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
Edwin Jellett was no stranger to nostalgia. After having lived with his weekly columns now for these months the reader should sense Jellett was deeply affected by his memories of living in Germantown, and his memories mingled with the history he learned as he tramped about and the plants he saw, and the whole of it is spun into highly allusive prose that wanders from topic to topic.
One of the topics that sets Jellett off on a nostalgic tear is water, in particular swimming holes and dams. Despite the lateness of the season Jellett’s memory of summer sets him off on the subject of swimming holes along the Wissahickon. Thorpe’s Dam, Kelly’s Dam, the Brush Dam and the Waterworks Dam, Sucker Dam, Willow Dam were all places where Jellett and his friends would tramp for the chance to swim. None of these locations is really described in detail, so what comes across to the reader is Jellett’s deep affection for these deeply shaded, cool places along the Wissahickon and the Wingohocking.
Indeed Jellett was so deeply distracted by his memories that it isn’t until he is well into his column that he even mentions that the season has turned to fall. “Who ever saw a more brilliant array of vivid color than we now everywhere in gardens have.” And Jellett is off at a gallop again, this time going on at length about berries and ferns and gentians.
Edwin C. Jellett – October 9, 1903 – from “A Flora of Germantown”
As originally published in the Germantown Independent Gazette
It may seem rather late in the season to write of dams and swimming, but the reference will be superficial, for the purpose is to trace two streams which bound an objective stopping place. Although September days may seem cool, the water is comparatively warm, and when Germantown catered to the needs of boys it was an unwritten law by the hardy observed that Easter day opened the swimming season, which was to continue uninterrupted until the battle of Germantown day, October 4.
In those days bathing on the outskirts of the town was permitted without interference, and also at all mill dams within the town limits, after 8 o’clock in the evening. Twenty- five years ago there were no “bridlepaths” in the Wissahickon, and, with the exception of the “drive,” the upper Wissahickon was little visited. At that time Herbert Welsh, through his father, John Welsh — then one of the most active Park Commissioners — endeavored, but failed, to secure bathing privileges in secluded parts of the Wissahickon by day, a right at that time permitted in the evening, and fully used. Then Thorp’s Dam was a favorite resort, and was frequently enjoyed by Joseph Meehan, William E. Meehan and others from upper Germantown and Chestnut Hill, while middle and lower Germantown resorted to Thorp’s Dam, Kelly’s Dam and other dams on the stream above it, as well as Brush Dam and Waterworks Dam. At that time the dams were well known, but now a stranger would have no little difficulty in finding the site of those located on Wingohocken creek.
Kelly’s Dam was situated on the railroad to the north of “Scatchard’s mill;” Sucker Dam was located at Walnut lane, one square west of the railroad; and one square north of it, at Tulpehocken street, was Willow Dam. To all these dams I was a constant visitor, and at Willow Dam I was swimming at a time when but a short distance away Charlie Ross and his brother were taken, one never to return.
Many were the nights with friends, particularly with Oscar N. Middleton and William T. Murphy, one now the “fifth wheel” of Christ Church, and the other the popular treasurer of the Germantown Trust Company, whose manly form is none too great to accommodate his many virtues, we tramped through the waterworks woods to swim in the “well,” and although, unlike Lane Head or Orson Head, we could never “touch bottom,” we always succeeded in having a “glorious time.” But like days of perfect freedom are no more, and the Germantown boys of the present day have my unbounded sympathy.
Reminiscence is always subtle, and if not controlled will always lead one far away, for all love the brightness and the fullness of “happy long ago.”
To the east of Germantown there is a curious deflecting ridge, which discharges its watershed into two distinct valleys, which nowhere are widely separated from each other, and I have long wondered at the volume of the streams which once openly flowed through them. One is a stream rising near Chestnut Hill, flowing to the west of Ivy Hill Cemetery, passing through Nolen’s meadow, skirting Bummer’s Cave, forming Brush Dam at Haines street, at one time turning the wheels of Townsend’s or Roberts’ mill at Church lane, and below spreading into Thorp’s Dam, thence passing into Wakefield’s spacious meadow, beyond which it unites with the Wingohocken creek near Stenton. The other stream is the Wingohocken creek rising near Mount Pleasant, from thence flowing through Meehan’s nursery, Unruh’s meadow, forming in succession the dams previously named, rounding in time Wister’s wood, and in Logan’s meadow joining the branch previously named.
