Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Middleborough Naturalist in Florida, 1874

Among the earliest Middleborough visitors to Florida was John Whipple Potter Jenks (1819-94), a naturalist, professor at Brown University and resident of Middleborough. Jenks had gained local prominence as the principal of Peirce Academy at Middleborough, a private college preparatory institution whose reputation improved steadily during Jenks’ tenure. While at the Academy, Jenks also pursued his interest in natural history, at one time assisting the noted naturalist Louis Agassiz with the acquisition of freshly-laid turtle eggs which Agassiz required for the compilation of his landmark study on the embryology of turtles. In 1870, Jenks resigned his position at Peirce Academy and later assumed the directorship of the museum at Brown University where he lectured on agricultural matters. In late summer, 1874, Jenks would be named professor of Zoology and Agriculture at Brown.

At the time Jenks moved to Brown, Florida had been popularized as a destination for naturalists through earlier visits by such naturalists as William Bartram, John James Audubon, and Titian Ramsey Peale had. Reports noted the rich variety of flora and fauna, and the appeal to a naturalist like Jenks was easily understood. This increasing interest in Florida as a naturalist’s paradise was fostered following the Civil War by the burgeoning post-war development of natural history as a field of study and the requisite need for the collection of scientific and popular specimens. A noted local naturalist himself, who had established a fine collection of specimens at Peirce Academy, and later Brown University, Jenks was drawn to Florida, and specifically the region north of Lake Okeechobee in early 1874. The object of Jenks 1874 tour of Florida was to secure scientific and popular specimens, many of which undoubtedly made their way into the display cases at Brown.

Additionally, Florida by the mid-1870s had achieved some notoriety in the north as a destination thanks to reports by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and it was rapidly acquiring fame as a refuge for invalids, though little was known of the interior or the southern portion of the state. As a naturalist, Jenks was determined to know the region first hand, taking exception to those academics who explored only from the comfort of their studies. “Into such a wild region you must go if you would study nature first hand instead of second. Hence the reason so few naturalists do anything more than study books and take the observations of others and use them second-handed.” Accordingly, in January, 1874, Jenks set out upon an expedition to Florida, the object of which was to visit Lake Okeechobee in the center of the southern peninsula, and his adventure would be documented in Hunting in Florida 1874 which Jenks published privately in 1884.

Jenks’ companions on the excursion were “an experienced collector of forty, inured to all the hardships of camp life, and recognized by naturalists as Doctor P., and the other two, youths of eighteen, inexperienced, but enthusiastic, whom we will call Erwin and Fred.” Though Jenks was reticent about revealing the identities of his companions, Doctor P. was likely Alpheus Spring Packard (1839-1905) a noted entomologist who would later serve as professor of zoology and geology at Brown Later, in 1885, Jenks and Packard would travel to Mexico. The “two youths of eighteen” were Erwin Isaac Shores (1854-1906), a Brown University student from Suffield, Connecticut, whose interest in ornithology was fostered by Jenks, and possibly Frederick Tingley Jencks (1856-1948), a distant relation who would later become the junior partner in the natural history specimen dealership Southwick & Jencks of Providence.

For the trip, Jenks was outfitted in a canvas hunting suit and equipped with a double-barrelled breechloader, revolver and claw-hatchet. “For preserving and transporting specimens, I found a tin knapsack, constructed with various apartments for alcoholic vials, lunches, medicine-box and eggs, very convenient. “ Ten gallons of alcohol, twenty pounds of arsenic and “hundreds” of muslin bags were included for preserving specimens, as well as instruments for skinning birds and animals and blowing eggs.

Jenks visited the state in 1874 just 9 years following the Civil War which remained fresh in the minds of the people, and he visited the battlefield at Olustee in northern Florida. Like later travelers, Jenks commented at first upon the contrast in the weather he found in Jacksonville, with that he left behind in Middleborough. “At 10 A. M. arrived at Jacksonville – four and one-half days from snow and ice, to orange groves laden with fruit.” Jenks speaks of Florida as being known as a land of invalids, making note of his unexpected encounter with a colleague at Jacksonville who sought the southern climate for his health.

Despite the fact that the coasts of Florida were relatively well known (though sparsely settled outside the few cities such as Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Pensacola), the interior was largely a mystery. Jenks went in search of Lake Okeechobee which like the source of the Nile remained unknown and unmapped. One of Jenks’ informants told him, “It is said to be there, but I have never met one who has seen it. Should you find it and return, having escaped its miasma and reptiles, do not fail to give me a call…”

Common practice among visitors to Florida was the shooting of wildlife from the decks of steamers plying the rivers, and Jenks’ companions were no different. “Once more on the St. John’s, we found its breadth steadily narrowing, till it was reduced to less than 200 ft., an advantage to the hunters on board, of which they were not slow to avail themselves, in popping away at every alligator and large bird that appeared at short or long range.” Clearly, Jenks found the slaughter of local wildlife senseless.

Jenks experienced a number of adventures as he and his party travelled southward towards Okeechobee through the prairies, cypress swamps and everglades. Eventually, guided by a Seminole Indian named Tommy, Jenks reached his objective. Fighting their way through tall grass, and wading through waist-deep water, the party transferred to canoes, eventually finding its way through a bramble-tangled cypress swamp, their course impeded by fallen logs and confused by the lack of a perceptible current. “After toiling another hour in forcing our way through the cypress, and disturbing not a few ‘’gator, moc’sins and such like varmin,’ as my ‘Cracker’ companion called them, we found ourselves suddenly debouching on the lake, with only a water horizon in front, and limitless banks on the right and left. The problem is solved – there is a Lake Okeechobee, and even my ‘Cracker’ guide, who had been five years searching for it, is obliged to give up his doubts and confess that I had enabled him to find it.”

