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Set #1 of Bird Studies Finds a Home

Witmer Stone is remembered today primarily as the author of the monumental Bird Studies at Old Cape May, published in 1937 – the book that put Cape May birding on the map. Its combination of detailed observations and meticulously compiled data provide us with a good idea of the Cape May avifauna circa the early 1900s.  One contemporary reviewer wrote, “Dr. Stone writes in simple, dignified English which at times in its beauty and vividness rises to literary distinction.” That elegant prose is still enjoyed by readers today.

The Delaware Valley Ornithological Club (DVOC) published the original 1,400 two-volume sets, and each has a page at the back of Volume 2 where the set number is printed (between 1 and 1,400).

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Stone gave set #1 to his wife Lillie, and it was signed by many of the men engaged in the production of the work, including the illustrators.

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The set has been in private hands since Lillie passed away in 1940, and it’s great news that it has recently found a new home in the Henry Janssen Library at the Berks History Center in Reading, PA, along with the original Earl Poole Osprey painting used as the frontispiece in Volume 1.

A photograph is affixed opposite the title page of Stone holding a BSOCM set in front of the Chestnut Hill home of Herbert Brown, who was a lifelong friend of Stone’s and one of the book’s illustrators.

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This a recent photo of the same house, and it doesn’t look like it’s changed a bit.

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The DVOC keeps track of the whereabouts of the original sets here. Many of Witmer’s effects went AWOL after Lillie died, including this set, so it’s a small and blessed wonder that it’s now housed at an institution that will give it a lot of TLC. Hopefully it will remain in its new home for good.

Witmer Wows ‘em at the Acorn

Witmer Stone gave hundreds of public talks over the years, beginning with a “pinch-hitting” appearance at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (ANSP) in 1892 after the scheduled speaker had to cancel at the last hour. He spoke frequently at Delaware Valley Ornithological Club (DVOC) and American Ornithologists’ Union meetings, and was a regularly featured speaker for 40 years at the Ludwick Institute’s meetings at ANSP.

In the spring of 1899, Stone delivered a series of five talks in a non-typical setting: the Acorn Club, an exclusive, aristocratic women’s club with a membership comprised of “Proper Philadelphians.” When I first came across a reference to the talks, I surmised, with equal parts humor and cynicism, that Witmer – a 33-year old bachelor at the time – was there looking for a wife. The probable real reason is a little less interesting: some of the members of the club were active in the recently-formed Pennsylvania Audubon Society, which was sponsoring the talks. (Some of the same women would soon form the Spencer F. Baird Ornithological Club, a ladies-only counterpart to the all-male DVOC.)

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The talks included “On the Delaware Meadows in Midwinter,” “Some Trips into Southern New Jersey,” “Why We Study Birds and How to Study Birds,” and “A Day in the Mountain Forests.” The latter talk was about Stone’s recent trips to the Lopez, Sullivan County, Pennsylvania region. A notice in a local newspaper said the talks would feature stuffed specimens of local birds, which sounds a bit macabre for a patrician women’s club until you remember that wealthy women – including, no doubt, some members of the Acorn Club – were contributing to the drastic decline of a few species by indulging in the fashion craze of the day of wearing stuffed birds in their hats.

Time marches on; the interests and social activism agendas of the Proper Philadelphians change. It’s probably been a while since someone gave a talk at the Acorn Club featuring bird skins. Unlike the skins, the Club itself is alive and well. It’s been at its current location at 1519 Locust Street for the past 50 years, and as the ladies chat over their crème brȗlèe these days, you can bet that none of them are suggesting they get an ornithologist to bring in a bunch of dead birds and tell them all about the Delaware meadows in midwinter.

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ANSP Frontiers article “What are archives good for?”

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The latest issue of the Academy of Natural Sciences’ quarterly magazine Frontiers includes an article I wrote about the importance of archives for efforts like Witmer Stone: The Fascination of Nature. It can be found on page 12 of the “Fall 2015″ link here. It’s great to see Witmer in Frontiers (in which he published two short articles late in his life), and kudos to editor Mary Alice Hartsock and the Academy for putting a spotlight on him!

