it up, they can name if for the devil himself,” he said.

Hayes Perkins in Perkins Park, April 30, 1961 a Kodacolor print signed H. Perkins. Photo: Courtesy Special Collections and Archives, California Polytechnic University

Perkins passed away on April 30, 1964. A few years earlier he had written, “For 14 years I toiled to make true a dream I have entertained since I was a small boy. I wished to have a beautiful garden beside the sea and … have made it come true.” Vern Yeadon, curator of the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, said in an obituary in the Monterey Herald, “He alone was responsible for the beautiful shoreline garden. No one else can claim credit for it.”

He left his entire estate of $6,507.01 to purchase books for the library. Proposals to establish a Hayes Perkins Day in his honor and to place a plaque in the library were never consummated. Few residents know of him today.

Coda

A commitment by Mayor A. B. Wells that “The city will maintain the coastal area in his memory” proved difficult to honor through economic challenges in later years. Volunteer weed-pulls organized by neighbors attempted to replace maintenance abandoned by the city but could not prevent long term decline of the garden due to drought and neglect.

Volunteer weed-pull at Perkins Park in March 1982. Photo: Monterey Herald Photo Archive, CSUMB

Patches of iridescent color continue to brighten the bluff in spring but do not compare to visions portrayed on postcards, posters and national publications from the 1960s. In a letter to the Monterey Herald, the late John F. Limper of Pacific Grove recalled Perkins’s prescient comment, “When I am dead, the city will let all my work go to hell.”

New plantings, Fall 2018. Photo: David Laws

Pacific Grove Public Works Director, Daniel Gho, manages the City’s efforts “to return the park to the desired aesthetics.” For the first time in many years, his 2017/18 budget allowed hiring a part-time landscape employee dedicated to Perkins Park. Accomplishments to date have included reducing the weeds, trimming the bushes and cypress trees, installing decomposed granite on the trails, and repairing the irrigation system. Thousands of Drosanthemum floribundum seedlings were purchased and planted in the fall to allow them to become established during the (hoped for) rainy season. Residents are cautiously optimistic that this portends a new lease of life for Hayes Perkins’s long-suffering Magic Carpet.

Author’s Note

Special thanks for their assistance in researching this story to Nancy Ayala, CSU Monterey Bay; Don Beals, The Heritage Society of Pacific Grove; Pat Hathaway, California Views Photo Collection; John Martin, creator of the “Hayes Here and There” website; Laura Sorvetti. Public Special Collections & Archives, Robert E. Kennedy Library, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and all the wonderful reference librarians at the Pacific Grove Public Library.

Endnotes

[1] A listing of the major destinations described in Here and There is posted on the website “Hayes Here and There” by John Martin of Longmont, Colorado (Martin’s grandfather was Perkins’s cousin) [https://hayeshereandthere.com/hayes-perkins-biography-and-writings/]

[2] The additional three original printings of Here and There are held by the Oregon Historical Society Research Library, Portland, OR, the Special Collections & Archives, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, CA, and by the family. In 1963 Preston asked Perkins “to go to the library and get your diary and cut out the three pages of the “Forward.” Preston was concerned about possible libel suits from people described in the diary. For the full story see: “Mystery of pages torn from library book resolved after 55 years.

[3] Perkins knew Drosanthemum floribundum under the name Mesembryanthemum. It is commonly known as showy dewflower or rosea iceplant. Drosanthemum floribundum is a recommended ground cover for the Central Coast by Cal-IPC (California Invasive Plant Council). It is not related to the familiar highway iceplant or Hottentot fig (Carpobrotus edulis), a widely distributed invasive species throughout California, that was introduced in the early 1900s for stabilizing soil along railroad tracks. [https://www.cal-ipc.org/solutions/prevention/landscaping/dpp/?region=centcoast]

[4] All subsequent quotations attributed to Hayes Perkins in this article are taken from Perkins’s diaries and correspondence. At his peak of activity, Perkins claimed to have over 100 correspondents worldwide. His benefactor Frank W. Preston, who arranged for the typing and binding of the diaries, kept a copy of their exchanges for the years 1959 through 1964. Together with her husband’s copy of Here and There, Jane Preston donated this correspondence (comprising over 200 pages) to the Special Collections & Archives, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, CA in 1993.

This article was originally published in Eden: Journal of the California Garden & Landscape History Society. Winter 2019. Copies can be purchased from CG&LHS.