Surprisingly, once Jenks reached Okeechobee, he appears to have spent little time investigating it. An expansive, yet shallow body of water (Jenks’ native guide assured him is was no deeper anywhere than eight feet), the vegetation of the surrounding cypress sloughs held greater interest for Jenks, “the gigantic ferns and flaming epiphytic air plants. Overarching vines and Spanish moss festooned the trees, while variegated leaves of beautiful lilies tinted the waters. But hideous snakes and repulsive alligators alone represented the animal kingdom to enjoy these rare charms of the vegetable – leading me often to ask, ‘Why does the Creator so frequently display His selected skill in places inaccessible to mortal man?’”

Jenks’ 1874 visit to Okeechobee would pave the way for later explorers, including editor Will Wallace Harney, author Frederick A. Ober and naturalist John Kunkel Small.

John Whipple Potter Jenks, photograph, F. J. Walsh, Trenton, New Jersey, c. 1874
Jenks appears in this photograph dressed in the outfit he described in Hunting in Florida 1874: "For hunting-dress outfit, I was provided with a suit of sail cloth, colored yellowish brown or butternut, to resemble dead leaves, the sack coat prepared with ten pockets, besides one, full size of the skirt, for large specimens, the pants with six pockets, two blue flannel shirts, with inside pockets for watch, money and photographs, all wrapped in oil silk bags (carefully keeping paper money from contact with the oil silk surface, by first enclosing it in an envelope), military boots and brogans, and four pair of thick woolen socks."  Jenks cradles his double-barreled breechloader used "for obtaining game".

Hunting in Florida 1874, title page, privately printed by John Whipple Potter Jenks, 1884
Jenks' account of his 1874 trip to Florida, and his search for Lake Okeechobee was published ten years after the event and was distributed to friends and colleagues.  The slim volume, however, is one of the earliest accounts by a naturalist of the Okeechobee region.

Map of Florida Showing the Route of the Jenks Party in 1874
The green line marks the route followed by the Jenks party between Jacksonville and lake Okeechobee.  Much of the route followed the course of the St. John's and Indian Rivers.  While the St. John's was navigable by steamer and proved relatively comfortable for the group, the final leg of the journey between Fort Capron and Lake Okeechobee was through rough, relatively unknown, territory characterized by difficult terrain and teeming with snakes and alligators.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Dr. Stockbridge's Tribute to Prof. Jenks, 1894

The following is an excerpt from Reverend J. C. Stockbridge's eulogy of Professor John Whipple Potter Jenks which was published in the Brown University magazine at the time of Jenks' death in 1894 and excerpted in one of the Middleborough newspapers shortly thereafter.

Rev. J. C. Stockbridge, D. D., writes a tribute to the late Prof. John Whipple Potter Jenks, in the Brown magazine, from which we are privileged to make the following excerpts:

Let me begin by saying that he sprang from an honored ancestry. He was the great grandson of Jonathan Jenks, whose wife was the great-granddaughter of Roger Williams, He also numbered among his ancestors William Jenks, who was Chief Justice of the colony of Rhode Island, the founder of the family in this colony. Joseph Jenks came from Buckinghamshire, England, in 1643. We are told that “tradition traces the ancestry back to a Welsh Chieftain, Elystan Glodryd of the 4th Royal Tribe of the year 750, and still farther back, by tradition, to the year 150 B. C. Certain it is that the stock is of Welsh origin.”

When in the thirteenth year of his age his father consented to give up his time, he determined to support himself while fitting for college, and he did it, with some help from a friend, who became deeply interested in his desire and purpose to obtain an education. Subsequently he repaid this friend all he had advanced him.

The work of preparation was at last completed, and young Jenks, then a little more than fifteen years of age, left Middleborough, Mass., on the fifth of July, 1834, to enter Brown University. He had thus far, paid his way, and, as he tells us, had “only twenty-five cents in his purse.” His sister, however, lent him money enough to pay his stage fare to providence. He was examined, and having been matriculated, took the head of his class as was then the custom, on its roll. He then returned to his home in Southbridge, spent the eight weeks of the vacation in hard work, earned fifty dollars, forty of which at the commencement of the college year, he deposited in compliance with the regulation requiring such deposit, with the steward, Mr. Elliot. Out of the remaining ten dollars he repaid the loan made to him by his sister, and appropriated the rest, so far as it would go, to the purchase of books and the furnishing of his room, then No. 4 South Division of Hope College. What was the condition of his finances when he came to his first recitation, he tells us in the following words: “I entered upon my first recitation with six and a quarter cents, an old-fashioned ‘fourpence halfpenny’, in my pocket, which at night I had to give as postage on a letter from one on my Academy masters.’”

John Whipple Potter Jenks, photograph, late 19th century.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Turtle Eggs for Agassiz

Though noted as a naturalist and educator, Professor John Whipple Potter Jenks (1819-94) of Middleborough is perhaps most widely known for his role in securing turtle eggs for Louis Agassiz, Harvard professor, geologist, zoologist and natural historian.  The eggs were needed for Agassiz's study of the embryology of turtles, work which was later included in his monumental Contributions to the Natural History of the United States.  In the early 1890s, Jenks repeated the story of how he came to collect the eggs for Agassiz to one of his students at Brown University, Dallas Lore Sharp (1870-1929) who published it as "Turtle Eggs for Agassiz" in the Atlantic Monthly in February 1910 and ultimately included it in his The Face of the Fields which appeared the following yearSharp's essay has since become a classic of natural history writing, frequently anthologized and read for over a quarter of a century to comparative anatomy classes at Brown University following its publication.  In a 1932 introduction to the essay, Dr. A. D. Mead of Brown wrote:

"The hero of the episode was J. W. P. Jenks, the first teacher of zoology at Brown. Jenks was a lifelong disciple of Agassiz and widely disseminated his doctrines at Brown and elsewhere. Sharp was a student at Brown (1895) and a special protege of Professor Jenks, from whom, while at Brown, he got the tale about the turtle eggs. Again, Sharp's own colorful career at Brown, if as adequately written up, would win a place in literature. And finally, his introduction to the turtle egg paper provides the theme, which is at least implied, of this post-prandial talk, namely, that the progress of a science in a period of years, like a game of golf in an afternoon, is not completely recorded in the mere enumeration of the end results and the scores, but that personalities and minor dramatic incidents are a vital and substantial part of the story."

