Before Western Hills

Biographical background on Lester Hawkins and Marshall Olbrich

By: David A. Laws
David Laws

David Laws was born and raised in London, England, where he graduated with a degree in physics with a minor…

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Lester Hawkins on the steps of the Big House. Jim Hickey at right, Fran Hodge seated. (July 30, 1978) Photo: Jim Flack

Lester Hawkins on the steps of the Big House. Jim Hickey at right, Fran Hodge seated. (July 30, 1978) Photo: Jim Flack

Lester Hawkins (1915-1985) and Marshall Olbrich (1920-1991), founders of Western Hills Rare Plant Nursery in Occidental, California, came from distinctly different worlds and backgrounds.

Born in New York State in 1915, Lester Hawkins was raised in Olympia, Washington where his father ran a small grocery store. He went to live with an aunt in Texas who was married to an oil millionaire. The plan was for Lester to attend the Colorado School of Mines to study geology and enter the oil industry but instead he moved to New York where he lived on 40 cents a day. Charismatic, opinionated, and with strong views on the ills of the capitalist system, Lester studied economics in the public library and made plans to write a book on the topic. Three years later, he moved again, eventually arriving in San Francisco where he worked as a journalist and edited book manuscripts.

Robert Marshall Olbrich and a twin brother were born into the family of prominent Madison, Wisconsin attorney and civic leader Michael B. Olbrich in 1920. In politics a Progressive Republican, Olbrich senior served as deputy attorney general for Wisconsin, a special counsel for the state, and a regent of the University of Wisconsin from 1925 to 1929. He initiated a movement to acquire land for a garden site near Lake Monona that today is the nationally recognized Olbrich Botanical Gardens. Despondent over health and financial problems, in 1929 the senior Olbrich hanged himself. The family remained in Madison where Marshall earned an M.A. in Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin. He moved to Berkeley in 1942 to continue graduate work in philosophy at the University of California.

Lester and Marshall met while associating with colleagues in Berkeley having similar socialist leanings and opposition to the politics of the McCarthy era. They lived together in San Francisco in a relationship that, while enduring, was described by friends as like “two monkeys fighting in a barrel.” To escape the urban political scene and prejudice against their gay lifestyle, in 1959 they left their San Francisco apartment and professional careers to homestead on three acres of pastureland in Occidental, California, that Marshall purchased with a $2,300 inheritance.

Marshall Olbrich at planting bench with Betsy Flack in the background (July 30, 1978). Photo: Jim Flack

Marshall Olbrich at planting bench with Betsy Flack in the background (July 30, 1978). Photo: Jim Flack

While neither partner had any formal horticultural training, at Western Hills Lester emerged as a talented garden designer and Marshall as a master plantsman. Over the next 30 years, their unique combination of skills and personalities led to their development of the property into a garden and a place for sharing ideas that inspired a generation of horticulturists and landscape designers.

In addition to their work at the nursery, both men contributed research material and articles to many professional publications including many that appeared in the pages of Pacific Horticulture.