The Country in the City: Natural History in Northwest Philadelphia
In 1903, regular newspaper readers in Germantown enjoyed a weekly series of articles titled, “A Flora of Germantown.” Written by Edwin Jellett, they ran every Friday for almost 40 weeks and covered Jellet’s wanderings throughout Northwest Philadelphia as he recorded plants in bloom, noted changes in the flora from previous decades, and referenced local history. To celebrate its centennial year in 2016, Awbury Arboretum republished Jellett’s articles in sequence, re-creating for the 21st century electronic reader what the newspaper consumer of 1903 enjoyed – a vicarious Friday jaunt through Germantown.
By Mark Sellers
In his final 1903 article for the Germantown newspaper The Independent Gazette, Edwin Jellett hurries the reader along for what is probably the longest tour through the territory that is the subject of his columns.
To trace his path in this last article is to watch as a magician pulls one improbable thing after another from a hat that appears too small to hold them. Readers will be familiar with the Cresheim Creek, the Wissahickon, the Valley Green Inn and Hartwell Avenue. Jellett goes up Rex Avenue for a distance, then across Bells Mill Road to Sugarloaf, spinning out recollections and odd facts and observations about various plants as he goes. Whether there was snow on the ground in early December of 1903 is not entirely clear, but Jellett conjures it for the purpose of describing the landscape. Hemlock boughs bend under the weight of the snow and ice and as Jellett stops to inspect a bird’s nest that was occupied during his last visit, but now only contains snow.
It is apparent Jellet knew this was his last column. He reached as far into his memory and his understanding of what was beautiful around him to spread before the reader the best, the most compelling reasons to appreciate the natural world as he saw it. Item after historical item, plant upon plant, is pulled out for us to inspect as Jellett joyously speeds on through his wandering.
While Jellett’s observations have significant historical and botanical value to the student of horticulture in Philadelphia, what makes them interesting reading is his joy. Joy at seeing and knowing, joy from watching the seasons change and seeing the landscape and recognizing its significance.
“So the never-ceasing procession continues, and forever when day departs or seasons die galaxies of stars, constellations of indescribable beauty, and a moon whose splendor we can never fully know, course before us for observation and wonder.”
So the landscape of the Wissahickon Valley laid itself before Jellett for his observation and wonder, and we as readers follow his footsteps and hope for the same joy of recognition.
Edwin C. Jellett – December 4, 1903 – from “A Flora of Germantown”
As originally published in the Germantown Independent Gazette
The Cresheim creek and valley, which we hurriedly traced, passing without mention several mills, scenes and facts of interest, take their name from Kreisheim, a district familiar to, and loved by, the original settlers as their home beyond the Rhine. No more charming “wake” ever attended a disappearing stream, and the glade and grove directing and protecting its retreating waters are not excelled in exquisite beauty by those of any other locality known.
Here natural charms and history combine, and although we may not wander far, I desire to connect with Wissahickon’s richest worth human nature at its best. The place whereon we tread is “holy ground,” for in the “days which tried men’s souls” here father, son and brother, patriots pledged to a sacred cause, met to pray, and part from wives, mothers and sisters, all lovers, perhaps never in this world to meet again.
Here, ignorant of its associations, many of my youthful days were happily spent; here Rev. Joseph Kidder and his class, on days too fine for indoor work, left a gloomy Morton street room to more profitably study in the woods; and here a bent hemlock tree, known by the teacher’s name, was destroyed to make way for an unsightly bridge.
To me the vale is stored with memories, and one of its most pleasing and tender is Thomas Meehan’s connection with it. I do not know that I knew Thomas Meehan better than many another, or that he was more open with me than any other of his wide acquaintance, but from the day my first article in print appeared under his direction, and a new contributor received a note of encouragement, I felt peculiarly attracted to and free with him. There are many things “too deep for tears,” and I never pass this “gem set in a silver sea” without thinking of one whose ability was exceeded only by his modesty; who despised shams, and that patronage which kills more than virtue ever cures; whose open, hearty, genial nature was the light and life of every assembly in which he appeared. “Ah! how they live those days long dead,” how full of sweetness and beauty the Wissahickon is, where my most sacred recollections dwell; where “blessed feet” with me its paths did tread — my sainted mother, who, though absent, is never far away. Flow on, dear, happy stream, and may the hearts of those who follow you be never sad.
Crossing the rustic bridge and following the bridle path northward, we pass Casselberry’s Valley Green Hotel, a stopping place now altered, and shorn of much of its charm, but yet a delightful retreat where those who hunger and thirst may be satisfied. This truly is a “valley green,” but long before the existence of the building here, “valley green” mansion, owned and occupied by Judge Longstreth, courted the stream at Whitemarsh, far above.
