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DVOC Main Page > History > Comments by Fletcher Street on the Origins of the DVOC
Remarks by Fletcher Street on the Founding of the DVOC
In 1990 Phillips M. Street contributed to Cassina (No.
63 1988-1989 Centennial Edition) an article titled A History of the
Delaware Valley Ornithological Club, The First One Hundred Years. The following
is an excerpt from that article
I am fortunate to have a copy of Fletcher Street's unpublished remarks with his comments on the founders and other early members who contributed so much to the first half-century of the Club. They follow.
Those of us who have long been members of the D.V.O.C. cannot come to an occasion such as this without a feeling of great pride. Although I still consider myself one of the young fellows, I must admit that there are but a handful of men present here tonight whose membership in the organization antedates that of my own.
Any organization that has functioned for so long a time must of necessity contain many vacant chairs, and I count myself fortunate in having come upon the scene soon enough to have been intimately associated with most of its early members who have contributed so largely to the success of the Club but who are no longer with us. Among the names which come prominently to mind are those of Norry DeHaven, Stew Brown, George Morris, Spencer Trotter and the beloved Witmer Stone. No organization of which these spirits have been a part could fail to succeed. It may be evidence of senility on my' part, but sometimes I feel that the D.V.O.C. will never see such shining lights again, men of such personal magnetism and attractive-ness. Yet, again, as I look out over this gathering tonight, when I sense the individual talents of each one of you as I know them, then I realize that the D.V.O.C. is greater than any of its parts and is bound to go forward to even more noteworthy accomplishments.
To be for a long time a member of such a group as this is one way in which to store up many remembrances of pleasant associations. I might relate tonight many top experiences with Stone, Rhoads, Trotter, Stuart, Scoville, Potter and McDonald, the men with which I have been most intimate in this matter of bird pursuit, but all of you have had like experiences with those who have been closest to you in your bird study. These little pleasantries, as Stone used to say, constitute the ornithological background for more lasting friendships in all fields of endeavor.
Mr. Baily, one who could speak with full authority concerning the events of this period, has given me much valuable information.
During the years immediately following the Wilson, Audubon, and Cassin periods, any ornithological work around Philadelphia was at a virtual standstill. Then, in the late seventies, there did appear a number of young collectors of birds and eggs. Among them were William Collins, Rhoads, Trotter, Baily and Morris, but nothing was done according to any organized plan.
In 1881, a bird club was organized at Haverford College. This consisted of six members, of which Baily was one. It had lists of the common birds, and these were regularly tabulated. The club, however, was short-lived and soon disintegrated. Individual interest persisted, nevertheless. Baily joined the A.O.U. in 1885, at which time, he tells me, he already possessed some 800 bird skins. Morris and Trotter were doing likewise (collecting), yet the thought of any organization or joint effort had not yet crystallized. Then in 1889 we find Baily working as an architectural draughtsman in a Philadelphia office. A chance remark about birds caught the ear of another draughtsman (Reed), who confessed to a like interest. Baily brought in the lists which he had been keeping and spoke of his collection of skins. The more they talked, the more excited Reed became. Reed purchased a notebook and began to record the birds of Tinicum. Reed told Baily that he had a friend, one Charles Voelker, a master taxidermist, who had mounted several birds for him.
By early January in 1890 this bird study fever had gotten such a hold on Baily and Reed that they decided to ask their friends Rhoads, Morris and Trotter to join with them for the purpose of keeping combined lists. They met at Baily's father's house on Arch Street and, after a most harmonious meeting, agreed to form an ornithological society. Rhoads was appointed temporary secretary and Baily chairman. Rhoads was delegated to prepare a constitution to be presented at the next meeting a week hence. Witmer Stone, at Trotter's suggestion, and Voelker, at Reed's, were also invited to attend. So, on February 3, 1890, the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club came into existence. I would like to say something of these men who broke the trail which we have been following for so many years.
Trotter had been a Jessup Fund student at the Academy in 1876, as was Stone in 1890. He had helped transfer the collection of birds from the old building on Broad Street to the present site. He happened to be a nephew of George W. Lawrence, an early ornithologist and one of the founders of the A.O.U., and had met at Lawrence's home many ornithologists of more or less renown. As I have already indicated, he was an inveterate collector, and as a boy the birds were gotten with a slapjack. At the time of the founding of the Club he was a brand new medical doctor and had just become established as a professor of biology at Swarthmore College. From the point of view of scientific knowledge, Trotter stood higher up the ornithological ladder than any of the others. He was always theorizing about his ornithology, and he treated every subject with which he dealt in a most original manner, so whenever Trotter spoke before the Club he had a large and enthusiastic audience. I think of Trotter as the greatest storyteller that ever came into our ranks. Many times, when I would call upon Stone, I would detect a twinkle in his eye, and I sensed that I was about to be treated to one of Trotter's tales, and they were not always of the parlor variety.
