Tourists from around the world make visiting Henry Cowell State Park a bucket list item. Locals and travelers alike admire and appreciate the natural beauty of the sprawling meadow, the cool air beneath the towering redwoods, the clover-covered forest floor and the trails that lead throughout the park, which features a 40-acre grove of old-growth redwood trees, including one that’s approximately 277 feet tall, about 16 feet wide and around 1,500 years old.
While the self-guided tour provides insight as to the indefatigability of these trees and the benefits they provide to the fragile Santa Cruz ecosystem, few have studied the history around the park as thoroughly as Traci Bliss, author of Big Basin Redwood Forest: California’s Oldest State Park.
A portion of Bliss’ book is set to come to life on Oct. 21. In partnership with the Mountain Parks Foundation, the Rotary Club of Santa Cruz will present a historical reenactment of Rotary International honoring the ancient redwoods.
Attendees will witness a free performance featuring the 1938 dedication of The Rotary Tree on the Redwood Loop Trail. The event will feature members of four area Rotary clubs: San Lorenzo Valley, Santa Cruz, Scotts Valley and Sunrise Santa Cruz.
In the reenactment, Assemblymember Mark Stone, an avid environmentalist and 20-year member of Scotts Valley Rotary, will be playing the role of Paul Harris, founder of the Rotary Club in 1905. County Supervisor Bruce McPherson, who has been a member of Santa Cruz Rotary for 40 years, will be playing the role of then-Rotary International President Maurice Duperrey.
Period costumes from the ’20s and ’30s will be worn, and Bliss says there will be a couple of “real life villains” as part of the family-friendly play. Bliss expects the reenactment to last about 45 minutes.
“It’s a very moving story, but there are aspects that are humorous and entertaining,” says Bliss. “It’s the true story of how the park became Henry Cowell Redwoods in the 1950s.”
Bliss’ book, the product of 10 years of research and interviews, focuses on the efforts of women in the early 1900s to preserve the trees at Big Basin, and tangentially at Henry Cowell State Park.
“As I dug deeper into the subject, the story got bigger and bigger and bigger,” Bliss says. “At that time, the old newspapers started to become available online, and I’ve been able to tell the story thanks to digital newspapers and other resources.”
The book outlines the story of women who were part of the San José Women’s Club (SJWC) in California. In 1896, women lost their attempt to get suffrage. That loss spurred a huge statewide network in support of suffrage, and the SJWC came together around the cause of preserving Big Basin.
Santa Cruz County took control of the park land in 1930, and named it Santa Cruz Big Trees County Park. In 1954, an adjacent parcel of land donated by Samuel “Harry” Cowell was combined with the property to create Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park named for Samuel’s father.
Within a few months of its founding, Santa Cruz Rotary led the preservation of our local redwood forests and establishing them as public parks. Subsequently, one of the tallest trees in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, the Giant, was dedicated to Rotary. It stands at about the halfway mark in the Redwood Loop.
Bliss says she’s buoyed by this remarkable story of peoples’ resilient commitment to the common good, unselfishness and refusal to give up.
“These individuals have inspired me in so many ways. They had no playbook; in fact, no one in the United States had ever done this before,” she says. “Their sheer determination, unselfishness and commitment is so inspiring. It’s truly a privilege to write about them.”
‘Rotary to the Rescue’ will be held on Friday, Oct. 21, 11:30am-2pm at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Felton. Free with $10 parking (RSVP required). bit.ly/3EBjlT8.