 

Birthday Boy

IMG_9689On September 22, 1862, five days after the Union quasi-victory at Antietam, President Abraham Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which stated that on January 1, 1863, slaves would be declared emancipated in all Confederate states that were still at war with the Union. This is the second-most famous September 22nd in the nation’s history; the most famous, of course, came four years later when Witmer Stone was born to Anne and Frederick Stone in Philadelphia. The city’s black citizens held a parade every September 22nd for several years in celebration of the anniversary of Lincoln’s emancipation decree, and Stone later joked that the parade was held each year in honor of his birthday. While that’s not quite true, Philadelphia newspapers often noted the occasion (see photo).

There won’t be any parades today in Philadelphia for Witmer Stone or the Emancipation Proclamation – in fact, the city is entering full lockdown mode for a papal visit, and any parade floats would probably get towed – but us Witmer Stone Phans will, in our own quiet, Quaker, Witmer-like way, celebrate the 149th anniversary of the birth of our favorite ornithologist/botanist/author. So, as the WNSA boys would say, “Happy Birthday, Wit!”

Eliot Underdown

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Witmer Stone never had any children, but he had a paternalistic influence on many young men who were members of the DVOC and the AOU. One colleague wrote that Stone’s “knowledge, wit, and kindliness made him beloved to the beginners and the seasoned ‘wheel horses’ alike.”

Eliot Underdown took a strong interest in birds in his youth, and in 1923, at the age of 16, he joined both the DVOC and the AOU. He studied at the University of Pennsylvania, and worked under Stone for two years in the Academy of Natural Sciences’ (ANSP) ornithology department before moving on to the Field Museum in Chicago. One of the more poignant moments in Witmer Stone: The Fascination of Nature comes courtesy of a letter Underdown wrote to Stone from Chicago, thanking Stone for all he did to help Underdown in his ANSP days. Eliot also wrote that he followed the example set by Stone’s “modesty, and temperance of criticism of the work of others.” One gets a strong sense of the affection Underdown had for Stone, and of the effect that Stone’s kindly and patient personality had on the younger men fortunate enough to work with him.

Underdown was the son of Henry Underdown, DVOC treasurer for 32 years, and the cousin of another DVOC stalwart, the late Alan Brady. Eliot died too young, breaking short a promising ornithological career. He is buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia; unfortunately, his grave is unmonumented.

In this photo of a DVOC outing from the late 1920s, Underdown is at center, facing right:

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Catoxen Cabin

Some previous posts have mentioned Catoxen Cabin near Medford, New Jersey, built by Witmer Stone and a few friends in 1899, when the area was still rural. Stone once described typical visits to the cabin: “Here it was possible to live the life of the back woods whenever a day or two could be spared from the activities of business; when trees could be felled, meals cooked over the camp fire, a little game obtained, bird lists made up, or the wild creatures of the woods tracked in the winter’s snow.”

I found some references to Catoxen in Stone’s correspondence, and knew approximately where the cabin had been, but I assumed it was long gone. I made a few inquiries to local historical societies to see if anyone knew anything about its location. Fortunately one of them passed my query along to the inquisitive and tenacious Janet Jackson-Gould, and I was astonished to get an email from her telling me that the cabin was still standing, 112 years later! It’s part of Camp Dark Waters, a Quaker camp for kids, just across the Rancocas Creek from the Medford Leas retirement community. Here are some cabin photos from 100+ years ago alongside recent ones (that’s Witmer with ax, and wife Lillie in center in first photo):

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In 1914, Stone and the other owners worked a long, tiring day putting a new roof on the cabin, and if one of them had quipped then that the cabin looked like she could last another 100 years, there probably would have been some guffaws. Yet despite almost 90 years of continuous use by rowdy teenage boys in the interim, Catoxen remains upright. Architect and DVOC founding member George Spencer Morris “designed” the cabin (to the extent that such a small structure needs “designing”), and you have to think that some combination of his architectural acumen, the fellows’ carpentry skills, and the quality of the building materials used is the reason the place is still there. Kudos to Camp Dark Waters for taking such good care of this historic cabin − and “living” link to Witmer Stone −  for so many years!

You can visit the DVOC website to read the Morris and Stone Cassinia articles on Catoxen cabin.

