In This Place: April 2, 2014
“Tramping” with “Oom John”
In a year when we’re all longing for spring, I thought we could spend some time with the man who was born on April 3 and attributed his optimistic nature to this “hopeful” time of year — naturalist and Roxbury native, John Burroughs.
Making selections was hard — Burroughs was a frequent topic in this paper and his obituary, memorial services and centennial celebrations alone could fill many columns.
So I focused instead on the day-to-day news of his doings and sayings, and the unassuming way he lived among his neighbors and friends.
Coincidentally, the News is now running a serial story, “Roosevelt, Burroughs and the Trip that Saved Nature,” sponsored by the New York News Publishers Association. Although we are now on Chapter 5, you can find the entire series here on our website in the “Features” section. The book is meant to introduce children to the conservation movement, which got an enormous “leg up” from the lasting friendship between Burroughs and Roosevelt. This is how it all started . . .
March 27, 1903 — John Burroughs Honored
President Roosevelt has invited John Burroughs, the naturalist who is a native of Roxbury, to accompany his party on a trip to Yellowstone Park. The invitation [was] inspired by Mr. Burroughs’ article in a March periodical which the President had been reading.
Burroughs is famous for writing about his native hills, birds and wildlife, but he was also an avid angler and apparently, would also have relished tubing:
March 2, 1906 — Delaware & Eastern Opens New Field for Enjoyable Outings
The new railroad opens the way of enjoying a pleasure that has always been attended with hardship, viz.: floating down to East Branch in a boat and getting home expeditiously. Many make the trip every year and, to come back, are compelled to go to Oneonta or Kingston to get home—a two day’s journey. With the new regime you may ride in [a] boat to East Branch and then board a train and be home in two hours.
The great naturalist and poet, John Burroughs, says that there is no more enticing river in the world for such an expedition, he took the trip once, starting from the Arkville bridge on the Dry Brook stream and went as far as East Branch and wrote a book, Pepacton, concerning the journey.
The President’s friendship with Burroughs continued well past their Yellowstone trip. Roosevelt’s blunt, vigorous manner and boyish disregard of proprieties greatly appealed to Burroughs. “Oom” is an Afrikaans term of endearment for an older man of authority. The amazing and often hilarous account by Burroughs of their trip to Yellowstone can be found online at: www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1906/05/camping-with-president-theo....
June 14, 1907— Anecdotes of John Burroughs.
A day or two after President Roosevelt visited him we found Uncle John still bubling [sic] over with delight about it. “The President ate half a chicken,” he remarked, “and four large baked potatoes, and helped himself to spring water from the pail ever so many times.” Then Uncle John lifted the old oil cloth cover of the table and pointed to a blotch of blackberry juice which the President had spilled. There is no terrible housekeeper at Slabsides, and the dark red stain remained on the table cloth for many a day, as a memento of the President’s visit. But more lasting signs of the comradeshlp between Theodore Roosevelt and John Burroughs are to be found here. Among innumerable others, there is an edition de luxe of one of Mr. Roosevelt’s books, affectionately inscribed to “Oom John” as the President calls Mr. Burroughs.
Two boyhood classmates could not have grown to be more different than Burroughs and Wall Street tycoon Jay Gould, who couldn’t wait to abandon his small town upbringing. That’s not to say Burroughs did not enjoy a comfort or two: at the time of this interview he was at Cornell, staying as the guest of a wealthy patron. And, as we all know, Burroughs never had to pay for his automobiles, having Henry Ford as a good friend and benefactor. Jay Gould died in 1892 at the age of 56 of consumption.
January 22, 1909 — “I Knew Jay Gould when He Needed Seventy Cents”
John Burroughs gave a very interesting interview concerning Jay Gould, the famous millionaire who was a school mate of Mr. Burroughs at Roxbury.
“I knew Jay Gould when he was in sore need of 70 cents, and knew him when he had $70,000,000, and I am confident that Mr. Gould was happier when he hadn’t even a dollar,” said John Burroughs, in an interview on the “making of money.”
“I sat behind Jay Gould in school, and once he wrote a composition on a slate for me when I needed ideas. That day he needed seventy cents and I gave the sum to him for two old school books–one a German grammar. I saw him later in life, but I do not think he was happy. Why? There was that money fire blazing in his eyes, and I am sure it reached his brain and consumed his life, sending him to an untimely grave. If Mr. Rockefeller has given out the doctrine that a man can make his wife happy with money he is making a declaration that I believe American women and women all over the world will resent. They want love first of all. Money, of course, is necessary to provide the comforts of existence, but cultured people can doubtless be contented with books when they cannot buy automobiles.”
