How Portland ended up home to the world’s smallest park
By SAMANTHA SWINDLER | oregonlive.com | Published: April 5, 2021
PORTLAND, Ore. (Tribune News Service) — Early on St. Patrick’s Day, Daniel Misner, a horticulturist with Portland Parks & Recreation, visited Mill Ends Park to re-landscape the entire grounds.
It took less than 10 minutes.
This is no surprise to Portlanders familiar with Mill Ends Park, located on a traffic island in the middle of Naito Parkway at the intersection with Southwest Taylor Street. With a total area of 452 square inches, Mill Ends holds the distinction of being the World’s Smallest Park, a title formally bestowed by the Guinness Book of World Records in 1971.
“One of the biggest challenges is … it’s in the middle of a roadway,” Misner said. “We do have to replace the plant material on a regular basis due to traffic not being able to stay in their lane.”
The park has seen many changes over nearly seven decades. Not only because cars regularly run over it, but because as the street itself has been redesigned and repaved, so too has the park, whose founding has become a bit of local lore.
Over the years, signs – homemade and official – have appeared and disappeared, along with plastic dinosaurs, toy soldiers and Christmas ornaments on the park’s usual lone, diminutive tree.
“Because the public cares so much about this park and they love it so much, we often get a lot of guerrilla planting that happens with material that we would prefer not to have in there,” Misner said.
On April 20, 2018, for instance, someone planted cannabis in the park.
The city of Portland kindly requests folks don’t do that.
“We always come out here on St. Patrick’s Day, just to clean it up and dress up the park because it does have that lore about it,” Misner said. “Many people don’t know Mill Ends is home to the only leprechaun community outside of Ireland.”
Oh, did we forget to mention the leprechauns?
Mill Ends Park was named by the late Dick Fagan, a reporter who worked for the Oregon Journal newspaper throughout the 1940s, ’50s and and 1960s.
Bill Fagan said his father was an Iowa native who came out to Portland to work for the News-Telegram. When the paper folded, he joined the Oregon Journal.
Dick was drafted during World War II and served as a lieutenant in the Army in Alaska, where he kept up his reporting skills by writing for the Sourdough Sentinel. After the war ended, Dick rejoined the staff of the Oregon Journal, where he was an assistant editor and had a regular column called Mill Ends, named for the scraps of lumber left over at a mill.
“Mill Ends means bits and pieces,” said another son, Pat Fagan, “so he’d pick up a lot of quips and things that were happening in the neighborhood or in town and put those in his column.”
Legend has it that Fagan’s office window at the Journal looked down on what was then Front Avenue (and today is Naito Parkway). In his line of sight was a spot where a streetlight had been planned but was either removed or never installed. The concrete skirt remained around the hole, which was an eyesore filled with weeds.
In one version of the tale, Fagan reportedly caught a leprechaun and was granted three wishes. He asked to have many children (there were five kids in the family), to have the leprechaun write his column (though Fagan still had to type it himself) and to have his own park (which was a 2-foot-wide hole in the ground).
A slightly more official source, the city of Portland’s Parks & Recreation department website, says Fagan established the tiny park on St. Patrick’s Day 1948.
And while that date has been widely reported, it doesn’t appear to be true.
The first mention of “Mill Ends Park” in the Oregon Journal archives is from a Feb. 24, 1954, column in which Fagan writes “Mill Ends Park was officially dedicated Tuesday morning,” after being known as such “for lo these many years.”
But he was a known jokester. Most likely, it was all a gag – and a publicity stunt over roses.
In 1954, the city of Portland was in a battle with the city of Columbus, Ohio, which claimed to have opened “the world’s largest municipal rose garden.”
The City of Roses would not stand for such insult.
Throughout 1954, the Roses for Portland Committee held a variety of events encouraging Portlanders to plant roses, including a contest to name a new rose variety. The winner was Mrs. Ward S. George, who suggested “Portland’s Envoy.”
A day before the first mention of “Mill Ends Park,” on Feb. 23, 1954, the Oregon Journal reported on the planting of an envoy rose bush for “Portland Envoy Park” by the Roses for Portland Committee, who claimed it to be the “world’s smallest park” at that same location at Front and Taylor streets. Fagan is shown in the ceremonial planting photo.
Fagan’s column the following day reported the planting of the envoy rose and noted that those in attendance included the superintendent of parks, the chair of the Roses for Portland committee, the Portland Rose Society president, “and some refugees from The Journal garden department who have had the temerity to claim that this plot of land is Portland Envoy park, instead of Mill Ends park.”
