Sam McDonald's Sanctuary in the Redwoods
Thursday, February 1, 2018
Now back in 1919 I had acquired . . . a plot amids the redwoods on the Alpine Creek at La Honda. There through the years I have built a humble retreat, my lodge, Chee-Chee-Wa-Wa, ‘neath the lords of the Chicsaw forest, and this nature’s sanctuary brings me to peace and rest and reflection.
It’s February and improvements to the visitor’s center at Sam McDonald County Park are coming right along. The rain gutters are hung, the new flooring laid, the paint is drying on the walls. Soon the new interpretive displays will be installed and what could be more fitting—as February is also Black History Month—than to pause and remember local legend and park namesake, Sam McDonald.
Emanuel “Sam” McDonald (1884-1957) was a man celebrated in his own lifetime. A grandson of Louisiana slaves who left his family at age 16, Sam went on to become the superintendent of athletic grounds and buildings on Stanford University Campus and a man known and admired by many illustrious people of his day, including President Herbert Hoover and his wife (with whom Sam shared gardening tips). He was a cherished friend to many Stanford students and faculty, famed for his barbecues and for his dedication to the Stanford Convalescent Home for Children, or “Con Home,” for which he organized an annual student work party, later called “Sam McDonald Day.”
In 1919 Sam purchased 430 acres of forest in La Honda and became the sole landowner of color in the California Redwoods. As he had at Stanford, Sam quickly endeared himself to village of La Honda, where he was often seen motoring up and down the wooded roads in his old, but well-kept Model B Ford roadster.
More Fun Facts about Sam and Sam McDonald Park
- Shortly after leaving his family at age 16, Sam worked as a chore boy, swamper, and galley hand on the San Francisco-Sacramento riverboat Modoc. This is also the name of one of the youth campgrounds at Sam McDonald Park.
- Sam was a national authority on running tracks and replaced Stanford's Angell Field track, which was originally surfaced with crushed rubble from the 1906 earthquake, with a state of the art track. He devised a much-copied method of mowing athletic fields in opposite directions at regular intervals to give the appearance of striped turfing.
- During World War II, when Christmas trees were in short supply due to a manpower shortage, Sam would rove his property looking for the perfect Christmas tree to deliver to the Stanford Convalescent Home for the children to decorate. He also enjoyed playing his concertina for them.
- Sam attended every “Big Game” (a rivalry game between Stanford & Cal Berkeley) for 50 years running. Sadly, he died just before the 1957 Big Game. That evening when the band celebrated victory by taking the field and playing the Stanford anthem, instead of standing in the traditional “axe” formation they formed the letters: S-A-M.
- Chee-Chee-Wa-Wa Lodge was used as a honeymoon getaway by Sam’s student friends. The lodge is still standing, though damaged by flood water. It’s still painted red, too. In tribute to the redwood ‘lords of the forest’? Perhaps. But more likely: a tribute to Stanford football.
Sam built a lodge overlooking Alpine Creek and named it Chee-Chee-Wa-Wa (an American Indian word meaning, he said, “Little Squirrel”). He dammed the creek and created a pool he called Lake Moqui, after a Hopi princess. It was to be a sanctuary, “an asylum to all the woodland creatures,” but also to Sam’s friends. At Sam’s invitation a steady stream of guests—students, sports officials, campus staff and their families—came to Chee-Chee-Wa-Wa to splash in chilly Lake Moqui and to enjoy Sam’s barbecue lamb and beef. After a disheartening loss in 1921 Stanford football coach Eugene Van Gent approached Sam, apologetic for the lateness of the request, but wondering if the team might come up for a last minute barbecue. The players had discussed it and had determined that only a barbecue at Chee-Chee-Wa-Wa could raise their spirits. Sam welcomed them with a barbecue “conducted in a spirit not before or since duplicated.”
This was Sam’s way. He loved sharing Chee-Chee-Wa-Wa with his friends and considered their visits an honor. He also loved the serenity he felt overlooking Lake Moqui and tromping up and down the densely wooded hills. “It is wisdom itself to find happiness with one’s fellow man,” he said. “Equally so with nature, the bounties of mother earth, and the creatures that walk, fly, creep, all begetting inspiration.”
Most of all Sam admired the redwoods, the “lords of the forest,” as he called them. Sam was a devoutly religious man whose eyes naturally turned heavenward and these giant trees inspired his loftiest thoughts and loftiest flights of language—“a Grand Aggregation of Lords” was one of his names for them. As Sam stood at 6’4”, his friends commonly noticed a likeness, both in stature and in noble nature, between Sam and the giant trees he loved.
At the end of his life Sam bequeathed his land to the Con Home, which a year later sold it to San Mateo County to keep as a sanctuary for woodland creatures, for trees, and for the people who delight in them. Sam McDonald is a hero of San Mateo County Parks, a reminder of the spirit in which this land has been preserved, a reminder of the kinds of moments that are possible here, moments spent connecting with others, moments spent connecting with nature.
Hike with Sam McDonald
This month we invite you to walk with Sam McDonald among his “lords of the forest.” For the most lordly of the lords make your way along Sam McDonald Park’s Heritage Trail to Heritage Grove, one of the last remaining stands of old-growth coastal redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains. These trees, some standing as high as 280 feet, are estimated to be 1,500 years old. We think Sam would welcome you here and remind you, in the presence of these lordly trees, to look up!