Burroughs was rightly considered by his fellow townsmen as an authority on all things wild. If there were ever a question posed in that arena, it was always said, “Go ask Burroughs.” Here’s some advice I don’t think any of us will be taking up any time soon:
February 21, 1913 — Safe Way to Carry Skunks If Any One Cares to Try Somewhat Rash Experiment.
“There is a saying among country folk that a skunk can be safely carried by the tail,” says Julian Burroughs. “Father determined to try the question for himself. Every time that I caught a skunk about the house, first, we carefully shut up the dog, much to the latter’s disgust; then the skunk was gently lifted on a pole and dropped into an empty barrel. As soon as the skunk had become used to the barrel, father would reach in, clasp him firmly by his plumelike tail and then raise him aloft, always being careful not to let the animal get his front feet on any near object. This we repeated over and over without any accident, proving that the skunks of Ulster county, at least, can be safely carried by their tails.”
Burroughs loved his Ford automobiles but had a reputation as a reckless driver with a “lead foot.” His grandchildren reportedly were terrified of riding with him.
April 25, 1913
John Burroughs, the naturalist, of West Park, was injured Saturday, when his automobile skidded in the muddy highway near his home, and lurched against a boulder. The injuries of Mr. Burroughs were slight, but the car was wrecked.
August 29, 1913
Henry Ford the famous maker of Ford automobiles is the guest of the equally famous John Burroughs in Roxbury. Mr. Ford gave Mr. Burroughs a fine Ford car some time ago and when Burroughs ran through the barn and smashed it, Mr. Ford gave him new parts free.
Here, well into his seventies, Burroughs is as curious as ever — and still sleeping outside on the porch in the summertime.
November 28, 1913 — Roxbury Residents Hear Strange Noises in the Mountains.
Early in October we visited the lodge of John Burroughs, and there, on his rustic porch we found him in deep perplexity. The night before he had been awakened by a peculiar noise. Sleeping on the porch, his hearing was unobstructed by board or wall. The sound was like a terrible shriek. In his own words, “like the scream of a lost soul from Hades” trailing off into a long drawn out wail, “the most heartrending sound I have ever experienced.” We had heard this identical sound some years ago and had believed it to be a panther.
Mr. Burroughs could not believe it to be a panther, or, more correctly, a puma, because “no panther had been seen in these parts in thirty years.”
Mr. Burroughs, very skeptical but intensely in earnest, wrote to Mr. Hornaday, director of the Bronx Zoological garden to know if he could place the sounds.
Mr. Hornaday, who had heard hundreds of panthers, believed it to be a female escaped from captivity. Mr. Hornaday also remarked such escaped animals were able to sustain themselves for some months successfully. Why they should not be able to live indefinitely in a country so adapted to their needs, he failed to explain.
Mr. Burroughs is now less skeptical — “it must be a panther but where does it keep itself during these long intervals when it is unheard and why is it, or its track in winter, never seen? The creature itself is harmless to man, but why is it never seen by tramper or hunter?” If any one around this section can furnish any information, Mr. Burroughs would be grateful and interested. You may address any such communication to Box 298, Roxbury, N. Y.
Burroughs’ predictions about World War I turned out to be over-optimistic, but his advice remains as sound today as it was nearly 100 years ago.
April 16, 1915 — Aged Naturalist gives good advice on 78th birthday.
John Burroughs, preacher of the simple life, celebrated his 78th birthday Saturday. A party of newspaper men interviewed Burroughs at West Park.
“How do I feel? I feel as chipper as twenty-five. This morning I cleaned out my furnace, chopped a stack of cordwood, raked the yard and did all the chores. Then I heard the birds calling and out I came. All of the spring birds are here, you know—the silver voiced song sparrow I love so much; the pert and independent robin, the bluebird and the saucy blackbird. They’re old friends of mine.”
“Then too, in fifty years I have known many of the giants of literature and active affairs, I think that Abraham Lincoln was the greatest all around man, the greatest man of action that I ever knew. Whitman, of course, was the greatest poet. Matthew Arnold, to my mind, was the greatest of all prose writers.”
“And the greatest woman, Mr. Burroughs?” “Mrs. Burroughs,” said the naturalist instantly. Then he added: “And next to her, Mrs. Julia Ward Howe.”