It is one of the wonders of the world that so few books are written. With every human being a possible book, and with many a human being capable of becoming more books than the world could contain, is it not amazing that the books of men are so few? And so stupid!

I took down, recently, from the shelves of a great public library, the four volumes of Agassiz's "Contributions to the Natural History of the United States." I doubt if anybody but the charwoman, with her duster, had touched those volumes for twenty-five years. They are an excessively learned, a monumental, an epoch-making work, the fruit of vast and heroic labors, with colored plates on stone, showing the turtles of the United States, and their embryology. The work was published more than half a century ago (by subscription); but it looked old beyond its years — massive, heavy, weathered, as if dug from the rocks. It was difficult to feel that Agassiz could have written it —could have built it, grown it, for the laminated pile had required for its growth the patience and painstaking care of a process of nature, as if it were a kind of printed coral reef. Agassiz do this? The big, human, magnetic man at work upon these pages of capital letters, Roman figures, brackets, and parentheses in explanation of the pages of diagrams and plates! I turned away with a sigh from the weary learning, to read the preface.

When a great man writes a great book he usually flings a preface after it, and thereby saves it, sometimes, from oblivion. Whether so or not, the best things in most books are their prefaces. It was not, however, the quality of the preface to these great volumes that interested me, but rather the wicked waste of durable book-material that went to its making. Reading down through the catalogue of human names and of thanks for help received, I came to a sentence beginning: — "In New England I have myself collected largely; but I have also received valuable contributions from the late Rev. Zadoc Thompson of Burlington; . . . from Mr. D. Henry Thoreau of Concord ; . . . and from Mr. J. W. P. Jenks of Middleboro'." And then it hastens on with the thanks in order to get to the turtles, as if turtles were the one and only thing of real importance in all the world.

Turtles no doubt are important, extremely important, embryologically, as part of our genealogical tree; but they are away down among the roots of the tree as compared with the late Rev. Zadoc Thompson of Burlington. I happen to know nothing about the Rev. Zadoc, but to me he looks very interesting. Indeed, any reverend gentleman of his name and day who would catch turtles for Agassiz must have been interesting. And as for D. Henry Thoreau, we know he was interesting. The rarest wood-turtle in the United States was not so rare a specimen as this gentle- man of Walden Woods and Concord. We are glad even for this line in the preface about him; glad to know that he tried, in this untranscendental way, to serve his day and generation. If Agassiz had only put a chapter in his turtle book about it! But this is the material he wasted, this and more of the same human sort; for the "Mr. J. W. P. Jenks of Middleboro'" (at the end of the quotation) was, some years later, an old college professor of mine, who told me a few of the particulars of his turtle contributions, particulars which Agassiz should have found a place for in his big book. The preface, in another paragraph, says merely that this gentleman sent turtles to Cambridge by the thousands — brief and scanty recognition! For that is not the only thing this gentleman did. On one occasion he sent, not turtles, but turtle eggs to Cambridge — brought them, I should say; and all there is to show for it, so far as I could discover, is a sectional drawing of a bit of the mesoblastic layer of one of the eggs!

Of course, Agassiz wanted to make that mesoblastic drawing, or some other equally important drawing, and had to have the fresh turtle egg to draw it from. He had to have it, and he got it. A great man, when he wants a certain turtle egg, at a certain time, always gets it, for he gets someone else to get it. I am glad he got it. But what makes me sad and impatient is that he did not think it worthwhile to tell about the getting of it, and so made merely a learned turtle book of what might have been an exceedingly interesting human book.

It would seem, naturally, that there could be nothing unusual or interesting about the getting of turtle eggs when you want them. Nothing at all, if you should chance to want the eggs as you chance to find them. So with anything else, — good copper stock, for instance, if you should chance to want it, and should chance to be along when they chance to be giving it away. But if you want copper stock, say of C & H quality, when you want it, and are bound to have it, then you must command more than a college professor's salary. And likewise, precisely, when it is turtle eggs that you are bound to have.

Agassiz wanted those turtle eggs when he wanted them — not a minute over three hours from the minute they were laid. Yet even that does not seem exacting, hardly more difficult than the getting of hen eggs only three hours old. Just so, provided the professor could have had his private turtle-coop in Harvard Yard; and provided he could have made his turtles lay. But turtles will not respond, like hens, to meat-scraps and the warm mash. The professor's problem was not to get from a mud turtle's nest in the back yard to the table in the laboratory; but to get from the laboratory in Cambridge to some pond when the turtles were laying, and back to the laboratory within the limited time. And this, in the days of Darius Green, might have called for nice and discriminating work — as it did.

Agassiz had been engaged for a long time upon his "Contributions." He had brought the great work nearly to a finish. It was, indeed, finished but for one small yet very important bit of observation : he had carried the turtle egg through every stage of its development with the single exception of one — the very earliest — that stage of first cleavages, when the cell begins to segment, immediately upon its being laid. That beginning stage had brought the "Contributions " to a halt. To get eggs that were fresh enough to show the incubation at this period had been impossible.

There were several ways that Agassiz might have proceeded : he might have got a leave of absence for the spring term, taken his laboratory to some pond inhabited by turtles, and there camped until he should catch the reptile digging out her nest. But there were difficulties in all of that — as those who are college professors and naturalists know. As this was quite out of the question, he did the easiest thing — asked Mr. Jenks of Middleboro' to get him the eggs. Mr. Jenks got them. Agassiz knew all about his getting of them; and I say the strange and irritating thing is, that Agassiz did not think it worth while to tell us about it, at least in the preface to his monumental work.

It was many years later that Mr. Jenks, then a gray-haired college professor, told me how he got those eggs to Agassiz.

