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):
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.