Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Swimming Pool Discovered in Herrontown Woods

Whenever we head off trail along the Princeton ridge in northeastern Princeton, we find something interesting. It might be a great-horned owl keeping an eye on us from high in a tree, or an old well and foundation dating back to the 19th century in Autumn Hill Reservation, or a cliff with a great view of the boulder-strewn landscape. Yesterday, on 11.11, we had just finished showing the Veblen site to our neighbors, the Princeton Learning Cooperative, when Kurt told us he had found something interesting in the woods a few days back. That's Kurt as in Kurt Tazelaar, who with Sally Curtis cleared the trails of Herrontown Woods and Autumn Hill Reservation. The late afternoon still held some light, so Jon Johnson, Kurt and I headed over to Stone Hill Church, entered Herrontown Woods along their new access trail, and took the blue trail a short distance before Kurt started heading off-trail through the woods.

In most Princeton woodlands, off-trail hiking is made impossible by dense growths of invasive shrubs, but in this section of Herrontown Woods in fall, the woodland is an enticing and imminently hikeable mix of boulders and fallen branches, all doused with a fresh coating of autumn leaves. A couple hundred feet in, Kurt showed us his find--a large rock wall and a streambed that was surprisingly broad and well defined for being in this flat top-of-the-ridge woodland that, like a giant sponge, catches rainwater and feeds it slowly into the rocky stream that runs down the hillside through more traveled sections of the park.

New vistas are opening up in the woods as the leaves continue to fall, and I noticed in the distance what looked like a hillock in the otherwise flat landscape. My first, highly romantic thought was of Indian burial mounds. Climbing to the top, though, I noticed a pond just beyond it, with noticeably straight sides, extending 100 feet in one direction, 50 in another.

The pond is in the shape of an "L", and the location of the mounds made clear that a bulldozer had spent a day or two scraping dirt out and pushing it up onto the mounds.
Here, I'm standing on the smaller mound, with dusk approaching, looking down at the short portion of the "L", from which the elevated soil beneath my feet came.

I suddenly realized that this must be the swimming pool that someone had told me about years back. There had been mention of a bulldozer, and a less than successful attempt to create a swimming pool, but by now I've forgotten who had told that story. Maybe Bob Wells, who rented the Veblen House from 1975 to 1998. Or maybe Joe Schmeltz, the former Mercer County naturalist.
We couldn't tell if the steady dimpling of the water's surface was a sign of aquatic life or methane gas rising from the organic matter that has accumulated over the intervening decades. On a future visit, we'll test the original depth with waders and a stick. Trees growing on the mounds or old aerial photos may reveal when the bulldozer made this memorable imprint.

Why would anyone attempt to dig a swimming pool at one of the highest points in Princeton? We tend to think water accumulates in valleys, not along ridges, yet oftentimes, the headwaters of streams are a high, flat expanse where rainwater accumulates with no clear outlet. Much of this high ground in Herrontown Woods is wet for most of the year, with groundwater close to the surface and trails passable only in late summer and fall. Rivulets slowly feed water from this area into the tributary of Harry's Brook that is such a lovely feature of the lower elevations of Herrontown Woods, closer to the parking lot. A stream is perennial or intermittent depending on whether it has a spongy headwaters area like this to keep it flowing even through dry spells. Because the water table remains high through much of the year, it obviously occurred to someone to try to make a naturally fed swimming pool here. How refreshing it must have been to take a dip in its cool waters on a hot summer's day, that is, if the swimming pool ever actually functioned as such.

One interesting note about the sequence of events that led to rediscovering this relic from an earlier era in Princeton's history. When Stone Hill Church volunteers were building their access trail, I may have mentioned the idea of lining it with branches to better define its path. The kids helping out enthusiastically set about finding branches to line the trail. Kurt saw the result and then adopted this approach on Herrontown Woods' blue trail, which is otherwise easy to lose track of, and in the process of searching for branches, he came upon the large rock wall. Showing that to us in turn led to looking farther into the forest and noticing the mounds.

Sometimes it takes a village to rediscover a piece of the village history.