On the top of the lower projecting ridge bordered by these two streams is “Belfield,” the one-time home of Charles Wilson Peale, where we shall briefly call to note it and a few nearby spots of nature interest. Charles Wilson Peale was a remarkable man, and one of the most interesting characters of the colonial period. He was a “Jack of trades,” never content, but, like Christopher Saur, success seemed to smile upon him, and his active temperament permitted no rest. He in course of time became a portrait painter, and eventually a noted one, he having the honor of first placing on canvas Washington, of whom he afterwards made no less than 13 other “original” paintings, and although his work artistically is inferior to the Germantown Washington of Gilbert Stuart, as a portrait it is superior, for where one is ideal the other is natural.
Peale during the Revolution became a soldier, and was with the army at Germantown and at Trenton. He was also at Valley Forge, and while there he painted a well-known portrait of the commander-in-chief. To Peale belongs the honor of being the founder of the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts, an institution in whose behalf be was long active. At Belfield he first began the formation of a “natural history museum,” which he after a time transferred to Philadelphia, where it grew to become a leading attraction of the city.
It is this museum which connects Peale with our subject, for while Belfield is finely situated, it lacks the floral interest of other places near, and in Peale’s day its museum, then a new idea, was its principal attraction. For this reason Peale’s portrait, showing himself in his museum, is to me one of the most interesting in our Academy of Fine Arts collection.
Near by Belfield and in sight is “Little Wakefield,” and across the narrow valley, almost hidden in the trees, is Wakefield, at one time not distinguishable from many a country home abroad. Here is an old-time, old-fashioned garden, sweet and refreshing, home-like, home-made, and, like home-spun people plain, is always reliable and most pleasing. About are ivy-covered trees, great in girth, immense in spread and height, inspiring and impressive, unequalled by any other group of trees I know in Germantown — oak trees, chestnut trees, tulip-poplar trees, and before all now is the approaching city. Its neighbor, Little Wakefield, is much like it, and the two guard the valleys. Before present changes and encroachments, when the meadows were open, the turf green, and hunting was a “fad,” here gaily attired riders chased the “hare,” until the place seemed rural England. But although the hare was never caught life then was in its summer, and riders, hounds and horse had a run in the sunlight and air, felt the keenness of pleasure of strength in active exercise, enjoyed to the full congenial companionship, and had a good time to no creature’s injury.
Little Wakefield and its surroundings remind me of an etching of Wakefield Mills by Joseph Pennell, which appeared in the Pennsylvania Magazine in connection with Townsend Ward’s articles, and this I have always thought the best of Pennell’s early work, and much superior to his plate of the same period of the Germantown Academy.
Joseph Pennell, familiarly known as “Joe” in the neighborhood of the “Coulter House,” was for several years a clerk in the Reading coal office on Armat street, and while there he studied at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts as opportunity afforded. Twenty years ago he was a familiar figure sketching in public places, and it is surprising the amount of work be accomplished at that time. Abroad he had made a name for himself, whereat I rejoice, and those acquainted with his best work, such as his Venetian sketches and the cathedrals of England, may well think him entitled to all he has received. He and his wife, each and together, have written books, principally descriptive, and his writing, although not in the same class with his sketches, is wholly creditable.
Who ever saw a more brilliant array of vivid color than we now everywhere in gardens have? Or who remembers a finer year throughout than this has been? Ail things equalize themselves, ’tis said, and if the “rich man has his ice in summer,” the poor man cannot be prevented from having his in winter, but this season all favors were showered upon the undeserving and the deserving alike. As “fall” advances odors in flowers seem to me to gather strength, and plants hitherto inconspicuous make their presence known.
In fields several field mints and pennyroyal become more noticeable, and in gardens lemon verbena, rose, geraniums, and other plants grown for their fragrance, appear at their full value. Red-hot poker plant, long a resident of old gardens, is now in bloom for the second time, and pink flowering heath, a perennial of lasting worth, is in bloom with it.
In open fields maturing plants are scattering their seeds, and one who will take the time to examine them will be impressed by the wonderful power which conceived and from everlasting reproduces them. Take a drifting seed of hawkweed or a wild lettuce, note its perfect construction, every part serving the purpose for which it was made, its germ of life within itself, its cover envelope, its fragile appendages to maintain It in space and give it distribution, all delicate as the finest fabric of “imagination lofty and refined.” Take a tufted seed of a milkweed, and if one is able to view it without appreciating or discerning the thought which so beautifully wrought it, then let such an one pass the study of nature, for it is not within their gifts.
