Tag Archives: DVOC

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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A Week in the New Jersey Pine Barrens

It’s been 114 years this week (June 17−22, 1901) since Witmer Stone, his Academy of Natural Sciences colleague James Rehn, and fellow Delaware Valley Ornithological Club (DVOC) member Herbert “Curly” Coggins took a six-day, 75-mile jaunt through the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Stone was in the early stages of his intensive botanical research in the Pine Barrens, having suddenly resolved, during a botanical outing there the year before, to write a flora of the region. Ten years later, he would publish his monumental The Plants of Southern New Jersey (PSNJ).

The men set out in a horse-drawn wagon laden with field supplies on June 17 from the newly-constructed “Catoxen” cabin near Medford (more on Catoxen in a later post). Here’s a photo of Catoxen c. early 1900s, with Stone on right with frying pan:

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They camped along the Batsto River their first night out, and had an unwanted adventure when their horse bolted and they had to chase it down in the dark. After those exertions, they fell asleep to the calls of Whip-poor-wills. The next day, they journeyed to the “town” of Speedwell (population 4), and used that as a home base for forays for the rest of the trip. (Speedwell is long gone; it wasn’t far from today’s Carranza Memorial.) In PSNJ, Stone wrote of the Pine Barrens, “Wagon roads lead across the white sand to the sea at frequent intervals,” and the roads and the scenery the party experienced were undoubtedly similar to this view along a two-track in the Barrens today:

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They explored a couple of different sections of “the Plains,” those parts of the Barrens where the vegetation only grows to a few feet. Coggins later wrote, “We wade into the scrub oaks scarcely able to believe that it is over the top of a dwarf forest that we are gazing for miles.” During the trip, they collected 400–500 sheets of plants, as well as insects, reptiles, mice, and other critters, for the Academy’s collections. They also found a new location for the rare Curly-grass Fern:

Photo 25 - Curly Grass Fern

Although they found little variety in the typically limited Pine Barrens avifauna, they did discover a House Wren nest in an old hat, and were amused by the name “Chimney Bats” used for Chimney Swifts by the locals around Speedwell.

Just when they thought they couldn’t suffer through any larger hordes of mosquitoes than they already had, they did: on the last night of their trip, they unwisely took accommodations in the hay barn of a Jones’ Mill farmer, which was infested with them. It was a long haul back to Medford the next day for the hot, tired, and thirsty travelers; according to Coggins, Ulysses couldn’t have been more relieved to return home to Ithaca after his odyssey than the three naturalists were to see Catoxen cabin come into view at the end of theirs.

Stone also recorded that “a number of photographs” were taken on the trip, and would be used in later Academy lectures. They would be fascinating to see; however, I don’t know the fate of the photographs, other than this one, which appeared in a later DVOC publication over the caption “Unwashed and Uncombed.” From left to right, Rehn, Stone, and Coggins (you can see why they called him “Curly”) look happy to be exploring the natural history riches of the still-amazing New Jersey Pine Barrens.

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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:

Coggins older by LHC

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:

Cenotaph at Laurel Hill-2

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