In front of us is Township Line road, which crosses a noble arched bridge to unite with Wissahickon Drive and journey with it to Megargee’s mills, beyond which it leaves to climb a hill from view. Crossing Springfield avenue, we note to the south, “Stonehurst,” the palatial residence of the late Charles W. Henry, and to the north is “Crow’s Nest,” the home of Mrs. Henry H. Houston.
Up and down the stream from the bridge every view is a treasure of delight. On the right from its elevated seat a rustic pavilion looks down upon the waters, and beneath it rare wild plants in season bloom. Beyond, in fair proportions, is Hartwell avenue iron bridge, a worthy successor of a bridge of wood claimed by a flood.
At Hartwell avenue was a mill I whose ruins I well remember, and here also stood a group of stone-plastered houses which have only recently been removed. Across the stream to the west is Wise’s Mill road, a lane leading to the building which gave it name, and sometimes confused with Spruce Mill or Thomas’ Mill road, also known as Price’s Mill road.
On the hill to the west of Wise’s mill is the remains of a Megargee plant, and the base of the hill on the drive is the one-time office of the celebrated “Wissahickon Paper Mills.”
Parting with the contiguous road, which with a few other short roads connecting nearby mills existed previous to the building of the “turnpike,” and which by its disjointed parts were made continuous, we leave behind the site of once rumbling busy mills, whose prosperity was reached by the purity of Wissahickon waters, and pass Megargee’s sunny dam, lately “improved,” to enter a wealth of verdure, which from a trickling spring opposite Megargee’s office extends by wooded hills, enclosing “Pro Bono Publico Fountain,” erected by John Cooke and said to be the pioneer public fountain of Philadelphia — all in all one of the most delightful parts of the Wissahickon, and reach Rex avenue bridge, opposite which in the hollow stood “Rube Sands’ Hotel.”
Stopping not, we continue past “Indian Rock,” a landmark of one of the most interesting parts of the Wissahickon, where Tedyuscung, the chief, yet follows the stream, through borders of sweet briar and witchhazel, and soon reach an open meadow where stood Megargee’s upper mills, a few reminders of which yet survive to remind us of activities brought to a close.
In this region dwell many of our fairest and rarest wild flowers, which one sufficiently interested may without difficulty discover, and I trust without abuse enjoy. Spruce Mill lane covered bridge now complacently rests before us, and in the immediate foreground is Thomas’ stately mansion beside the site of its owner’s grist mill. To the west is the most impressive hill in the Wissahickon, a bold, open, mountain-like elevation, with a “front like Jove,” which seems to say, “Thus far, and no farther shalt thou go,” and on the bridle-path to the right is a rare cluster of Jersey pines,
one of the most notable group’s of plants in the Wissahickon.
Beyond these we come soon upon a water falls supplied by a light stream once feeding a mill and dam above, but which now delivers and exhibits itself in a series of cascades surpassing far in beauty the. Falls of Minnehaha, the attractions of Watkin’s Glen, and the more boastful, much advertised claims of Glen Onoko.
From a nature standpoint we are now passing through another of the rich sections of the Wissahickon which a student ought to know, a home of rare plants, constant springs, beautiful geologic exposures, and ledges of lichens, moss-covered attractive rock. The mineralogy of our territory is very sparse and easily acquired, so we shall not at present stop, but press forward to Thorp’s or Bell’s Mill road bridge, where on one side stood Paul’s or Bisshoff’s mills, also known as Tedyuscung cotton and woolen mills, and on the other the print and dye works of Watson and Thorpe, where yet “Thorp’s Dam” spreads itself before us in unrivaled beauty.
Approaching the bend which rounds “Sugar Loaf,” we pass a ledge of rock extending diagonally across the creek, forming a natural dam, and immediately beyond this we come upon the site of the original Dewees’ paper and grist mill, where William Dewees, the first Sheriff of Germantown, who lies in our “Concord Ground,” and Henry Antes, his son-in-law, the churchman of Frederick and Oley, the active moving spirit in the “Unity Conferences,” together wrought, and beyond is the Perkiomen or Reading turnpike, where stood a second and larger Dewees’ mill, the dam of which is yet preserved on the grounds of the Convent of Mt. St Joseph. Like the Dewees mills, the wooden bridge once here is gone, so also has William Dewees’ house, which at the western end faced upon the stream.