"I was principal of an academy, during my younger years," he began, "and was busy one day with my classes, when a large man suddenly filled the doorway of the room, smiled to the four corners of the room, and called out with a big, quick voice that he was Professor Agassiz.

"Of course he was. I knew it, even before he had had time to shout it to me across the room.

"Would I get him some turtle eggs? he called. Yes, I would. And would I get them to Cambridge within three hours from the time they were laid *? Yes, I would. And I did. And it was worth the doing. But I did it only once.

"When I promised Agassiz those eggs I knew where I was going to get them. I had got turtle eggs there before — at a particular patch of sandy shore along a pond, a few miles distant from the academy.

"Three hours was the limit. From my railroad station to Boston was thirty-five miles; from the pond to the station was perhaps three or four miles; from Boston to Cambridge we called about three miles. Forty miles in round numbers! We figured it all out before he returned, and got the trip down to two hours, — record time: driving from the pond to the station; from the station by express train to Boston; from Boston by cab to Cambridge. This left an easy hour for accidents and delays.

"Cab and car and carriage we reckoned into our time-table; but what we didn't figure on was the turtle." And he paused abruptly.

"Young man," he went on, his shaggy brows and spectacles hardly hiding the twinkle in the eyes that were bent severely upon me, " young man, when you go after turtle eggs, take into account the turtle. No! no! that's bad advice. Youth never reckons on the turtle — and youth seldom ought to. Only old age does that; and old age would never have got those turtle eggs to Agassiz.

"It was in the early spring that Agassiz came to the academy, long before there was any likelihood of the turtles laying. But I was eager for the quest, and so fearful of failure, that I started out to watch at the pond fully two weeks ahead of the time that the turtles might be expected to lay. I remember the date clearly: it was May 14.

"A little before dawn — along near three o'clock — I would drive over to the pond, hitch my horse nearby, settle myself quietly among some thick cedars close to the sandy shore, and there I would wait, my kettle of sand ready, my eye covering the whole sleeping pond. Here among the cedars I would eat my breakfast, and then get back in good season to open the academy for the morning session.

"And so the watch began.

"I soon came to know individually the dozen or more turtles that kept to my side of the pond. Shortly after the cold mist would lift and melt away, they would stick up their heads through the quiet water; and as the sun slanted down over the ragged rim of treetops, the slow things would float into the warm, lighted spots, or crawl out and doze comfortably on the hummocks and snags.

"What fragrant mornings those were! How fresh and new and unbreathed! The pond odors, the woods odors, the odors of the ploughed fields — of water-lily, and wild grape, and the dew-laid soil! I can taste them yet, and hear them yet — the still, large sounds of the waking day — the pickerel breaking the quiet with his swirl; the kingfisher dropping anchor; the stir of feet and wings among the trees. And then the thought of the great book being held up for me! Those were rare mornings!

"But there began to be a good many of them, for the turtles showed no desire to lay. They sprawled in the sun, and never one came out upon the sand as if she intended to help on the great professor's book. The embryology of her eggs was of small concern to her; her Contribution to the Natural History of the United States could wait.

"And it did wait. I began my watch on the 14th of May; June 1st found me still among the cedars, still waiting, as I had waited every morning, Sundays and rainy days alike. June 1st was a perfect morning, but every turtle slid out upon her log, as if egg-laying might be a matter strictly of next year.

"I began to grow uneasy, — not impatient yet, for a naturalist learns his lesson of patience early, and for all his years ; but I began to fear lest, by some subtle sense, my presence might some- how be known to the creatures; that they might have gone to some other place to lay, while I was away at the schoolroom.

"I watched on to the end of the first week, on to the end of the second week in June, seeing the mists rise and vanish every morning, and along with them vanish, more and more, the poetry of my early morning vigil. Poetry and rheumatism cannot long dwell together in the same clump of cedars, and I had begun to feel the rheumatism. A month of morning mists wrapping me around had at last soaked through to my bones. But Agassiz was waiting, and the world was waiting, for those turtle eggs; and I would wait. It was all I could do, for there is no use bringing a china nest-egg to a turtle; she is not open to any such delicate suggestion.

"Then came the mid-June Sunday morning, with dawn breaking a little after three : a warm, wide-awake dawn, with the level mist lifted from the level surface of the pond a full hour higher than I had seen it any morning before.

"This was the day. I knew it. I have heard persons say that they can hear the grass grow; that they know by some extra sense when danger is nigh. That we have these extra senses I fully believe, and I believe they can be sharpened by cultivation. For a month I had been brooding over this pond, and now I knew. I felt a stirring of the pulse of things that the cold-hearted turtles could no more escape than could the clods and I.

"Leaving my horse unhitched, as if he, too, understood, I slipped eagerly into my covert for a look at the pond. As I did so, a large pickerel ploughed a furrow out through the spatter-docks, and in his wake rose the head of an enormous turtle. Swinging slowly around, the creature headed straight for the shore, and without a pause scrambled out on the sand.

"She was about the size of a big scoop-shovel; but that was not what excited me, so much as her manner, and the gait at which she moved; for there was method in it and fixed purpose. On she came, shuffling over the sand toward the higher open fields, with a hurried, determined see-saw that was taking her somewhere in particular, and that was bound to get her there on time.

I held my breath. Had she been a dinosaurian making Mesozoic footprints, I could not have been more fearful. For footprints in the Mesozoic mud, or in the sands of time, were as nothing to me when compared with fresh turtle eggs in the sands of this pond. But over the strip of sand, without a stop, she paddled, and up a narrow cow-path into the high grass along a fence. Then up the narrow cow-path, on all fours, just like another turtle, I paddled, and into the high wet grass along the fence.

