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):
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):
I found a fox den along the railroad tracks:
There are still some big old trees in Wister Woods, like this oak
…and this beech
The BirdPhilly folks and the Philadelphia Botanical Club held a joint walk at Wister Woods on April 18, 2015, with spring migrants and spring foliage brilliantly highlighted on a beautiful day. Stone once wrote that in his youth he looked forward each spring to the first annual sightings of birds and plants, including Bloodroot, which still blooms in Wister Woods: