I was admiring the beauties of the Japanese Tea Garden in Portland, Ore., last month when I realized that we have a very fine one much closer to me, in San Francisco. So I began to do a little researching and found out not only was the San Francisco tea garden the first in the United States, it was the place where the fortune cookie was introduced.

The story starts in 1894 with the California Midwinter International Exposition.

M.H. de Young, publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle, noted that the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World's Fair, attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors during its six-month run. This convinced de Young that a similar enterprise in California would boost its economy, which was in bad shape.

John McLaren, superintendent of Golden Gate Park, strongly opposed the fair, contending that all those buildings would ruin the natural beauty of the park. He lost the argument, but told the park commissioners that the buildings would be temporary and torn down after the fair.

The Midwinter fair opened at the end of January 1894 and ran until July 5. It was San Francisco's first international exposition. One hundred buildings were erected on 200 acres in Golden Gate Park. The center of the fair was a 266-foot iron tower reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It was built to promote the wonders of electricity. Besides the many lights outlining its shape, there was a spotlight at the top. The courageous, who wanted a bird's-eye view, could climb to the top. At the fair's end, dismantling the structure was no simple thing. So McLaren blew it up and sold the remains to a junk yard.


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George T. Marsh won the bid to construct a Japanese Village at the fair with a tea garden. He was born in Australia and had lived in Japan as a young man. He loved all things Japanese and owned a store in San Francisco that sold Japanese curios. Marsh acquired the services of Makoto Hagiwara to design and maintain the tea garden. It became one of the most popular features of the fair.

The first fortune cookies eaten in the United States were served at Hagiwara's tea garden. He got his baker Ben-Kyo-Do to bake a cookie that was like one served in Japan during the New Year holiday. Unlike the cookie served in Japan, this one was sweet. Both cookies and tea were served in the garden by women dressed in kimonos.

The tea garden was one of two sites saved after the fair; the other was the art museum. The Hagiwaras lived in a house in the garden. They took care of the garden until 1942, after World War II had broken out. The family was interned, and while it was promised that they could resume their place in the garden when they returned, that promise was not kept. Even the name was changed to Oriental Tea Garden. It wasn't until 1952 that it got its original name back. Eventually, a plaque was placed in the garden acknowledging the work of the Hagiwaras.

Days Gone By appears on Sundays. Contact Nilda Rego at nildarego@comcast.net.