Baily, Morris and Reed at this time were all incipient architects. Baily, too, laid claim to ornithological ancestry in the person of an uncle of the same name, the author of Our Own Birds, one of the first popular works on American ornithology. As I have suggested, he was a great note keeper and perhaps has treasured away today accounts of almost everything of importance that has happened in the D.V.O.C. during its long history. He became the Club's first bird photographer, and I am pleased to announce that all his negatives are now reposing among the archives of the D.V.O.C.
Morris looked upon ornithology from the viewpoint of an artist, delighting in its aesthetic and poetic sides, although in his formative years he did much of his research to the accompaniment of a favorite fowling-piece. Morris made important contributions to the Club's literature, and fortunately, many of his charming word pictures are preserved in the early numbers of Cassinia. Morris, too had somewhat of a claim to ornithological ancestry through his relationship to Edward Harris, the friend and patron of Audubon.
Reed, along with Rhoads, came out of Westtown Boarding School, where a love of natural history was fostered but collecting decried. This latter prohibition, however, seems to have had little weight with either of these gentlemen once they escaped from the severe discipline of that institution. Reed was a peculiar fellow and did not last long in the organization. It at length appeared that many of his observations were tinged with an over-zealous desire to report the unusual. Oddly, though, it was from him that I received my first impetus in bird study, for he gave to a nephew who was my boyhood friend a copy of Warren's Birds of Pennsylvania, and it was from this volume that I first learned about birds.
Rhoads, it appears, was a New Jersey farmer at the time the Club was organized, but he early forsook this occupation and nearly forsook his pursuit of birds as well, for he became one of the foremost collectors of mammals in the United States. Enigmatical always, he at length returned to the fold, set up a sort of cloistered life in the Franklin Bookshop, and became once more a regular attendant at the D.V.O.C. For years Rhoads' presence at the Club was a sort of balance wheel to over-enthusiastic observers, yet not always to his own advantage. I remember him once questioning the occurrence of a rare bird and persisting so in his heckling of the speaker, John Carter, that Carter finally reached into his pocket, pulled out the specimen and exclaimed, "Well, damn you, here it is. I shot it." Yet no one in those early days was a closer observer of birds than Sam Rhoads. One bird and many mammals have been named or described by him.
Voelker, the son of a German forester, has long been stuffing birds at Krider's taxidermy shop. He was a keen observer. Although always maintaining an interest in the Club, he did not remain prominently active, but even down to today if one desires an excellent mounted specimen he can get it from none other than Charles Voelker.
And lastly, let me talk about Stone. At the time the Club was founded he was a Jessup Fund student at the Academy. Previous to that time and to his meeting with Trotter, he was unacquainted with any other of the group. He was brought up on a copy of Wilson's American Ornithology and from it got his first urge to study birds. Stew Brown was his great friend in those days, and it was with Brown that Stone did most of his earliest research, and Germantown was the hunting ground. His leaving is so recent that most of us know much of his later history and hold precious memories of him. How high he soared toward the heights of American ornithology Mr. Rehn has recently told us at a meeting of the Club, and he came to be known in every quarter of the world. As Baily was responsible for the inception of D.V.O.C., Stone was the fire that kept it aglow down through the years and is largely responsible for the high standing which it has attained.
Stone commenced his studies of Cape May's birds as early as 1890. He made his first winter census there in January of 1892. His total of 34 species would not excite the present day census taker, but this count was made afoot in a limited area. It was Stone's early realization of the importance of this area that led many other observers to it and to adjoining territories. The collective results obtained by these observers no doubt had much to do with his determination to publish a book about the birds of this district, a desire which culminated in the production of Bird Studies at Old Cape May. No less of an authority than our own Dr. Cornelius Weygandt has proclaimed this as "the greatest bird book ever written in America."
The primary purpose of the Club during its first year of existence was the recording and comparison of data relating to bird migration as observed at several localities in the neighborhood of Philadelphia. Occasional papers were read and discussed by the members, and these later became an important feature of the meetings.