Category Archives: Germantown

Germantown Academy Days

I am delighted to have an article about Witmer Stone’s Germantown days appearing in the current issue of the Germantown Historical Society’s journal The Crier. It’s an edited excerpt of passages from The Fascination of Nature, with some new material, including this about Germantown Academy (GA), Stone’s alma mater:

“Stone gave the commencement address at GA in 1935 and shared some recollections of his schoolboy days. Due to overcrowding, the school sat some of the boys at double-desks, instead of the usual single ones. Stone ended up having to share one with a younger boy named George Patterson, who continually encroached onto Stone’s half of the desk. Patterson later went on to international fame as a cricket player. There was an orchard adjacent to the schoolyard, and Stone said it was remarkable how many times the soccer ball was ‘accidentally’ kicked over the orchard fence when the apples were ripe. The school’s gymnasium was located in the attic, where the sloping roof prevented the students from attempting any overly ambitious athletic maneuvers on the rings or bars. The boys waggishly gave one teacher, Frank Fretz, the nickname ‘Father Fretz’ from his habit of addressing every student as ‘my son.’ The young scholars had to memorize the list of U.S. presidents in order; years later, thanks to the rote learning, Stone could still easily remember all of them through Rutherford B. Hayes (in office during Stone’s GA days), but had to stop and think to recall the ones since then.”

GA was, of course, actually in Germantown in Stone’s day; it moved to its current location in Ft. Washington in 1965. The old campus, with buildings dating from Stone’s time, is now occupied by the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf:


The GA historical collection doesn’t contain any photos of Stone’s 1883 graduating class, but it does have one of his younger brother Frederick’s 1889 class, which included future University of Pennsylvania president Thomas S. Gates, and future Bird Studies at Old Cape May illustrator Herbert Brown, one of the Brown brothers with whom the Stone boys were great friends:

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Witmer delivered guest lectures about natural history at his alma mater in the 1890s, sparking a lifelong interest in ornithology in at least one of the students, and he always had a soft spot for his GA days. On a visit to the school grounds in April 2015, I could almost envision Stone and his classmates out on lunch recess, boisterously bantering, running and chasing, with the old soccer ball flying repeatedly into the orchard.

Wister Woods

In their youth, Witmer Stone, his brother Frederick, and their friends the Brown brothers – Amos, Stewardson, Herbert, and Francis – used to roam the wilds of Germantown (there’s a phrase that just doesn’t look right today). They tramped, climbed, observed, and collected to their hearts’ content; Witmer later recalled, “Our aim was to become familiar with all of the animal and plant life of that part of Germantown, as well as the minerals and rocks, and I think we nearly succeeded.” He described the area as “miles of open country, with delightful bits of woodland here and there, and the Wingohocking Creek, [which was] then a clear open stream.” One of the delightful bits of woodland was Wister Woods (“Fisher’s Woods” in Stone’s boyhood), part of the old Wister estate and a minute’s walk from the Stone house on Logan Street. When he was 16, Witmer drew a Liparis lilifolia (an orchid) that he found growing there (from the ANSP Archives):

Twayblade ANSP2

By the time Stone moved back to Germantown in 1922, the area was preserved as part of Fairmount Park, but a road (Belfield Avenue) had recently been put through the center of the woods, directly over where the now-buried Wingohocking Creek used to flow.

Migrating warblers can be found flitting and singing in the woods in spring, and a pair of Red-tailed Hawks lives there – maybe the direct descendants of a bird about which Stewardson Brown wrote in his journal for January 2, 1888, “Saw a large Red-tailed Hawk down by the Big willow and Stones [Witmer’s nickname] got a shot but did not kill him.” Today’s “woods” are really just two thin strips on either side of wide, busy Belfield Ave., which is bordered by lawn areas. Interestingly, for “woods” that are much less than 100 yards across at some points, and less than 200 at their widest, it can be surprisingly tough going in places. I’ve had to clamber over downed trees and a congested understory, and at times it can feel more like clawing through a jungle deep in the Amazon than trying to take a stroll in a city park. It is – happily – one of the extremely few places in Philly where you can experience having your pedestrian progress severely hampered by thick, primitive forest conditions.

Here’s Wister Woods Park in a satellite photo (click for full resolution; yellow asterisk marks where Stone lived growing up, although the house has been demolished):

Wister Woods satellite

I found a fox den along the railroad tracks:


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Wister Woods

Stone, Furness, and the Wingohocking Train Station

I’ve admired Frank Furness’s work for years, and while writing The Fascination of Nature I restrained myself mightily and only mentioned him twice. Furness designed the Wingohocking train station – one of several train station commissions he completed in his career. Stone used it for his daily trips to the Academy, and in three consecutive years he found Blue Jays nesting along the entrance path to the station. A visiting New York ornithologist, James Chapin, found the name of the little depot quite charming. “Wingohocking” was the Indian name of a creek in the area that has long since been forced underground, buried in a Philadelphia sewer line. The train station is also long gone, demolished in the early 1930s – one of the many Furness buildings sadly lost to indifference or outright hostile architectural snobbery in the mid-1900s. The location of the old station was equidistant between the Germantown and Wister stations on today’s SEPTA Chestnut Hill East Regional Rail line. Stone and Furness now repose not far from each other in Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery.

Lou Brownholtz published an excellent article on the Belfield Avenue area in the Germantown Historical Society’s Germantown Crier in 2006, and it’s the source of some of the info presented here. The only vestige of the station is the presence of a former entrance path (possibly the one the Blue Jays nested along), overgrown and easily overlooked, running between two cast iron fence lines at Baynton and Coulter streets:

Wingo Path

Here are a couple of old photos of the station:


WingStationInterior_600_x_432_JPEGSource: Lou Brownholtz