“My belief is that the war will end before the next snowfall. I fear that real prosperity will be delayed in this country because of the terrible destruction abroad. The war has put us Americans back a long way— longer than many people realize now. But I expect to live to see mankind regain sanitary [sanity] and to see our country happier and more prosperous than ever.
“Have you any birthday message, Mr. Burroughs?” He thought a moment and then replied: “Why yes, If you can call it a message. It is merely a piece of simple, homely advice: ‘Keep cheerful and mind your own business. I have followed that rule myself not unsuccessfully, and in these trying days, when there is so much foolish talk and hasty violent action, it might be worth while to give it a trial.”
One theme that is heard over and over again in the pages of the News, is Burroughs as the perfect example of someone who achieved great things through his own hard work and dedication, without much formal education. One strongly suspects the voice of Clarke Sanford at work. For someone with a reputation as a “hermit,” Burroughs certainly seemed accessible and happy to spend time with neighbors and visitors alike.
September 10, 1915 — John Burroughs Uses His Rifle on the Chucks.
The ministers attending the conference held recently in Roxbury visited John Burroughs. On seeing a rifle at his side Rev. E. E. Hart of Stamford inquired if he killed animals. He replied, “I kill nothing but woodchucks, they are a great nuisance.”
The great man recalled the writing of his books, among them “Wake Robin,” the first. In 1863, at the age of 26, he was appointed watchman in the United States Treasury vault at Washington, D. C. There he sat all day long in a narrow stone corridor, before the steel barred doors. Of the outer door he only knew the combination and the inner door another man alone knew. So these two guarded over $50,000,000. The days wore heavily. To kill time he began making notes on boyhood recollections. There, in the light of one small, deep set, barred window, looking out on Pennsylvania avenue, “Wake Robin” was written.
A smile [sic] or so away we saw still in use, the tiny, one-room school house, where Mr. Burroughs, a classmate of Jay Gould — received all his school- book education. The great naturalist should be an inspiration to every youth, in that he has proven what a cultivated power of observation may do for one who is handicapped in his struggle for an education. An omnivorous reader, a keen observer of men and things, and a careful writer, are the three qualifications that have made him a world character.
Burroughs counted truly great men among his friends. For his centennial celebration, Henry Ford telegraphed: “Mr. Burroughs was not only a wise observer of nature and a patient master of detail, but he had the gift of inspiring the love of nature in multitudes of people. He was the great camping companion which, as every camper knows, speaks volumes for his character. He was also a firm friend.” Of all the tributes we could give him, sharing good times in the great outdoors is probably the attribute that John Burroughs would most like us to celebrate.
September 1, 1916 — Ford, Edison and Burroughs Will Take a Few Days’ Vacation In the Catskills.
Thomas A. Edison sat in his laboratory at West Orange. N. J., Monday, engrossed in a small nickle contrivance in his hand. He scratched his gray head and pondered. Suddenly his features took on the exultant expression assumed by motion picture players when they say, “I have It!” No new scientific miracle had been performed. Edison merely had fixed his fishing rod.
Efficiency experts may condemn the utilization of the world’s greatest inventive mind for such a trivial purpose. But as the inventor says himself, it is immaterial to him “whether school keeps or not.” He’s going camping.
“I don’t want to be near electricity. An old suit, an old hat, a few good French novels and the fishing rod, that’s all I will bother with.” Mr. Edison’s companions will be Henry Ford, John Burroughs, and W. B. Firestone.
“We have no route mapped out. The dirt roads will be the ones that will lure us, because we want to avoid the city folk that spoil the main routes.”
“We are reverting to the sport of our boyhood days. We can be best described as gypsies. We shall look worse than them, though. I am not going to take a razor along. We shall camp where no one can find us, so it won’t matter how we look. Burroughs, Ford and I have had great fun camping. Two years ago we went camping in Florida. Burroughs did the cooking. He makes dandy flapjacks. I can cook, too—if Burroughs lets me.”
Few supplies will be carried. Milk, eggs and other provisions will be bought from farmers along route. The excursionists will do no hunting. “No we shall take no guns along,” said Mr. Edison. “We are bird lovers, you know, and, besides, Mr. Ford is going along.”
Here’s to getting outside! I welcome ideas for topics, people or events. Email them to me at: email@example.com. You can rummage through the archives yourself at: www.nyshistoricnewspapers.org/middletown.