Exhibit Overview

Charles Matthias Goethe (1875-1966) was a prosperous local Sacramento businessman and a highly influential public figure in California and nationally over much of the twentieth century. While he is most frequently remembered for his dedication to nature conservation, Charles M. Goethe was also a significant proponent of eugenics. In addition to documenting Goethe’s place in Sacramento history and his relationship with Sacramento State, the exhibit is designed to encourage contemplation of Goethe’s eugenic vision according to the mantras he coined as a young man and which he believed were equally important to “human betterment”: “learn to read the trailside as a book” and “reduce biological illiteracy.”

Charles M. Goethe: His Life and Eugenic Vision is organized into five sections: Timeline, Introduction, California Eugenics Movement: “Reduce Biological Illiteracy,” and Conservation: “How to Read the Trailside as a Book.” Personal letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings, photographs, publications, and artifacts can be viewed in the exhibit. The exhibit materials were selected from the Charles M. Goethe papers and related papers from the Department of Special Collections and University Archives, The Library at California State University, Sacramento.

The Timeline section documents key dates in the life of Charles M. Goethe through his personal and business life, his role in eugenics, and involvement with California State University, Sacramento. The timeline provides a glance into Charles M. Goethe’s life with images relevant to some of the dates. Some of the images only appear in the timeline, such as the Tuberculosis Sanitarium photograph. 

The Introduction section looks at the personal life of Charles M. Goethe. The focus of the Introduction section is on Goethe’s marriage to Mary Glide Goethe, his real estate holdings, and the honors given to him. Goethe was praised for his conservation efforts and for his involvement in the community.      

The California Eugenics Movement: “Reduce Biological Illiteracy” section documents Goethe’s lifelong efforts to “reduce biological illiteracy.” Goethe was an influential member of a number of eugenics organizations in California. Goethe also co-founded the Eugenics Society of Northern California in the 1930s. Believing that the application of the laws of heredity would solve social problems and “improve the race,” Goethe was instrumental in promoting immigration restriction legislation and advocating for selective breeding. This section includes Goethe’s passport, eugenics pamphlets, books, letters, newspaper clipping, “American Know-How” quotes, and “reducing biological illiteracy” materials.

The Conservation: “How to Read the Trailside as a Book” section examines Goethe’s commitment to conservation as a means of human betterment. In pursuit of his eugenic vision, Goethe used his substantial wealth to establish a number of memorial groves in Northern California through the Save-the-Redwoods Foundation. With his wife, Mary “Mimi” Glide, Goethe supported the development of the interpretive parks movement, which laid the foundation for the educational dimensions of the nation’s modern parks system. The C. M. Goethe Arboretum was created on the California State University, Sacramento campus near the front entrance to the campus.  

The California State University, California section examines Charles M. Goethe’s role in the founding of the university and his continued support of the university. Goethe was the first Chairman of the Board of Trustees for California State University, Sacramento (originally named Sacramento State College). Goethe corresponded with professors, and the presidents of the university. Goethe was close friends with President Guy West and Professor Rodger Bishton. Although Sacramento State was the largest beneficiary of Goethe’s estate, how best to remember and address the complex legacy of Charles M. Goethe at Sacramento State remains an unresolved issue. The mutually supportive relationship between Goethe and Sacramento State was contested even before his death. In the late 1960s, student and faculty protests blocked proposed plans to name the campus's new science building in Goethe's honor. Until recently, the C. M. Goethe Arboretum (since renamed the University Arboretum) was the last physical marker of Goethe’s influence on the campus.

This exhibit is motivated by the belief that a thorough and honest examination of Goethe’s eugenic vision, as well as his contributions to Sacramento State and conservation, will lead the campus to an appropriate reckoning with the Goethe legacy.