I kept well within sound of her, for she moved recklessly, leaving a trail of flattened grass a foot and a half wide. I wanted to stand up, — and I don't believe I could have turned her back with a rail, — but I was afraid if she saw me that she might return indefinitely to the pond; so on I went, flat to the ground, squeezing through the lower rails of the fence, as if the field beyond were a melon-patch. It was nothing of the kind, only a wild, uncomfortable pasture, full of dewberry vines, and very discouraging. They were excessively wet vines and briery. I pulled my coat-sleeves as far over my fists as I could get them, and with the tin pail of sand swinging from between my teeth to avoid noise, I stumped fiercely but silently on after the turtle.

"She was laying her course, I thought, straight down the length of this dreadful pasture, when, not far from the fence, she suddenly hove to, warped herself short about, and came back, barely clearing me, at a clip that was thrilling. I warped about, too, and in her wake bore down across the corner of the pasture, across the powdery public road, and on to a fence along a field of young corn.

"I was somewhat wet by this time, but not so wet as I had been before wallowing through the deep dry dust of the road. Hurrying up behind a large tree by the fence, I peered down the corn-rows and saw the turtle stop, and begin to paw about in the loose soft soil. She was going to lay !

"I held on to the tree and watched, as she tried this place, and that place, and the other place — the eternally feminine! — But the place, evidently, was hard to find. What could a female turtle do with a whole field of possible nests to choose from? Then at last she found it, and whirling about, she backed quickly at it, and, tail first, began to bury herself before my staring eyes.

"Those were not the supreme moments of my life; perhaps those moments came later that day; but those certainly were among the slowest, most dreadfully mixed of moments that I ever experienced. They were hours long. There she was, her shell just showing, like some old hulk in the sand along shore. And how long would she stay there? and how should I know if she had laid an egg?

"I could still wait. And so I waited, when, over the freshly awakened fields, floated four mellow strokes from the distant town clock.

"Four o'clock ! Why, there was no train until seven! No train for three hours! The eggs would spoil! Then with a rush it came over me that this was Sunday morning, and there was no regular seven o'clock train, — none till after nine.

"I think I should have fainted had not the turtle just then begun crawling off. I was weak and dizzy; but there, there in the sand, were the eggs! and Agassiz! and the great book! And I cleared the fence, and the forty miles that lay between me and Cambridge, at a single jump. He should have them, trains or no. Those eggs should go to Agassiz by seven o'clock, if I had to gallop every mile of the way. Forty miles! Any horse could cover it in three hours, if he had to; and upsetting the astonished turtle, I scooped out her round white eggs.

"On a bed of sand in the bottom of the pail I laid them, with what care my trembling fingers allowed; filled in between them with more sand; so with another layer to the rim ; and covering all smoothly with more sand, I ran back for my horse.

"That horse knew, as well as I, that the turtles had laid, and that he was to get those eggs to Agassiz. He turned out of that field into the road on two wheels, a thing he had not done for twenty years, doubling me up before the dashboard, the pail of eggs miraculously lodged between my knees.

"I let him out. If only he could keep this pace all the way to Cambridge! or even halfway there; and I would have time to finish the trip on foot. I shouted him on, holding to the dasher with one hand, the pail of eggs with the other, not daring to get off my knees, though the bang on them, as we pounded down the wood-road, was terrific. But nothing must happen to the eggs; they must not be jarred, or even turned over in the sand before they, came to Agassiz.

"In order to get out on the pike it was necessary to drive back away from Boston toward the town. We had nearly covered the distance, and were rounding a turn from the woods into the open fields, when, ahead of me, at the station it seemed, I heard the quick sharp whistle of a locomotive.

"What did it mean? Then followed the puff puff, puff, of a starting train. But what train? Which way going ? And jumping to my feet for a longer view, I pulled into a side road, that paralleled the track, and headed hard for the station.

"We reeled along. The station was still out of sight, but from behind the bushes that shut it from view, rose the smoke of a moving engine. It was perhaps a mile away, but we were approaching, head on, and topping a little hill I swept down upon a freight train, the black smoke pouring from the stack, as the mighty creature got itself together for its swift run down the rails.

"My horse was on the gallop, going with the track, and straight toward the coming train. The sight of it almost maddened me — the bare thought of it, on the road to Boston! On I went; on it came, a half — a quarter of a mile between us, when suddenly my road shot out along an unfenced field with only a level stretch of sod between me and the engine.

"With a pull that lifted the horse from his feet, I swung him into the field and sent him straight as an arrow for the track. That train should carry me and my eggs to Boston!

"The engineer pulled the rope. He saw me standing up in the rig, saw my hat blow off, saw me wave my arms, saw the tin pail swing in my teeth, and he jerked out a succession of sharp halts! But it was he who should halt, not I; and on we went, the horse with a flounder landing the carriage on top of the track.

"The train was already grinding to a stop ; but before it was near a standstill, I had backed off the track, jumped out, and, running down the rails with the astonished engineers gaping at me, swung aboard the cab.

"They offered no resistance; they hadn't had time. Nor did they have the disposition, for I looked strange, not to say dangerous. Hatless, dew-soaked, smeared with yellow mud, and holding, as if it were a baby or a bomb, a little tin pail of sand.

"'Crazy,' the fireman muttered, looking to the engineer for his cue.

"I had been crazy, perhaps, but I was not crazy now.

"'Throw her wide open' I commanded. 'Wide open! These are fresh turtle eggs for Professor Agassiz of Cambridge. He must have them before breakfast.'

"Then they knew I was crazy, and evidently thinking it best to humor me, threw the throttle wide open, and away we went.

"I kissed my hand to the horse, grazing unconcernedly in the open field, and gave a smile to my crew. That was all I could give them, and hold myself and the eggs together. But the smile was enough. And they smiled through their smut at me, though one of them held fast to his shovel, while the other kept his hand upon a big ugly wrench. Neither of them spoke to me, but above the roar of the swaying engine I caught enough of their broken talk to understand that they were driving under a full head of steam, with the intention of handing me over to the Boston police, as perhaps the safest way of disposing of me.

