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Blog: Reimagining Gettysburg

Preservation and Entrepreneurship: The Ongoing Impact of Stephen Tyng Mather (Guest Blog Post)

September 16, 2019

Stephen T. Mather,
NPS photo

In 1914, Stephen Tyng Mather fired off an angry letter to Franklin Lane, secretary of the interior under President Woodrow Wilson. Mather had recently visited Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks and was angered by the neglect and commercial exploitation of these public lands.

This retired, 47-year-old multimillionaire had become famous for his creation of the “20 Mule Team Borax” advertising campaign, a word-of-mouth juggernaut that had turned a nondescript commodity into a ubiquitous household brand. Lane knew a good thing when he saw it and challenged Mather: come to Washington, D.C. for a year and lobby Congress for a National Parks Bureau.

At the time, America had 13 national parks and 18 national monuments split among (and mostly neglected by) the departments of War, Agriculture, and Interior. These 31 treasures had no uniform standards of operation. None were especially welcoming to visitors. Some were being decimated by mining and timber interests. And worse, there were no plans to rescue other endangered sites around the country.

Mather’s job was to interest Congress in national parks, which meant interesting voters, which meant making the parks attractive and accessible—but without funding from Congress. One skeptical senator noted that “there are no votes in Yellowstone Park for the Republican or Democratic Party.” Another opined that the federal government was not in the business of raising wild animals.

For Stephen Mather, success in lifting the fortunes of Borax turned out to be perfect practice for this seemingly impossible chicken-and-egg.

In his first 12 months, the new assistant secretary worked the corridors of Washington, traveled 30,000 miles, and hosted one of the most spectacular lobbying sessions in American history—19 politicians, businessmen, scientists, and the editor of “National Geographic” traveling together in the wilderness of America on foot, horseback, and automobile. The “Mather Mountain Party” visited Sequoia, the Giant Forest, Kern River Canyon, and Mount Whitney, which most of its members climbed. And each evening, around every campfire, Mather lobbied his captive explorers in support of a national park system.

Mather Mountain Party of 1915, NPS photo

“If he was out to make a convert,” one participant said of Mather, “the subject never knew what hit him.”

We know the ending to this remarkable story. Mather is the primary reason we have a National Park Service. His personal donations totaled some quarter-million dollars. He became its first director, spending 13 years at the helm. He laid the cornerstone of the preservation efforts that have come to define parks such as Gettysburg National Military Park and Eisenhower National Historic Site.

I tell the story of Stephen Mather in my new book, “Innovation on Tap: Stories of Entrepreneurship from the Cotton Gin to Broadway’s Hamilton.” In all honesty, being associated with Gettysburg Foundation is one of the reasons I chose to research and feature Mather. His lessons still resonate:  Public lands are precious. Preservation is hard work. Education is essential. Philanthropy is an entrepreneurial activity—and a contact sport. Friends are precious.    

Stephen T. Mather, first
National Park Service Director,
NPS photo

There’s something else worth knowing about Stephen Mather. He suffered throughout his life from what might be diagnosed today as manic depression. In fact, there were times when depression made it impossible for him to work. But he found, for reasons that science has only recently come to understand, that being in nature helped him to heal. That’s one reason he spent so much time visiting our nascent national parks, why his indignation at their treatment was so keenly felt.

Mather’s healing was rooted in the land. It is a notion that we fully embrace at Gettysburg, where the land speaks to each of us. For some it tells the story of battle, of courage and faith, of victory and of lost chances. For others it is a fragile ecosystem to be studied and protected. For still others it inspires poetry and art. And for some it is a place of contemplation and serenity, of reflection and healing.

Historian Wilfred McClay reminds us that America may be an idea, but it is also a nation “connected to a particular piece of real estate.” It is a place, McClay adds, “with a venerable history created by men and women to whom our veneration is owed.” Stephen Mather is one of those people. His entrepreneurial spirit, drive, and generosity inform our work at Gettysburg Foundation every day.


Eric B. Schultz
Chair, Gettysburg Foundation

Schultz's latest book, “Innovation on Tap: Stories of Entrepreneurship from the Cotton Gin to Broadway’s Hamilton,” is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Schultz’s Board of Directors Chair term, 2017-2020