Now berry bearing plants are perfecting, and, highly colored, add a charm to many a thicket. Over many a fence near home climbing bittersweet is displaying its orange-colored bulbs, which break to expose berries ridged of deepest vermilion. Witch-hazel’s curious olive-colored bulbs have burst, and, like a catapult, have discharged their contents, and beside them small round swelling knobs now appearing will next month break bloom.
In thickets haw, with small red red crab-apple like berries; sloe, with small olive-shaped blue black berries, and arrow wood, with clusters of small round black berries, are conspicuous. Climbing upon trees over them is fox grape, with heavy berries, and higher yet is chicken grape, with fruit like shot, small and round and black. Common also in places is panicled cornel, with cymes of berries white; flowering dogwood, weighted with berries red and sheepberry, with leaves odorous and branches studded with gorgeous brilliants.
Black alder, or winterberry, a plant common in places, but with us rare, and flowering inconspicuously in May, is now near Mollie Rinker’s Rock in the Wissahickon a mass of color, and not far away wintergreen, quite distinct from it, supports berries red. Pipsissiwa, another low plant, has berries striped, and partridge berry, with long stringers highly decorated, clothes and decorates nearly every bank in woods.
Along roadsides, but not common, though common enough near Whitemarsh Church, blackberry lily shows its clustered head of seed, exhibiting its beauties and needing no label to give its name. Everywhere day-flower is common, and its beautiful sky-blue flowers are a picture perfect. Ladies’ tresses which earlier bloom, now best bloom, and both the common and slender varieties are flourishing as they did not before this season.
High over fences in old-fashioned places broom-corn, growing to a height of 12 feet, displays its wavy drooping heads, and soon will be ready for the “shearer.” Walnut trees, which are the last trees to leaf in spring, are the first to drop them in “fall,” are now in places almost bare, and their fruit at even looks cold and bleak. The first shell-barks and pig-nuts are down, and chestnuts, green in the hull, will be ready for the first frost.
Other ferns mature are hay-scented fern, a beautiful leaved plant, rising from an underground runner, a fern common to parts of the Wissahickon and woods at Limekiln pike and Washington lane. This plant appears to have a strong liking for hemlock hedges, it being common under such a hedge at Wayne and Manheim streets, and may now be seen under Dr. R.W. Deaver’s hedge at Main street and Walnut lane. Broad beech fern, a low plant with triangular leaves, odd and interesting, grows in Brush wood, Franklin wood and in parts of the Wissahickon. Hairy lip fern, a rare plant, and, as ferns go, a little rough, was introduced by myself to the lower Wissahickon, but recent changes there may have destroyed it. My “locality” for it is on Swamp Creek, above Zeiglervllle, where it is not uncommon.
A rare find, which George Redles made several years ago, was a group of ostrich fern growing near the Convent, which to my knowledge is the only colony of this plant growing anywhere near home. Virginian chain fern and netted veined chain fern, two common New Jersey plants well known, are with us only in cultivation, but appear naturally on the Delaware river near Essington, are also mature. The most unique, if not the rarest, of all ferns is curly grass, a plant first noted by Pursh, the most minute, and of all plants the most difficult to discover. At Quaker Bridge and at Egg Harbor, with George Redles and others, I have frequently collected it, but even when the locality is know one must get down on hands and knees to be able to separate it from accompanying vegetation.
We have but few gentians, and those with us are now in bloom, though one variety is leading the season. Our commonest gentian is closed gentian, a plant before noted, and one which may be frequently met along the Wissahickon drive, particularly near “Livezey’s mill.” This plant very early sends up a mass of bright clean foliage, which early in September topped by a mass of deep blue closed bottle-like flowers. Near Edge Hill grows soap wort gentian, a plant somewhat resembling closed gentian, but of more slender growth, with lighter colored flowers, which partly open to exhibit a striped corolla. Their location was first made known to me by George Redles, but I have frequently collected it at Stone Hills near Swamp creek.
Our most beautiful home gentian is fringed gentian, which grows in several places in the Wissahickon, and which is maintained there solely by those interested, and principally by George Redles, who annually makes visits to distant parts for seed to recoup the destruction of unappreciative Park misusers. Unknown to the Park authorities many of the rare plants in the Wissahickon are maintained solely by unselfish flower lovers, whose reward is that they have helped an abused and struggling minority in an unequal contest.