"I was only afraid that they would try it at the next station. But that station whizzed past without a bit of slack, and the next, and the next ; when it came over me that this was the through freight, which should have passed in the night, and was making up lost time.

"Only the fear of the shovel and the wrench kept me from shaking hands with both men at this discovery. But I beamed at them; and they at me. I was enjoying it. The unwonted jar beneath my feet was wrinkling my diaphragm with spasms of delight. And the fireman beamed at the engineer, with a look that said, 'See the lunatic grin; he likes it!'

"He did like it. How the iron wheels sang to me as they took the rails! How the rushing wind in my ears sang to me! From my stand on the fireman's side of the cab I could catch a glimpse of the track just ahead of the engine, where the ties seemed to leap into the throat of the mile-devouring monster. The joy of it! of seeing space swallowed by the mile!

"I shifted the eggs from hand to hand and thought of my horse, of Agassiz, of the great book, of my great luck, — luck, — luck, — until the multitudinous tongues of the thundering train were all chiming 'luck! luck! luck!' They knew! they understood! This beast of fire and tireless wheels was doing its best to get the eggs to Agassiz!

"We swung out past the Blue Hills, and yonder flashed the morning sun from the towering dome of the State House. I might have leaped from the cab and run the rest of the way on foot, had I not caught the eye of the engineer watching me narrowly. I was not in Boston yet, nor in Cambridge either. I was an escaped lunatic, who had held up a train, and forced it to carry me to Boston.

"Perhaps I had overdone the lunacy business. Suppose these two men should take it into their heads to turn me over to the police, whether I would or no? I could never explain the case in time to get the eggs to Agassiz. I looked at my watch. There were still a few minutes left, in which I might explain to these men, who, all at once, had become my captors. But it was too late. Nothing could avail against my actions, my appearance, and my little pail of sand.

"I had not thought of my appearance before. Here I was, face and clothes caked with yellow mud, my hair wild and matted, my hat gone, and in my full-grown hands a tiny tin pail of sand, as if I had been digging all night with a tiny tin shovel on the shore! And thus to appear in the decent streets of Boston of a Sunday morning!

"I began to feel like a lunatic. The situation was serious, or might be, and rather desperately funny at its best. I must in some way have shown my new fears, for both men watched me more sharply.

"Suddenly, as we were nearing the outer freight-yard, the train slowed down and came to a stop. I was ready to jump, but I had no chance. They had nothing to do, apparently, but to guard me. I looked at my watch again. What time we had made! It was only six o'clock, with a whole hour to get to Cambridge.

"But I didn't like this delay. Five minutes — ten — went by.

"'Gentlemen,' I began, but was cut short by an express train coming past. We were moving again, on — into a siding; on — on to the main track ; and on with a bump and a crash and a succession of crashes, running the length of the train ; on at a turtle's pace, but on, — when the fireman, quickly jumping for the bell-rope, left the way to the step free, and — the chance had come!

"I never touched the step, but landed in the soft sand at the side of the track, and made a line for the yard fence.

"There was no hue or cry. I glanced over my shoulder to see if they were after me. Evidently their hands were full, and they didn't know I had gone.

"But I had gone ; and was ready to drop over the high board-fence, when it occurred to me that I might drop into a policeman's arms. Hanging my pail in a splint on top of a post, I peered cautiously over — a very wise thing to do before you jump a high board-fence. There, crossing the open square toward the station, was a big burly- fellow with a club — looking for me.

"I flattened for a moment, when someone in the yard yelled at me. I preferred the policeman, and grabbing my pail I slid over to the street. The policeman moved on past the corner of the station out of sight. The square was free, and yonder stood a cab!

"Time was flying now. Here was the last lap. The cabman saw me coming, and squared away. I waved a paper dollar at him, but he only stared the more. A dollar can cover a good deal, but I was too much for one dollar. I pulled out another, thrust them both at him, and dodged into the cab, calling, 'Cambridge!'

"He would have taken me straight to the police station, had I not said, 'Harvard College. Professor Agassiz's house! I've got eggs for Agassiz'; and pushed another dollar up at him through the hole.

"It was nearly half-past six.

"'Let him go!' I ordered. 'Here's another dollar if you make Agassiz's house in twenty minutes. Let him out. Never mind the police!'

"He evidently knew the police, or there were few around at that time on a Sunday morning. We went down the sleeping streets, as I had gone down the wood-roads from the pond two hours before, but with the rattle and crash now of a fire brigade. Whirling a corner into Cambridge Street, we took the bridge at a gallop, the driver shouting out something in Hibernian to a pair of waving arms and a belt and brass buttons.

"Across the bridge with a rattle and jolt that put the eggs in jeopardy, and on over the cobblestones, we went. Half-standing, to lessen the jar, I held the pail in one hand and held myself in the other, not daring to let go even to look at my watch.

"But I was afraid to look at the watch. I was afraid to see how near to seven o'clock it might be. The sweat was dropping from my nose, so close was I running to the limit of my time.

"Suddenly there was a lurch, and I dove forward, ramming my head into the front of the cab, coming up with a rebound that landed me across the small of my back on the seat, and sent half of my pail of eggs helter-skelter over the floor.

"We had stopped. Here was Agassiz's house; and not taking time to pick up the scattered eggs, I tumbled out, and pounded at the door.

"No one was astir in the house. But I would stir them. And I did. Right in the midst of the racket the door opened. It was the maid.

"'Agassiz,' I gasped, 'I want Professor Agassiz, quick!' And I pushed by her into the hall.

"'Go 'way, sir. I'11 call the police. Professor Agassiz is in bed. Go 'way, sir.'

"'Call him — Agassiz — instantly, or I'll call him myself!'

"But I didn't; for just then a door overhead was flung open, a white-robed figure appeared on the dim landing above, and a quick loud voice called excitedly, — "'Let him in! Let him in! I know him. He has my turtle eggs!'

"And the apparition, slipperless, and clad in anything but an academic gown, came sailing down the stairs.

