Category Archives: Stone family

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.

Frederick D. Stone Sr. at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

On a recent visit to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP), I perused with interest an 1884 Isaac L. Williams painting showing “staff and patrons” in the HSP library at the old 820 Spruce Street location.
FDS in paintingI thought I immediately recognized one of the staff, at the left of the painting: Witmer Stone’s father, Frederick Dawson Stone Sr.  You can do the comparison yourself:


The elder Stone was the head librarian at HSP from 1877 until his death in 1897. He was an expert on early Pennsylvania history, and had an extensive private collection of George Washington-related material. Witmer Stone worked in the HSP library briefly with his father after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1887, before beginning his long stint at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. One story has it that the father hoped his oldest son would follow him into the history field; Witmer was too obsessed with nature, however, although he was eventually considered the leading American ornithological historian of his day.

So the next time you visit HSP, look for the Williams painting (in the room immediately behind the reception desk), and picture that HSP might have looked like this if Frederick had been able to convince his bird-loving eldest to follow in his father’s occupational footsteps:

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Frederick D. Stone Sr. and the Battle of Carlisle

Witmer Stone’s father, Frederick Dawson Stone Sr., served in the Civil War with a militia unit, the First Regiment Infantry of Pennsylvania (the “Gray Reserves”). A statue commemorating the Gray Reserves stands outside the Union League Club at Broad and Sansom streets in Philadelphia. This was one of several similar clubs formed during the Civil War to support President Lincoln and the Union cause:

Gray Resesves

Frederick Stone was stationed at Carlisle when that town was shelled by Confederate artillery on the evening of July 1, 1863, in a small but important sideshow to the nearby Gettysburg battle. Frederick always remembered the horror of the shelling, with men around him falling to the ground after being struck. A marker at Carlisle describes the engagement (click for full size):


The pillars in front of Carlisle Courthouse still have Confederate artillery scars from the battle (pillar photos by Donald Webb):

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Closeup of pillar:

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If one of the Confederate shells at Carlisle on July 1, 1863 had followed a slightly different trajectory, you might not be reading this particular website blog right now.

Stock Grange

There were some little miracles that happened during the writing of Witmer Stone: The Fascination of Nature. One of them concerns an old farm that was owned by Stone’s ancestors, and where he spent many happy hours visiting while growing up. I had known about Stock Grange for years, having read an old Henry Fowler essay about it in the Academy of Natural Sciences Archives. I figured that by now the property was either a housing development or a Wal-Mart, especially in build-happy Chester County (Pa.). I found something online that indicated it was still standing in 2000, but about to be demolished by a developer. Imagine my delighted surprise when, in 2009, after a few queries to local historical societies, I was put in touch with the current owners of the still-extant Stock Grange! (Kudos to Vincent Visoskas of West Bradford Township for the connection.)

Witmer’s great-grandfather, John Dutton Steele, bought Stock Grange in 1805. Facing the side of the house, the low stone part on the right is the original structure, built in the mid-1700s; the stuccoed part on the left was added by Steele in c. 1810. Stone must have walked past that enormous oak tree a few thousand times over the years.

Stock Grange

It’s amazing how little the farmhouse and immediate vicinity have changed since Stone’s time. Here’s a photo then (c. 1890s; ANSP Archives):


….and one from 2009:


The photos look like they could have been taken 10 years, not 110 years, apart. How’s that for a small miracle?