At Dewees’ house the “Reformed Church” was organized in America, held its first meetings, and here continued until the arrival of John Philip Boehm, when a church was built at Blue Bell to the north. “Crefeld Mills” was a busy well-known place, the greater part of the traffic between the German capital and the colonies passing its doors. This interesting locality we dare not enlarge upon, and those who desire to pursue the subject farther are referred to “Perkiomen Region,” a publication conducted by Henry S. Dotterer, a native of Frederick and a descendant of Henry Antes, and to “Life and Times of Henry Antes,” by Rev. Edwin McMinn.
We have reached the open, and we shall trace the stream no farther. Here, before the days of railroads, horsemen and “Conestogas” in legion passed; here the missionary “patriarch,” Muhlenberg, forded its swollen stream; here the ornithologist and artist, Audubon, crossed its covered bridge; and here a multitude we may not stop to consider passed to the unknown beyond.
The limits have been reached, and all that we might have presented is past. Our hasty survey did not permit a complete portrayal, but I have endeavored to name the most prominent marks, while passing those inferior or little known. Among those so classed are James Lord’s yarn and carpet mill in the lower Wissahickon; Heft’s mill and mansion, a forerunner of Livezey’s mills, at Allen’s lane bridge; Eittenhouse paper mill, and Schofield’s woolen yarn mill on Cresheim creek; mills distinct or associated; Thomas’ houses near Thorp’s lane, and much of historical interest and value, consideration of which is outside the scope of our work. If attention has been directed to the superlative charms of our wondrous Wissahickon, then the most that I hoped for is already complete.
Winter is upon us, and a new world to conquer opens. What we last year lost may be found this, and who makes a start in time save stitches “nine.” Many of us know our native wild flowers fairly well, but do not know plants of larger growth, and the reason is not far to find. It is a difficult matter to determine shrubs and trees, because many do not leaf and flower at the same time, not a few blooming long before the leaves appear. In all sap starts early to move, and “time taken by the forelock,” leads to great rewards.
Usually about the middle of January a new color in sweet-birch, sassafras, red maple, and in many small plants, indicates an activity begun, and the blushing glow is evidence of a renewed circulation. Hazel-nut,
if not in bloom at Christmas, is always so shortly after, and is closely followed by alder, pussy willow and silver maple, in favorable seasons these always blooming before February first. In gardens ice plant, sedums and euphorbia appear early above ground, and evergreen native and exotic, Adam’s needle, Scottish heath, Japanese euonymus, retinospora, native and Chinese arbor vitae, box and Japan privet, laurel and rhodendrons, holly and yew, cedar, juniper and evergreen cypress, fir, spruce and pine, and other numerous less conspicuous evergreen plants, cast shadows upon the snow to remind us of pleasant days past, and of warmer, brighter ones to come.
These about home, and in woods partridge berry, with light green runners flecked with globes of red; wintergreen, with glossy fragrant leaves and tasty berries our efforts to reward; arbutus, with rough veined netted leaves, defying the cold, with clusters of rosy tipped scale-covered flowers waiting only for Easter day. On rocks or on exposed banks speedwell, “rough and ready” and never in a hurry, waits, and in thickets green ropy runners of smilax, and the more refined bittersweet may be seen climbing over banks, a prickly matted mass seized upon by virgin-bower, whose seed tufted slender climbers hold in place the sinuous lines they crown.
On trunks of trees nearby, are alabaster projecting seats fit for elves or fairies, and under them grosser tawny ledges of fungus are reserved for toads and imps, while below dried dead stalks of beech-drops lie, to entangle the unwary. Lichens, liver worts and mosses which escaped us earlier become conspicuous, the greater volume of light admitted to the woods exposing their hidden retreats. On hills and dry banks club mosses, trailing and erect, with our only salaginnella, prominently appear, and on damp rocks, where water trickles, marchantia, an exceeding odd plant, will be found carpeting many an exposure, and, like all hepaticaae, bearing unique flowers.
Among other native evergreen plants of the Wissahickon woods are burning bush, prince’s pine, spotted pipsissiwa, and rattlesnake plantain, one of our most beautiful leaved plants. Life in some form everywhere appears — in the red berries of common dogwood and sheepberry; in the white berries of panicled cornel; in the suspended vermilion hulls of burning bush; in the saffron-colored fruit of bittersweet; in the intense colored berries of holly which decorate many a home lawn. In short, this active or latent life is wherever we may look for it — in our many evergreen ferns; in laurel and in hemlock, all making the Wissahickon truly a wintergreen.
Those who follow the progresses of nature cannot fall to notice the wonderful order in the development and succession of events. The breaking forth of new life in spring, the decay and disappearance in “fall,” the appearance and passing of flowers, insects and birds, each in an order which sometimes appears as though it were prearranged for our especial benefit, and just at the time of year when days are short and nature generally is dormant, we may turn from objects terrestrial to bodies celestial with more time at our command for observation, and a greater number of stars, and among them the greatest, for our inspection.
