Luther Burbank Park, located on the northeastern tip of Mercer Island, was once home to the Luther Burbank School, a parental school for delinquent youths. The school closed in 1966, and the property became a county park. In 2002, ownership was transferred to the City of Mercer Island.
In 1887, C. C. Calkins homesteaded the property that would later become Luther Burbank Park. Calkins, a developer, envisioned a non-industrial, non-commercial residential community named East Seattle on the northern tip of Mercer Island. He built a lavish home, and farther to the west constructed the Calkins Hotel, the centerpiece of his planned community.
His plans gained some notoriety in 1891, when President Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901) stayed at the hotel, but within a few years Calkins’ dreams would be destroyed. The Panic of 1893 severely hurt his business, and that same year he and his wife suffered the death of two children. Following that, their home burned down.
Calkins mortgaged off all he owned for $120,000 to Eugene Lawson, who in turn leased the property to Major Cicero Newell, who had started a school for delinquent boys in Seattle. At first, Newell used the hotel as a new schoolhouse, but nearby residents were less than thrilled to see young boys chained to the building’s fence. Newell had his eye on Calkins’ original homestead as a new location for his school.
Start of Classes
In 1903, the state legislature authorized local school districts to establish truant schools, and the Seattle School district issued bonds to buy the Mercer Island property. In 1904, Newell moved 30 boys and 10 girls to a tent-camp on the site while two buildings were under construction. Once the two-story schoolhouses (dormitories were on the upper floor) were completed, Newell felt he had accomplished what he set out to do and retired.
William Baker next ran the Parental School, but within a year, Willis Rand -- a teacher and house parent -- was named as supervisor. Rand supervised the expansion and development of the property for the next 40 years.
During Rand’s tenure, a hospital, barn, and laundry were constructed. A farm was established on the site, cared for by the students. In 1928, a brick dormitory and steam plant were designed and built by Floyd Naramore, noted architect of many Seattle schools.
The Parental School took in students deemed by Juvenile courts to be “morally delinquent.” Students were required to live at the residential school until they were paroled. Some boys got out in less than four months, but the average length of stay was nine months. A report in 1910 noted that 85 percent of those released were “turning out well.”
Parole was determined by a point system, wherein the children would receive demerits for breaking rules. At dinnertime, less food was given based on the number of demerits received. Other forms of punishment included beatings with a razor strop in the basement, administered by Mr. Rand.
Most children came from alcoholic parents or broken homes. The school not only helped with educational and emotional development, it also provided medical assistance. Children received dental work, eyeglasses, vaccinations, and even operations. After treatment, they were sent immediately back to school, as the nurses had neither the time nor the patience to care for them during recovery.
Life on the Farm
Children spent half of each day in class, and the rest of the day working on the farm. The horticultural program proved to be outstanding, even though many of the children came from an urban environment and had never milked a cow or even seen one before.
Each child tended his own garden, and helped in the apple, prune, and cherry orchards. At one point, the school had 500 chickens, 20 hogs, 10 acres of orchards, and 35 acres of pasture for 12 cows. The children also helped develop a prize herd of Holstein cows.
In 1928, the girls were moved to Martha Washington School near Seward Park in Seattle, and the Mercer Island Parental School became a boys' school. Three years later the name was changed to eliminate the stigma attached to “parental” schools as a home for delinquents. To inspire the students it was named Luther Burbank School in honor of the famous botanist.
Kicking the Bucket
Willis Rand retired in 1942, and often received thank you letters from grown men who had attended the school in their youth and had gone on to achieve success. The farm program continued for years after Rand’s retirement, but by the 1950s, the school had fallen into disrepair.
The two original buildings were sagging and crumbling, and the overcrowding of children meant that some had to sleep in the dank, fetid cottages. All of the wooden buildings were fire hazards due to inadequate plumbing. The children had to use buckets in place of toilets, which were then dumped outside.
In 1957, a change in state law mandated that the State of Washington operate all parental schools. The Seattle School District leased the property to the state, but continued day-to-day operations. The farm program was discontinued at a time when the number of students began to sharply increase.
What to Do?
State and local educators saw only two possible solutions. Rebuild the entire Mercer Island campus, or relocate the children to a new school to be built on state-owned land. By this time, Mercer Island had become heavily suburbanized, and some nearby residents felt that a school of delinquents and runaways in their neighborhood was highly inappropriate.
Debate continued for five years, and in 1963 Senator Albert Thompson of Bellevue promoted legislation that authorized a new school to be built in Preston, located in central King County. The $4.5 million Echo Glen School was built, and opened in January, 1967, to 83 juveniles from both Luther Burbank and Martha Washington schools.
Questions remained on what to do with the Mercer Island property. Some wanted to see it developed; others wanted a golf course. Rumors that it would be turned into a State Park made some Mercer Islanders nervous, as they didn’t want “outsiders” descending on their island paradise.
A Park for All
The solution came in 1968, with the passage of Forward Thrust bond propositions. County voters authorized $118 million for parks and an aquarium, and King County ended up buying the 77-acre park for $2 million.
In 1976, the wooden buildings were burned to the ground to provide open space, but the 1928 brick dormitory was repaired and refurbished. At first it was leased to the Mercer Island Park and Recreation Department, and later the King County Parks Department used it.
In 2001, a $52 million general fund shortfall led to the closure of 20 parks throughout the county. Luther Burbank Park was one of them. In 2002, the King County Council approved the transfer of the ownership of the park to the City of Mercer Island.