"The maid fled. The great man, his arms extended, laid hold of me with both hands, and dragging me and my precious pail into his study, with a swift, clean stroke laid open one of the eggs, as the watch in my trembling hands ticked its way to seven— as if nothing unusual were happening to the history of the world."

"You were in time then?" I said.

"To the tick. There stands my copy of the great book. I am proud of the humble part I had in it."

"Turtle Eggs for Agassiz" in Dallas Lore Sharp, The Face of the Fields (Boston, Houghton, Mifflin Company, 1911).

"Turtle Eggs for Agassiz" by Mike Maddigan, August, 2012
Superimposed on a circa 1900 view of Lake Assawompsett is a portrait of Louis Agassiz dating from 1866 and one of Agassiz's mesoblastic studies drawn from eggs secured in Middleborough by J. W. P. Jenks and included in his Contributions to the Natural History of the United States.  Though it is not known precisely where Jenks obtained the eggs for Agassiz, Assawompsett is a likely candidate.

Monday, August 27, 2012

John Whipple Potter Jenks (1819-94)

John Whipple Potter Jenks was a noted educator and naturalist who at one time was principal of Middleborough's Peirce Academy. Jenks was included in the comprehnsive Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography and his entry outlines his life and accomplishments as follows:

JENKS, John Whipple Potter, naturalist, born in West Boylston, Massachusetts, 1 May, 1819. He was graduated at Brown in 1838, was principal of Peirce academy from 1842 till 1871, professor of zoology in Boston horticultural society in 1858-'60, and has held the chair of agricultural zoology and the curatorship of the museum in Brown university since 1873. In the promotion of his profession he has been an extensive traveller in almost every country in Europe, and also since 1885 in every state and territory of the Union. The gathering of the extensive collections of Brown university is mainly due to his labors. He was the first naturalist to explore the everglades of Florida and the region around Lake Okechobee. Mr. Jenks's publications include bulletins on the "Food of Birds "in the annual reports of the Boston horticultural society (1859); "Hunting in Florida" (1874); and "Jenks and Steele's Zoology," a text book for high schools (1876, revised ed., 1887).

Upon Jenks' death on September 26, 1894, the following obituary was carried in one of the local Middleborough newspapers.  Despite the purple prose, the item provides a good overview of Jenks' life and career.  Jenks was known later in life as Professor of Agricultural Zoology at Brown University and curator of that school's Jenks Museum.

John Whipple Potter Jenks, the son of Dr. Nicholas and Betsey Potter Jenks, was born in West Boylston, Mass., May 1st, 1819. He was very carefully trained from earliest childhood in the strictest sense to be good, to pay attention to religious matters, to read and to love the Word of God, to attend the services of divine worship upon the Sabbath, and this, in connection with his natural bias to the devotional and religious, brought him when a mere boy into fellowship with the Christian church, and he was baptized by Rev. Addison Parker, pastor of the Baptist church in Southbridge. Quick and active in temperament, and naturally inclined to be a student, a trivial circumstance when on a journey with the Rev. Dr. Joseph parker, a scholarly divine and an eminent educator himself, led him to give his energy to acquire a liberal education. He thoroughly appreciated the struggle and self-denial needful in accomplishing this task but his indomitable will knew no obstacle, and, encouraged and aided by his brother-in-law, Rev. Hervey Fittz, pastor of the Baptist church in Middleboro, in whose family he lived from 1832 to 1834, at fifteen years of age, in 1834, he entered the Class of 1838 in Brown University. This class was celebrated for its distinguished educators, (among whom was the late Dr. Ezekiel G. Robinson, for many years president of his alma mater,) prominent ministers, judges and statesmen, men who have filled eminent positions in every department of literary life, the class especially having always been considered the most eminent of the University.

On completing his course with great merit to himself he pushed out into the world, to brave its conflicts, to meet every possible emergency, and to do the best he could to advance education, as he felt that God had called him to this special mission instead of being a minister of the gospel. Immediately on graduation he went to Georgia as a teacher under the patronage and wise guidance of his much-admired friend, Dr. Parker, and after remaining in the South four or five years he came to Middleboro in 1842 and at once took up the task of strengthening Pierce [sic] Academy, which then was in a languishing condition. At this time he married Sarah Tucker, daughter of Elisha and Sarah P. Tucker [and granddaughter of Levi Peirce], and for forty years they walked in pleasant union until in July, 1884, the golden cord, for time, was severed. Prof. Jenks, at 24 years of age, with all the characteristic impulses of an ardent nature, with strong mental endowments, devoted himself to the herculean task of reviving an almost defunct institution. Most wonderful were the results of his laudable ambition, and in 1854 and 1855 he had with the corps of able assistants, among whom was Charles C. Burnett, A. M., the classical instructor for several years, and John M. Manning, the mathematical, and many beside, brought Pierce Academy to a very high rank of literary excellence, as her numerous graduates, filling most important positions in life, will abundantly testify. He remained with the academy until 1871, and during his incumbency it had hundreds of pupils, some of them coming from distant part[s] of the country and some from other countries, although its attendance was largely made up of pupils from southern and eastern Massachusetts.

This town is greatly indebted to him for what has been done through him, as an educator, as also to promote her civil, social, moral, and religious interests. But as a great teacher Prof. Jenks especially shone. While excellent in all departments of learning, or, in other words, a well-balanced scholar, he particularly was a wonderful proficient in gathering and preserving specimens from all the orders of nature, and so his own alma mater, Brown University, in 1871, appreciating his superior gifts in this special direction, called upon him to devote his energies and skills to the establishment of a museum so that she might take good rank with other colleges of the land. Here he was at home, holding the chair of agricultural zoology and curatorship of the zoological and anthropological museums until the day of his death, and one need only to visit Brown University to see how successfully he has performed his work. There in the Jenks museum, equipped for the most part at his expense, the products of his remarkable research are displayed, his labors in this line being furthered by his associations in scientific departments with men like Agassiz, as also by means of extensive travel in Europe in 1859 and more latterly throughout America. He has written many scientific articles for the most prominent periodicals, and has published several valuable text books, and it is almost impossible, so vast was his range of mental activities, to tell wherein his loss will be most keenly felt.