Keen as may be the interest in summer stars, far greater is the interest of winter ones, because of the presence of a number of planets, and the enhanced brilliancy of the heavens. Now high upon the ecliptic in early evening “the cleaver” nightly becomes more distinct. Below it is the Hyades, whose bright star Aldebaran is a brilliant guide of early winter nights. Lower yet, and southward, is Orion, whose Bettlegeuse, Bellatrix, with the “three kings,” enrich and display our most brilliant constellation. Beneath, “the fiery Sirius alters hue, and bickers into red and emerald.” Beyond, sporting in southern seas, are “the fishes,” “the dolphin,” and “the whale,” while to the north are “the twins,” “Cephus” the king with his companion queen, and the “dragon” chasing the “little bear” about the northern pole. Westward are the vanishing orbs which lighted our summer nights, retreating before Saturn, Mars and Jupiter, kings of space, to seek Venus and Neptune, the “bright particular” stars of early morn.
So the never-ceasing procession continues, and forever when day departs or seasons die galaxies of stars, constellations of indescribable beauty, and a moon whose splendor we can never fully know, course before us for observation and wonder.
Winter early morn as we stand on the hill crest at “Norwood.” The great valley is rousing from sleep, and white swelling steam rising from a laboring engine tumbles in distant space. Like incense of burning altars, a dreamy smoke from Lancasterville kilns rise, to lazily spread over Broad Axe bordering hills. Before us the Convent slumbers in peace. Across the area is a broken misty exhalation marking where the stream is free and extending to a vanishing point in the haze of morn. St. Thomas’ lofty stand, from whence patriots flashed to Barren Hill messages for Valley Forge, emerges from the gloom, and its new square brown tower rises to view, the rapidly moving light sweeping the thickness from Flourtown’s cozy retreat to let the sunshine in.
Fields are white, and the valley is “snowbound.” Downward stretches the pike as steep as of old, but the days when “Lew” Wister and his crew from summit to bridge coasted “against time” are gone to no more return. The sturdy locust tree guarding the approach to Michael Schlatter’s house is faithful to its trust, but its leaves have fled, and its branches look naked and cold. Like plants beneath the snow, the “Pilgrim Stranger,” Whittier’s unwelcome guest, lies at rest, and she who with a poet said “And when I die, let not a stone tell where I be,” among friends sleeps true to her command in an unmarked grave, and, strangely, near her in our “Brethren’s ground,” almost unknown, lies Godfrey Lehman, our first local historian, and the ancestor of a Harriet Livermore benefactor. The snow recalls them, for, like the flowers, their day is past, and in silence they await the eternal morn.
Snow, snow, everywhere. Fences and trees glisten, southward and westward peaks and spires sparkle with a fresh new light. Long, lone, silent, the road stretches far below, and in the new-born snow two distinct lines paralleling each other mark the passage of a pioneer down the hill. Here and there in sheltered parts brown patches of mother earth rise to greet the sun, but active, moving life is absent.
As we westward descend, crackling icicles leave the trees to break the monotony, and soon the sound of waters rushing over Dewees’ falls grows upon the senses. The spring in the wood is running as happily as of old; it is ice-bound, for the warmth cannot reach it, and headed spears of projecting grass, high and erect, keep its way. Birds which here last summer dipped have gone, and with them the music of merry “picnickers”; it sparkles on alone.
To the shades of the lowest level of the gorge, above which golden-lighted crowns do obeisance to a panoply of blue, we onward press. Gaunt forms of leafless trees become defined, their weird proportions seem to indent the sky, immense boulders lacking their usual drapery display their rugged strength, and the ravine seems to have enlarged itself. A wilderness of leafless trees stands exposed, objects concealed by summer foliage are mercilessly nude, and the ridge line of the hills appears to have retreated.
Ever faithful Tedyuscung maintains his place, overlooks perpetual change, and faces the everlasting hills. The bridle-path is unbroken. Snow, dry and granular as it fell, covers the way at exposed places, drifting to and gorging many a gully beneath. Up through the underbrush and laurel a crisp dazzling whiteness clothes the wood, dims the vision, and causes the head to reel. Over the unbroken path weighted hemlocks bow low to earth, their branches, like comrades in distress, nestling together. Rabbit tracks, deeply imprinted and frost preserved, present us the first semblance of animate life. Now other tracks appear, and the fairy imprints deflect, they disappear in a protected cavern among the rocks.