 

Herbert and Leola Hall Coggins – Part 1

One of the more endearing characters in the Witmer Stone story has to be Herbert “Curly” Coggins, the affable DVOCer who moved to California in 1907 and never came back. His wonderfully whimsical way of describing “the baked potato incident” at Catoxen Cabin was one of the best little gems of letter writing that I came across during my research, and Stone’s characterization of him in the DVOC 20-Year Souvenir makes it obvious why he was such a DVOC favorite: Coggins “had the gift of looking at a thing from all sides and he generally took his final stand on the comical side and the worst of it was, things that others looked upon as serious looked comical to him and it was often hard to prove that he was wrong.” Coggins, 15 years younger than Stone, had gotten interested in birds after listening to Stone, on a visit to his alma mater, deliver a bird lecture to Coggins and the other students at Germantown Academy.

In The Fascination of Nature, citing a 1907 Cassinia article, I dutifully reported that Coggins moved to California in that year for health reasons. In a 1956 interview I found after publication, however, Coggins (who lived to be 93, dying in late 1974) threw a wrench into that minor storyline. His father and grandfather had both traipsed back and forth between California and Philadelphia at various times, as if they couldn’t decide which place they preferred to reside in, and Herbert said that in 1907 California beckoned: “I didn’t care much for Philadelphia as a city. I don’t like hot weather, and the cold weather is useless after you get too old to sled and skate…Perhaps I felt I belonged in California more than I did in Philadelphia…In one way, Philadelphia was drab. It was a business city, not particularly [culturally] colorful. Out in California there was more color.” One almost wonders if he didn’t cook up the health excuse as a way to avoid telling his DVOC and other Philadelphia friends that he just plain didn’t like the area and wanted to try the West Coast. Here’s a photo of Coggins from his California years (compare with the two Fascination photos of him):

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At any rate, in California he continued to work in the publishing industry, as he had in Philadelphia. Then he ran a cement business, and eventually an auto parts business. He turned to writing, publishing articles in The Atlantic Monthly and Collier’s Weekly; he even authored a children’s book. He became politically active in the Socialist Party, running unsuccessfully for various offices from 1918–1924, including the U.S. House of Representatives. He remained interested in birds, and for a time was president of the Cooper Ornithological Society. The best thing he did in California, however, was marry Leola Hall, a woman mentioned only in passing in The Fascination of Nature, but who is so interesting she deserves her own blog post. I’ll write about her in my next one.

Herbert and Leola Hall Coggins – Part 2

Herbert Coggins must have been a remarkable man, for he certainly married a remarkable woman who was way ahead of her time. Leola Hall was born in northern California, and studied painting as a young woman, including tutelages under some famous California artists. She worked in the office of her stepfather’s homebuilding business, and familiarized herself with the entire building process. Women architects and homebuilders were extremely rare at that time, but after people displaced by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake started settling in Berkeley, she began building homes there – designing the houses, sometimes supervising the construction, and decorating them. She built dozens of homes, some of which still stand.  One of the last ones she designed and built was the “Honeymoon Home” for her and her new husband, Herbert, in 1912, which is still extant. The couple never had any children.

After marriage, she turned more to politics (she was an active suffragist) and to painting portraits and landscapes. She was commissioned for portraits of Stanford president David Starr Jordan, poets Edwin Markham and Joaquin Miller, author George Wharton James, and artist William Keith (under whom she had studied), among others. Markham chose one of her portraits of him, which he deemed his favorite, to illustrate a book of his poems. This painting is said to be of hubbie Herbert, but it must have been shortly before she died; if it really is him, he’s decidedly not “curly” anymore, and looks like a tired old man, although he would not yet have been 50:

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Leola was a successful landscape artist as well. Here is her painting of Flat Iron Peak in the Superstition Mountains near Phoenix, AZ:

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A house in Monterey, CA:

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Herbert described the modus operandi behind her success: “She was a house builder. She started as an art student and took up designing sofa cushions. They sold so well they had to be lithographed, and she rested from that business and built a house and sold it before it was finished. [She was once asked how she accomplished things, and answered,] ‘Well, I went to people who were successful and asked them. I found that instead of feeling competitive, people liked to tell you how they succeeded.’ She’d go right to another contractor or painter and ask him, and he’d be glad to tell her. They enjoyed being a part of her success…The psychology of a woman making a man think he’s smart. But I don’t think she thought it out that way.”

Here’s a photo of Leola, who was clearly a lovely and stylish lady:

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Leola suffered from heart problems throughout her life, and they were the cause of her death shortly before her 50th birthday. She is buried in Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, CA. Some websites with information about this amazing woman: her gravesome portraits, and landscapes and other info here  and here.

