The nation’s first storybook theme park was imagined by a nurseryman. And now the last of the Bay Area nurseries bearing his name have been sold, ending 130 years of Navlet’s Garden Centers’ service to the community.
When Arthur Navlet took over the management of his family’s seed and plant stores in 1923, he focused his attention on Navlet’s Nursery on Telegraph Ave. in Oakland, in what is now the Uptown. In the late 1940s, he and his wife visited Detroit’s Belle Isle Zoo, where he was impressed with the whimsical and child-centered feel of the place.
Although the Navlets had no children of their own, Arthur was convinced that Oakland needed a place that was kid-sized — “a dream of every child come true.” He teamed up with the Lake Merritt Breakfast Club (which created Fairyland, and still meets every Thursday morning at 7:30 a.m.) and local political powerhouse William Penn Mott, Jr., and Fairyland’s gates opened 66 years ago. Plants and animals were an important part of the park’s original design.
I’m thinking of Arthur Navlet this week as we nominate Fairyland’s landscape supervisor/horticulturalist for an American Public Gardens Association 2016 Professional Citation, which recognizes someone who embodies “great skills, innovation and potential.” We think our Jackie Salas more than fits the bill.
During her five years at Fairyland, Jackie has worked tirelessly to support our mission through thoughtful, whimsical plantings that aim to foster a child’s curiosity, imagination and appreciation of nature. Parents enjoy our beautiful gardens as well, and we are honored to receive funding from a number of local garden clubs.
We aim to maximize every inch of our 10 acres in the heart of downtown Oakland for the greatest community good, and Jackie has embraced the challenge. She has increased the visibility and recognition of our display gardens, as well as our rich urban wildlife habitat, while using organic gardening practices. As one of the key players in Oakland’s Pollinator Posse, she has planted native milkweed, which has attracted hundreds of caterpillars that are harvested by local school kids, who, after observing their transformation process, then release butterflies back into Lakeside Park.
Under Jackie’s supervision – propagating, planting and maintaining a variety of native and ornamental plants, from turf to redwood trees – our gardens have attracted local fauna and become an urban oasis for both children and wildlife.
Jackie implemented Fairyland’s first educational horticultural program, “Jackie and the Beanstalk,” for school field trips, and participates in our summer day camp, which features eight garden lessons aligned with the camp’s changing weekly theme. For example, during “Space Race” week, she had children building terrariums to mimic growth chambers. They created hybridization ideas during “Invention Convention” week; using Fairyland-grown limes they learned how to prevent scurvy for “A Pirate’s Life for Me” week.
Jackie’s goal is to make gardens and dirt fun, inspiring the next generation to get as excited about science as she is. Our organic food garden is a revelation for many of our young, inner-city kids, who are encouraged to get down and dirty with us.
One program holds a special place in my heart. I’d had no idea that horticultural therapy existed until I watched Jackie and our education director spend time with a class of autistic kids. Using plants from our garden, they explored all of their senses. The look of joy on the face of one boy who bravely ate an edible flower was priceless. His mother couldn’t believe he was inspired to take the risk.
Arthur Navlet died in 1981, before our nonprofit organization was created to become the park’s steward. Just as we strive to hold true to the vision of the park’s creators, representatives of the local, independently owned Sloat Garden Center have publically pledged that they will honor and respect the legacy of Navlet Garden Centers. They’ve offered jobs to all of Navlet's employees, most of whom are expected to remain with the company.
A sign on the front door of the Pleasant Hill Navlet’s last week read: “We truly appreciate your support over the years, and will always be grateful.”
And we will always be grateful to the nurseryman whose dream now delights over 220,000 visitors each year. We think he’d be happy that Jackie Salas is not only tending to the grounds but also inspiring the next generation to think, play and dream – in green.
C.J. Hirschfield has served for 13 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry. C.J. is former president and current board member of the California Attractions and Parks Association, and also serves on the boards of Visit Oakland and the Lake Merritt/Uptown Business Improvement District. C.J. writes a weekly column for the Piedmont Post and OaklandLocal, where she loves to showcase the beauty of her city and its people. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.