Faint triparted prints begin to show singly and faintly at first, but soon in groups. Presently the first sound of life is heard, a little chirp, and a cozy feathered stranger appears. As we approach he ruffles himself, spreads his wings, shows the white feathers in his tail, and settles on a tree. He is glad to see us, and eyes us curiously. As we proceed he flits from tree to tree to keep us company. He likes us, and who does not like the snow bird?
Last year’s nests are desolate. I put my hand in a hanging one, and it is filled with snow. When last I called madam was at home and loudly protested for daring to disturb her peace. The house was tidy, and four speckled eggs it kept were warm. Now it is tenantless, empty, discarded shells dropped by squirrels are frozen on its roof, it looks forlorn.
High up on the trees above matted bunches of twigs and leaves appear like blurs upon a picture. The crows which placed them there have gone, with the wild duck they are foraging amid cakes of ice upon the river, and industrious squirrels have taken advantage of their absence. In the bay below the path whiteness has entrenched itself, ice covers the stream, snow drifts the pane, and the world again seems solitary.
Shelving rocks facing the open are shellacked in sheen, long stalactitic crystals hang from exposed projections, and below eddies, which refuse to be covered, look with suspicious eye upon the growing day. On protected rocks polypody and shield-fern defy the weather, and on selected banks Goldie’s fern, Christmas fern and spleenwort stand unconquered.
Thorp’s dam is a clear sheet of shimmering ice from shore to shore, and northward to the bend agile skaters people its surface, dispelling the loneliness. Now the valley resounds with the delights of merry laughter, dogs play on the furrowed surface, sharing the sport; nature is out for a holiday, and the valley seems charged with life.
A rock-bound coast guards the south, a narrow mead hugs the north, winter and its compensations are about us; but already spring is on the banks.
On yonder emerald-crested mire curled crosiers of sensitive fern tip the surface. Skunk cabbage shows its purple head, chick-weed with dandelion, and several of the cruciferae are in flower. About spice-wood and alder swell, color rises in many a shrub, higher growths are covered with multitudinous knotted growths, and soon myriad blooms and fairy images as fragile and mysterious as breath of morn will spread their delicate forms. At the bottom of a hollow dead wood tree a possum sleeps; musk-rats follow their beaten runs; squirrels leap from tree to tree, and in the shelter of the deeper wood song sparrows, blue-birds, downy woodpecker, blue-jays, robins, meadow larks, orioles and black-birds wait upon a warmer sun.
Though ice-clad rigors be present, spring follows hard upon, and our winter has become a season of glorious expectation. So nature follows her consummate plan, develops to the full, and “dies to rise to better things.” Let us profit by our lessons. Like plants may we drop seed to grow to fragrant flowers; change not, though the weather change; cover a barren ground of common faults with a mantle of green; through ill conditions, constant be; withhold no sympathy and brightly smile, seeing through every cloud the better side; remembering day ever follows night, and that when all else be dead goodness will survive supreme. “The noble nature” —
“It is not growing like a tree
In bulk doth make man better be;
Or standing long an oak, three hundred year,
To fall a log at last, dry, bald and sere;
A lily of a day
Is fairer far in May,
Although it fall and die that night —
It was the plant and flower of Light.
In small proportions we just beauties see;
And in short measures life may perfect be.”
Day is drawing to a close, and over Roxborough’s wooded ridge, “Never did sun more beautifully steep in his” departing “splendor valley, rock, or hill. Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!”
To-morrow his cheering face will beam again upon the fields, and the valleys will be filled with joy. The infinite plan is before and if too large for compassed skill, let a visible index prove a consequent sum, as deductions prove a theory. Eliminate all conceits, and with the concrete left let us perfectly harmonize. Before us in indefinable space bewildering course resplendent worlds, subject from everlasting to directing law. Think you these worlds made themselves, were made in vain, or that anything made was made to perish?
Since the foundtalons of the world were laid out but one came into it with an adequate message; let us accept that message “and be thankful.” A face we see not lights the moon, showers the world with blessings, provides for every creature’s needs. Out of the mists sweet forms arise, unsatisfied longings revive, unfulfilled hopes are renewed.
Before us is “life, death and the vast forever,” nature in its majesty, “immutable, immortal, infinite,” towards which “the whole creation moves,” the acme and ultimate, “the last for which the first was made,” “the roof and crown of things — God, to whom, if we be sincere, “a little child” shall lead us.
“The world is yet before us where to choose, with providence our guide.” Sparkling waters, gleaming woods, bright-faced flowers, and singing birds abound, “troops of friends” surround, the future is bright with promise, and the place we love so well stands sure. May it live long, prosper, and be ever “a greene country towne, and always wholesome.”