For sixty years Prof. Jenks has been identified not only with the scientific but also with the religious world, and, spiritually, he certainly let his light so shine as to glorify his Heavenly Father. His presence and connection with the Central Baptist church in this town were a continual benefaction, and while his loss is almost irreparable in many respects in the several departments of Belles Lettres, yet no less will it be realized by the church with which he was for so many years so closely and intimately associated. Truly Middleboro has great cause for rejoicing that she had as a citizen, a man of such eminence in scholarship and piety, and we trust that his sudden departure will help all to be less aspiring to great worldly honors, but like him to live nobly for the cause of humanity, and thereby give an assured evidence of an abundant entrance at last into the eternal kingdom.

Prof. Jenks, who ahs spent his winters for the past decade in Florida, has seemingly been in excellent health since his return last spring, and entered upon his work at the university this month with his oldtime zeal. This week he had not been feeling well as usual, but attended to his duties until Wednesday, when the death-stroke came with startling suddenness. He went to his dinner as usual at noon, telling his assistant that he should return soon after dinner. He did not do so, however, and shortly after 3 o’clock some visitors reported that they had seen a man’s body lying at the foot of the stairs leading to the museum. An investigation proved it to be the body of Prof. Jenks. The physician ho was summoned stated that death was due to heart disease. There was genuine sorrow among the 800 students at the university when the news of the death became known.

A family of children, Elisha T. Jenks and Mrs. Abbie L. Simmons of this town and Mrs. Sadie B. Stockwell of Ipswich, grandchildren, one surviving sister, who has attained to a greater age than any one of Dr. Jenks’ children, and a younger brother are left, besides friends innumerable, and citizens, to mourn his loss. But to him, whose life work was so fully accomplished, it is an infinite and unspeakable gain.

"Obituary", Middleboro Gazette or Middleboro News, September 26, 1894.

John Whipple Potter Jenks and Brown University Taxidermy Class, photograph, 1875
Jenks, the distinguished bearded and top-hatted gentleman in the center rear poses with members of his taxidermy class at Brown University in Providence in 1875.  Taxidermy was a requisite skill for naturalists of the era who sought to create life-like zoological displays.  Jenks is said to have learned taxidermy at Boston, though he may have been guided by Solomon H. Sylvester, a Middleborough merchant with a variety of interests.  In 1865, Sylvester published The Taxidermists' Manual, Giving Full Instructions in Mounting and Preserving Birds, Mammals, Insects, Fishes, Reptiles, Skeletons, Eggs, Etc.  This work is said to be the first such manual employing the word "taxidermist" in the title, and it is unlikely that Jenks, a fellow Middleborough resident, would have been unaware of it or Sylvester's taxidermy work which at times was featured in Sylvester's shop window.

Jenks Museum, Rhode Island Hall, photograph, late 19th-early 20th century
What would serve as Brown University's natural history museum, the Jenks Museum was founded by and named for Professor Jenks.  Many of the specimens which Jenks first displayed in the museum originated from Peirce Academy in Middleborough where Jenks served as principal and where he maintained a natural history collection for the benefit of students there.  A 1900 fire destroyed a portion of the museum along with Jenks' considerable notes.  Defunct by 1915, the museum's specimens are reported to have been disposed of in a dump.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Nickerson Avenue

This street has been known by several names. As originally laid out, the street was intended to extend from South Main Street to Pearl Street (Union Street had yet been built at the time), and was named Washburn Street for the family on whose land it was developed. With the construction of Middleborough Town Hall in 1873-74, the street became known as Townhouse Avenue. The name remained until May 30, 1919, when it was renamed as part of Memorial Day observances in honor of Simeon L. Nickerson who was killed in action July 23, 1918, in France. The street originally ran parallel and adjacent to Temple Place, a right of way which extended from South Main Street to what is now Thatcher’s Row in order to provide access to the Central Baptist Church. With the opening of this street, however, Temple Place fell into disuse.

Memorial Plaque, Corner of Nickerson Avenue and South Main Street, Middleborough, MA, photograph by Mike Maddigan, June 8, 2009.
This small plaque stands on the northeast corner of Nickerson Avenue and South Main Street and dedicates the street to the memory of Simeon L. Nickerson.  Interestingly, the plaque refers to the way as Nickerson Street rather than Avenue.  Nickerson was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his heroic self-sacrifice when he and two others crossed an open field in order to ascertain the location of enemy machine guns. Efforts are currently under way to have Nickerson awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism.

Friday, August 24, 2012

St. Luke's Hospital, 1932

This brochure from St. Luke's Hospital dating from 1932 provides an insight to health care 80 years ago.  Not only have costs change drastically during the intervening years, but so too has awareness of health matters.  (At the time, smoking by patients and others was permissible in the hospital).  At the time the brochure appeared, the Middleboro Gazette wrote of the hospital: "Middleboro has every facility for taking care of sickness and industrial accidents.  St. Luke's is a notably fine modern hospital, of which Middleboro is justly proud and which visitors will be surprised to find in a town of its size.  It has 22 beds, a nurses' home, operating room of the finest modern design and equipment; complete, modern maternity ward; the very latest and finest of X-ray equipment; and attractive, quiet building and grounds, representing in all investment and gifts approaching $100,000."

The cover of the brochure depicts from left to right the Kingman Estate barn (remodelled as a nurses' home in 1922), the Kingman House which served served until 1968 when it was demolished to make way for a modern addition, and the 1930 Shaw addition which was demolished in 1970 to accommodate hospital expansion.

Middleboro Gazette, October 21, 1932.
St. Luke's Hospital, brochure, c. 1932.