There are more articles from 1954 which point to a friendly rivalry and publicity stunt over the name of the tiny park.
“Fagan, TV personality and sometimes newspaper man, stood at the north end of the traffic island and surveyed the rolling expanse of splendid soil that makes up Portland Envoy Park,” the Oregon Journal reported on March 7, 1954. “That’s where the green work (for which there is no commercial spray available) of envy must have put in its appearance, for Fagan then and there began claiming it (with all the flowery gesturing of Columbus landing on the New World) in the ‘Name of Mill Ends.’”
This connection to the true founding date of Mill Ends Park seems to have first been reported in the 2014 book “PDXccentric,” written by Scott Cook and Aimee Wade. Wade also dug up a 1955 letter from the superintendent of parks who confirmed the entire thing was a “stunt to publicize ‘Rose Planting Week’ " dreamed up by the Oregon Journal.
Over time, the rose bush was replaced with other flowers, plants and leprechaun-themed amenities.
“(Fagan) is still the definite founder of this. He is in that first photo,” Wade said. “He was just doing it for a different reason than meeting a leprechaun. He was trying to keep the title of the City of Roses, and that’s so much more important.”
However it started, the tiny park became a popular Portland point of interest due to Fagan’s regular column writing.
When crews were working on the nearby Hawthorne Bridge, they used an actual, full-sized crane to install a 5-inch Ferris wheel at the park. St. Patrick’s Day was regular cause for celebration at Mill Ends Park.
“Dad would go into my mom’s china closet, and get her good china, and Mom would roll her eyes but it was OK, and he’d take it down to the park and they would have snail races,” Dick’s daughter, Carolyn Litson said.
The Portland Rainmakers, a city ambassador group that was essentially a rowdier version of the Royal Rosarians, took part in the park’s shenanigans. Dick Fagan had a long-standing, good-natured feud with a local bagpiper troupe, who always came out to play the pipes on St. Patrick’s Day. The mayor and other city dignitaries would attend the celebration.
When the Oregon Journal was purchased by the publisher of The Oregonian and the two newsrooms moved to the same office space on Southwest Broadway, Fagan joked about moving the park as well. Ultimately, with consent of the leprechauns, it stayed put.
Mill Ends Park outlasted the Journal building, which was demolished in 1969. The site of the former Journal building is now Tom McCall Waterfront Park.
Dick Fagan became ill with lung cancer and died at age 58. Just weeks before his death in November 1969, a special proclamation was made, signed by Gov. Tom McCall, honoring him “for his contributions to the livability of the city of Portland and Oregon, exemplifying fun in good taste, and particularly for his foresight in establishing the original Willamette River-Harbor Parkway, known as Mill Ends Park.”
The park continued to be celebrated after Fagan’s death. In 1976, the spot was officially adopted as a park by the Portland Parks & Recreation department.
And every St. Patrick’s Day, in what is most likely not a city-sanctioned event, the descendants of Dick Fagan still gather at Mill Ends Park to raise a toast in his honor. On March 17 of this year, tiny paper cups filled with either Baileys or Jameson were passed among the adults. Bill Fagan read the names of the Fagan clan who have died. His son, Shaun Fagan, recited an Irish blessing, and the roughly 20 people in attendance raised their cups.
“May the road rise up to meet you, may the wind be always at your back, may the sun shine warm upon your face, may the rains fall soft upon your fields, and until we meet again, may the Lord hold you in the palm of his hand,” Shaun said.
Bill, Pat and Carolyn did not follow their father into the world of journalism, though they do seem to share his penchant for making up stories. The three siblings worked together at Bill’s lumber yard – a form of “mill ends,” one could suppose.
For 27 years, they ran a building supply store in Tigard called Elmo Studd’s.
“They wanted to call it ‘Studd’s’ and we said ‘What kind of phone calls are you going to get?’ " said Bill’s wife, Diane Fagan. “So they said ‘OK, let’s throw a name in front of it,’ and it was Elmo. People kept coming in and saying ‘Could I talk to Elmo?’ There isn’t one.”
The Fagans retired from the hardware store, which was sold and later closed.
Mill Ends Park, however, lives on.
“It’s a very precious gift that our father left us,” Carolyn said. “It’s helped us be able to live the memories with happy thoughts and to be able to grant those to the kids and the grandkids. I think it is a legacy that he left Portland, too.”
(c)2021 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)
Visit The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.) at www.oregonian.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.