The McCall House garden in the 1890s

153 Oak Street, showing Southern Magnolia tree.

The McCall House garden in the 1890s

Time Travel, Tragedy and a Magnificent Tree.
Photo essay published January 2023.

Picture the McCall House at 153 Oak Street if you are able to. If you are not able to picture it, please take a walk or a drive or a bicycle ride to see this historic house across the street from Northwest Nature Shop and two houses from Lithia Way.

McCall House at 153 Oak Street
Here is the front of the McCall House from the sidewalk. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Time travel to the 1850s

Now let’s do some time traveling, back to the 1850s. John McCall came to Jackson County in 1852, crossing the plains in a grueling four to five month journey with oxen-pulled wagon. Mary Elizabeth “Lizzie” Anderson made the long trek with her mother and siblings as an 18-year-old in 1854. Both John and Lizzie had short first marriages due to the death of their spouses. The two were united in matrimony on the 100th anniversary of the United States, July 4, 1876.

John McCall portrait.
John McCall photo portrait, no date. (from Ashland Tidings, November 4, 1895, in Mary Elizabeth McCall Scrapbook: 1876 – 1958)
Mary Elizabeth "Lizzie" McCall, no date
Photo portrait of Mary Elizabeth “Lizzie” McCall, no date. (from the Talent Historical Society news, January 2006, SOHS #6286)

April 20, 1890: A tragic day

John was a prominent businessman, Ashland Mayor and State Representative. Lizzie was a teacher and a leader in women’s service organizations. In 1883, they built one of the fanciest homes in Ashland at 153 Oak Street. The photo below shows their house soon after it was built.

April 20, 1890 was a tragic day for the family, the day John’s 17-year-old daughter Elsie died. Later that year, John and Lizzie planted the still-thriving Southern Magnolia tree in the front yard as a memorial to their daughter.

John and Lizzie McCall's house, probably 1883 or 1884
Here is John and Lizzie McCall’s house soon after it was built, probably in 1883 or 1884. (photo from Southern Oregon Digital Archives at SOU Hannon Library)

The McCall’s garden in 1891

An 1891 Ashland Tidings article I found in Lizzie McCall’s scrapbook grabbed me, first because of my interest in the historic Southern Magnolia. The Tidings reported, “The young magnolia tree at the McCall residence on Oak street is in full bloom, and the perfume from a number of very large flowers fills the air in its neighborhood. The magnolia does well here, and it is strange that there are not more of them in town.” 

Individual Southern Magnolia tree blossom.
I took a photo of this beautiful Southern Magnolia blossom on Williamson Way (not the McCall magnolia tree). And yes, it was fragrant! (photo by Peter Finkle, 2022)

I was very surprised when I read the rest of this short article. The July 17, 1891 story went on to say: “Mrs. McCall has something however, still more worthy of note than the magnolia tree – a Marechal Neil [should be spelled Niel] rose tree which covers the south wall of the house with a thick mat 27 feet long and ten or twelve feet high. When it is in bloom it presents a mass of more than 300 square feet of roses in the largest size and greatest fragrance. So far as known here, this is the largest Marechal Neil rose tree on record, and as it is remarkably thrifty, its size may be yet considerably increased.”

The Marechal Niel climbing rose

That was a massive climbing rose: 27 feet long by 10 or 12 feet high! To be that large in 1891, it must have been planted when the house was built in 1883 – and then have grown very quickly. To put the size of the McCall’s rose “tree” in perspective, the National Gardening Association Plants Database lists the Marechal Niel climbing rose typical height as 10 to 15 feet and typical length as 5 to 6 feet. Was it actually five or six climbing roses planted side by side, rather than just one “largest on record” Marechal Niel rose? We will never know. We do know that the Ashland Tidings of those days regularly took the stand that everything in Ashland was either “the biggest” or “the best.”

153 Oak Street, home of John and Lizzie McCall, late 1880s.
153 Oak St, home of John and Lizzie McCall, in the late 1880s. The climbing rose is probably located against the house on the left (south) side. (photo courtesy of Terry Skibby)

Here is how the Potomac Rose Society describes the Marechal Niel rose: “[It] is a repeat blooming, strongly fragrant, deep yellow climber with very large, very double, globular blooms that nod on dainty stems.  Bred in France by Henri and Giraud Pradel, the rose was introduced in 1864 and named after a French general, Napoleon III’s Minister of War. Paul Barden described Marechal Niel as being ‘one of the first truly deep yellow repeat blooming…. and much adored as such.'”

Marechal Niel climbing roses photo.
View of a lush Marechal Niel climbing rose. (photo from rosomones blog site)
Yellow Marechal Niel climbing rose.
Here is a lovely yellow Marechal Niel climbing rose. (photo from A Reverence for Roses website)

The McCall’s garden in 1897

The Ashland Tidings waxed lyrical about the McCall’s Southern Magnolia tree again on December 9, 1897. “Blizzards and zero weather in the east and magnolias in Ashland. That is about the state of the weather in the broad land this week. There is in the grounds of the residence of Mrs. J.M. McCall a most magnificent specimen of the Magnolia Alba Flora Plena [correct botanical name is Magnolia grandiflora] – a most stately tree – that has no less than 6 magnolia blossoms upon it, and in the month of December, too. It has been in constant bloom since early spring, and is undoubtedly, one of the most beautiful specimens of the variety on the Coast. The sunny south, the land of the magnolia, cannot show a better one.”

McCall House Southern Magnolia tree, c 1900
This photo shows the McCall Southern Magnolia about 1900, when it was about ten years old. (photo from Oregon Heritage Tree Committee meeting packet, October 27, 2017, courtesy of Nancy Appling)

The McCall Magnolia today

153 Oak Street, showing Southern Magnolia tree.
McCall House (built 1883) and Southern Magnolia tree (planted 1890) at 153 Oak Street. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

According to botanical websites, the average lifespan of Southern Magnolia trees is in the range of 80 to 120 years. The tree John and Lizzie McCall planted in 1890 to remember Elsie McCall is now 133 years old (as of 2023). In 2018, “Elsie’s magnolia” was chosen as an Oregon Heritage Tree because of the history stories it embodies.

Oregon Heritage Tree Program sign at McCall House, for the McCall Magnolia that was planted in 1890. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)


A Reverence for Roses website.

Ashland Tidings. July 17, 1891 and December 9, 1897.

Potomac Rose Society website.]

Rosomanes blog website.

1 Comment
  • Carol S. Browning
    Posted at 20:23h, 23 January Reply

    This is fascinating. I’d love to see this house with its amazing magnolia tree and huge roses too.

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