Herbert “Curly” Coggins didn’t take the same path in life as his naturalist friends in the DVOC, and it appears that eventually he wasn’t even “curly” anymore. But he never lost his sunny disposition, and he lived a long, full, and fascinating life. For the Coggins quotes, and biographical details including some references to Stone, check out this interesting interview conducted in 1956 and archived at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley – it’s an excellent source for details about Herbert Coggins’s life.

 

Private Archibald G. Benners

For Memorial Day, I’d like to remember a DVOC member (mentioned in passing in The Fascination of Nature) killed in World War I in the fighting at Belleau Wood, France in the summer of 1918. In 1913, when he was 15, Archibald Wright Benners had joined the DVOC with his father, lawyer George B. Benners, with whom Archie collected birds and eggs. (Stone later mentioned George’s pet ravens, Never and More, in Bird Studies at Old Cape May.)

Stone wrote a nice Cassinia tribute to Archie in 1918 that was presumably based on information given to him by George (on second page here). I suspect the Cassinia article’s factual accuracy in its depiction of Archie’s military career, however, in light of a WWI memoir I stumbled across on the Internet (the magic of Google never ceases to amaze). Don Paradis, a gunnery sergeant, met Archie Benners on the transport ship to Europe, and described him as a spoiled rich kid and an alcoholic who had drank and flunked his way out of a military institute and two officers’ training schools. Some of Paradis’s details are incorrect, but (without going into a dissertation) some other things I found seem to corroborate his basic narrative of Benners.

So, was Archibald Benners the pampered lush portrayed by Paradis, or the upstanding, heroic soldier depicted by his father in Cassinia, or something in between? I don’t really care. What I know for sure is that he was mortally wounded at Belleau Wood and died a month later in a hospital near Paris. He paid the ultimate price serving the U.S.A., and for that we are all grateful – to him and to all the other veterans we remember today. Benners is buried in the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery at Belleau; there is also a cenotaph in the family’s plot at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, the same cemetery where Stone is buried:

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This New York Tribune photo of Benners puts a handsome young face on one more casualty in the horrifically long list of them from WWI:

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The ANSP Archives houses a note that the Benners family sent to Stone after their son’s death. IMG_7054ed2

Thanks to Russ Dodge for photos and info on his fine “Find A Grave” web page

 

Mentors

I was blessed by the fates to have grown up around the corner from Charlie Wonderly: Roxborough mailman, Boy Scout leader for 70 years, and an extraordinarily knowledgeable and engaging amateur natural historian. Charlie joined the DVOC in 1947, so never knew Stone, but he had a lot of great old stories about the old-time DVOC “characters” from that era, some of which appear in Witmer Stone: The Fascination of Nature. Charlie and his wife Betty took me on my first serious Cape May bird trip – the 1977 New Jersey Audubon Society Cape May weekend. We even got our pic in the Press of Atlantic City: CAW - Ed

For an excellent memorial of Charlie by Jane Henderson, click here.

My greatest regret – and it’s an unspeakably deep one – with the publication of the book is that I didn’t get it done in time for everybody. Just in the past year or two, we lost people who knew Stone when they were very young and who would have enjoyed the book. One of them was Alan Brady, and another was Dale Twining, who was the last person alive to have a set of Bird Studies at Old Cape May inscribed to him by Stone:

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The dates are curious. Dale, 17 at the time, received the book from DVOC member Bill Serrill, who must have been passing them out at the 12/16/37 meeting when the volumes, hot off the press, were first distributed, following a talk by Stone about the writing of the book. But Stone didn’t sign until 3/21/38. That was a Monday night, and I’m guessing it was at a Ludwick lecture, although Stone wasn’t the scheduled speaker that night.

Dale was a World War II U.S. Marine who served in the Pacific, and was one of the long-suffering, gentle souls who used to put up with pesky 10-year old me when Dale’s good friend Charlie Wonderly would take me along on their bird outings. I was able to give Dale a draft of the DVOC chapter in Fascination a few months before he passed away in August 2014, in his 78th year of DVOC membership (a record at the time; since equaled by Herb Cutler). Here’s a photo from an April 2011 visit to Dale’s house. They don’t make them like Dale anymore, and I just wish I could have gotten the book done in time for him to read all of it:

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It’s a lucky kid who gets to have Charlie and Dale for birding mentors, and in addition to being patient, kindly, old-school gents and storehouses of knowledge, they were a living link to the Stone Age.