Some ten years ago George Redles made known, what other botanists are now only beginning to learn, that fringed gentian is a bi-ennial, a fact which accounts for seasons of interrupted bloom. There are three things our Park Commmissioners should do—first, abolish the growing of “cut flowers” at Horticultural Hall, for those who pay for them never get them; second, refuse all permits for the collection of flowers in the Park, for the right of one is the right of all, and vice versa; third, be liberal, and clearly word the law of privileges in the Park, then every violator discovered prosecute to the utmost limit.
Several years ago I directed attention to the fact that the mere plucking of annual blooms can do no harm, and should be permitted, but the removal of plants or the destruction of rare or hard-wooded plants is without reason, and should be prohibited.
A strikingly handsome gentian appearing in nearby New Jersey is slender gentian, a delicate, showy and a most beautiful plant while in bloom, but with us it appears only in select gardens. Five-leaved gentian, another native variety, grows near Reading, but naturally does not appear with us. William Kite frequently collected this plant, and for specimens I have I am indebted to him. All our gentians have blue flowers, and the different members brought together form a most valuable and beautiful group. The habitat of the fringed gentian in the Wissahickon was long a secret, and was first made known to me by Henry Carvill Lewis, who told me I was his only confidant. Others, however, knew of its retreat, and although the ladies of the “Botany Class,” two of whom were Henry Lewis’ sisters and fine botanists, were unable to locate it, others were more successful, and the plant is now maintained with us only by the interests named.
Henry Lewis was one of our finest botanists, and my first interest in wild flowers was encouraged and directed by him. Botany to him was but a primer of geology, and he chose to develop in its broader fields. Now, as often I tramp through the Wissahickon alone, I think of him and of the bountiful promise of his fresh young life; his beautiful form; active, healthy, helpful spirit; ever bright and strong and hopeful; gifted and sensible of his powers; alive, and responsive to every harmonious chord.
Upon the world of science he wrote his name, and from the theatre of action where his ability and originality was universally recognized he was forever called at the early age of 35 — a mystery of mysteries so profound that, though the years have rolled the keenness smooth, I yet tremble before its inviolate inscrutableness.
White oak. Quercus Alba.
Chestnut. Castanea Sativa, var Americana.
Tulip poplar. Liriodendron Tulipefera.
Pennyroyal. Hedeoma Pulegiodes.
Lemon verbena. Lippia Citriodora.
Rose-geranium. Pelargonium Capiatum.
Red hot poker plant. Tritoma Uvaria.
Heath. Calluna Vulgaris.
Hawk weed. Hieracium Venosum.
Wild lettuce. Lactuca Canadensis.
Milk weed. Asclepias Cornuti.
Climbing bittersweet. Celastrus Scandens.
Witch hazel. Hamamelis Virginiana.
Black haw. Viburnum Prunifolium.
Crab-apple. Pyrus Prunifolia.
Sloe. Prunus Spinosa.
Black thorn. Prunus Spinosa.
Arrow wood. Viburnum Dentatum.
Fox grape. Vitis Labrusca.
Chicken grape. Vitis Cordifolia.
Panicled cornel. Cornus Paniculata.
Flowering dogwood. Cornus Florida.
Sheepberry. Viburnum Lentago.
Black alder. Ilex Verticillata.
Winterberry. Gaultheria Procumbens.
Winter green. Gaultheria Procumbens.
Pipsissiwa Chimaphilla Maculata.
Partridge berry. Michella Repens.
Blackberry lily. Belamcanda Chinenis.
Day-flower. Commelina Virginica.
Ladies tresses. Spiranthes Cernoa.
Ladies tresses (slender). Spiranthes Gracilis.
Broom corn. Andropogon Sorghum.
Walnut. Juglans Nigra.
Shell-bark. Carya Alba.
Pignut. Carya Porcina.
Chestnut. Castanea Sativa, var. Americana.
Hay scented fern. Dicksonia Pilosiuscula.
Broad beech fern. Phegopteris Hexagonopera.
Hairy lip fern. Cheilanthes Vestita.
Ostrich fern. Onoclea Struthiopteris.
Virginian chain fern. Woodwardia Virginica.
Netted veined chain fern. Woodwardia Augustifolia.
Curly grass. Schizaea Pusilla.
Closed gentian. Gentiana Andrewsii.
Soap-wort gentian. Gentiana Saponaria.
Fringed gentian. Gentiana Crinita.
Slender gentian. Gentiana Augustifolia.
Five leaved gentian. Gentiana Quinquefolia.
All botanical illustrations, unless otherwise noted, are by Alois Lunzer, from Thomas Meehan’s “The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States,” first published in 1878. Plates from this book were clipped and included in Jellett’s scrapbook/manuscript “The Flora of Germantown.”