Used by permission from the Arizona Historical Society
“All the honors that Mrs. Douglas received can never express what an extraordinary woman she was. Her vitality, her great ability and knowledge and her kindness were known to all of us and…her influence will always live and enrich [others].” — Garden Club of America Bulletin, October 11, 1963
Margaret Bell Douglas’ greatest achievements sprang from a gift for horticulture that was recognized nationwide. Her contributions live on in Phoenix and Bisbee, which was the Douglases’ home for twenty-six years.
Born in Montreal in February of 1890, Margaret began her life of travels at an early age. Her father, Robert Bell, was a geologist who conducted surveys and mapping expeditions in Canada. On one trip when he ventured into Alaska, his young daughter traveled in a cradleboard on the back of an Eskimo. When she was about 18, she went to study in Europe. The highlight of the trip was a visit to Great Britain where she was presented to Queen Victoria in ceremonies at the Court of St. James.
After her return to the United States, Margaret met Walter Douglas, a young Canadian-born mining engineer who managed the Copper Queen Consolidated Mining Company’s operations in Bisbee. Walter’s father, Dr. James Douglas, served on the board of Phelps, Dodge and Company of New York, which owned the Copper Queen. Walter also acted as managing director of the El Paso and Southwestern Railroad, built by the mine to ship ore from the smelter at Bisbee, and later from the newly created town of Douglas.
Margaret and Walter married in September of 1902, and Walter brought his bride to Bisbee. That same year the newlyweds celebrated his promotion to the position of general manager of the Phlelps Dodge western operations. Living first in an adobe home at the center of town, Margaret and Walter Douglas raised five children. In 1908, they moved into a forty-one-room house in Warren, just outside of town, and gave their original home to the YWCA.
Margaret and her children escaped the summer heat by taking the train to Santa Barbara, California, where they owned property and where she rented out several cottages to other Arizonans heading for the beach. During these years Margaret began to develop her interest in plants and gardening. She supervised tile landscaping of the Copper Queen Hospital. Her next undertaking had a broader impact. The El Paso and Southwestern (EP & SW) Railroad had been expanding, and in 1912 finished a line from Benson to Tucson, giving competition to the Southern Pacific, which had operated in Tucson since 1880. Margaret knew that an attractive garden would help promote the EP & SW’s new Tucson depot, which opened in December of 1913. The Douglases hired Carmillo Fenzi, a landscape architect from Santa Barbara, for the job. Next Margaret organized a garden contest to improve the isolated railroad settlements along the line from Tucson to Douglas and El Paso. She provided flower and vegetable seeds and succeeded in transforming dreary barrenness with luster and beauty.
After Walter’s promotion to president of Phelps Dodge in 1917, the Douglases traveled constantly between Bisbee and a second home in Chauncey, New York. In 1928, the Douglases bought a 120-acre farm in Phoenix. They supervised construction of a house and garden and the planting of date and citrus bees. Margaret canned dates and other delicacies as gifts for her friends.
More traveling was in store for this energetic woman when her husband’s career took a new direction. A member of the board of Southern Pacific since the EP & SW’s merger with that company in 1924, Walter retired from Phelps Dodge in 1930. A year later he became president of the Sud Pacifico de Mexico railroad line, and the Douglases moved to Mexico for nine years. There Margaret broadened her knowledge of botany with exciting results. A member-at-large in the Garden Club of America since 1921, she now created her own agenda. Working with Sud Pacifico and the Mexican government, she and an East Indian horticulturist established experimental agricultural stations along the west coast of Mexico in carefully chosen locations. The goal of this project was to improve native varieties of corn, flax, and other crops. Margaret also imported the solo papaya plant from Hawaii, thus introducing a new crop to Mexico.
She continued her landscape design work when the railroad built the Playa de Cortez hotel and gardens in Guaymas. Other activities included staging flower shows as she had in the States and hosting the Garden Club of America’s trip to Mexico in 1937.
Margaret’s involvement in local, national, and international cultural organizations increased after Walter’s second retirement in about 1940. She was a member of the New York Horticultural Society and served on the advisory Council of the New York Botanical Gardens and the board of New York City Memorial Hospital. As chairperson of the members-at-large of the Garden Club of America, she entertained many club presidents in her New York home, winning support for the American Red Cross project to landscape the grounds of recreation halls and hospitals at army bases. In Arizona, Margaret oversaw the landscaping at Luke, Williams, and Davis Monthan Army Air Force Bases and at Fort Huachuca.
Margaret’s outreach to the community continued after Walter’s death in 1946. A member of the Phoenix Garden Club, in the late 1940s she joined her friend Gertrude Webster in establishing the Desert Botanical Gardens and donated 1,500 specimens to its herbarium. Preservation and conservation were increasingly important to Margaret. In the early 1950s, she worked with Phoenix council members Barry Goldwater and Margaret Kober to save Camelback Mountain from development. She also participated in the movement to save California’s redwoods.
Years of study and experience had established Margaret as a well-known botanist, respected for her extensive knowledge of the plant world and her work in conservation. Her work garnered a variety of tributes and honors. Three colleagues named plants for her. In 1952 Margaret received one of her greatest honors when tile Garden Club of America created the Margaret Douglas Award. Sculptor Rene P. Chambellan designed the medal, given yearly to a club member for outstanding contributions to conservation and human betterment. Two years later Margaret received the Garden Club’s Achievement Medal.
Margaret Douglas is also remembered for her support of cultural arts in Phoenix. In addition to helping the Phoenix Symphony and art museum, she served for more than thirty years as a trustee of the Heard Museum of Anthropology and Primitive Art, founded in 1929 by Margaret’s friend Maie Heard.
This unusually gifted woman remained active until a year before her death at the age of eighty-three. She died on October 10, 1963, and was buried beside her husband in Quebec, following services in Phoenix and Westchester, New York. Throughout her long life, Margaret Bell Douglas used her talents for her community and country. Her work with plants beautified many lives, and her conservation efforts inspired others to respect plant life. In Phoenix she joined other prominent citizens in founding and supporting various cultural and social organizations. As her friend Sylvia G. Byrnes said, Margaret Douglas’s “achievements will live on for all of us.”