Note: Another of Princeton's nature preserves, Mountain Lakes, also once had a swimming pool in the small valley just past Mountain Lakes House, but it was Olympic-sized, 13 feet deep, and once used by the high school swim team for practice. Around 2001, when the old bathhouse was torn down, the swimming pool was filled in, leaving a grassy expanse. Coming along years later, I turned the lawn into a meadow, and used to dig up shards of ornamental tile while planting native wildflowers.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Charismatic Cows and the Pyne Connection

Drive east on Herrontown Road, and as you emerge from the forest of Herrontown Woods and Autumn Hill Reservation, a rural landscape opens up--land connected to one of the great historical Princeton families. The farmland was owned until 1961 by Agnes Griswold Pyne, daughter-in-law of Moses Taylor Pyne, Sr., who called Drumthwacket home and had a profound influence on Princeton University.

Agnes was married to Moses Taylor Pyne, Jr., and lived at Drumthwacket, but in the summer she'd live out in the Herrontown neighborhood, in this lovely home that still bears the name Clearbrook Farm.
The pasture across Herrontown Road from the house has for years been the grazing ground for two charismatic cows. Here's cow #1,
and cow #2.

Our newly formed nonprofit, the Friends of Herrontown Woods, is working with local entities in an effort to preserve this farm and potentially engage youth in its care.
The Pyne's horse barn remains in excellent condition, albeit without the horses the Pynes used to ride.

In the Pynes and Veblens we have two of the most influential Princeton University families of the early 1900s living side by side. Add in the characters of Jac Weller and the first owners of the Veblen House--the Whiton-Stuarts--and the periodic visits by Veblen's colleague Einstein, and we get a landscape with a rich and colorful past.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Old Trail Map for Herrontown Woods

Though the nonprofit Friends of Herrontown Woods is developing a new, more accurate map for Herrontown Woods, here's an older version that is at least color-coded. The parking lot off of Snowden Lane is in the lower right hand corner. Some interesting historic features are shown on this map. Beginning in the lower right, the pine grove is mostly gone now, a victim of wind and ice storms in recent years. There's a cabin shown in that grove on the map. That was torn down around 2005, but the footprint is still visible next to the trail. Interesting to see that there once were privies along the green trail. The outline of the stream, with its beginnings near the blue trail, suggests that all the land that feeds it has been preserved--an impressive accomplishment.



Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Maureen Ogden and Mary Marshall Ogden

A notice arrived recently from NJ Conservation Foundation of the Oct. 22 dedication of the Maureen Ogden Preserve in Long Valley, NJ. "Governor Thomas H. Kean will join us to honor Maureen and her outstanding contributions to land preservation and the protection of freshwater wetlands in New Jersey," it declared. Her accomplishments as a Republican representative in the NJ General Assembly, promoting land preservation, the arts, sustainability and human rights, can be found here.

I wasn't able to go to the dedication, but the last name rang a bell, so I sent a letter to Maureen telling her of the Mary Marshall Ogden who with JP Whiton-Stuart first owned what we call the Veblen House, and asked if she might be related. Turns out that Maureen's late husband is descended from David Ogden, who was the doctor on the ship bringing William Penn to America from England.

Meanwhile I had done additional research to clarify Mary Marshall Ogden's connection to the pilgrims, and found her listed as a descendant in the book, "The Ogden Family in America: John Ogden, the Pilgrim and his Descendants". John was born in England in 1609, then immigrated to America in 1641. Mary shows up on p. 337, as part of the 8th generation of descendants, #3110, born Sept. 2, 1874. According to this source, John Ogden "was one of our country's first patriots" and "In 1665 Ogden became one of the original patentees on the Elizabethtown Purchase, the first English settlement in the Colony of New Jersey."

Since William Penn sailed to America in 1682, the link between his ship's doctor David Ogden and our John Ogden is not yet clear. For those like me who know nothing of William Penn, there's an eye-opening timeline describing his life, from years of religious persecution as a Quaker in England to his development of a model government for Pennsylvania.

The book on John Ogden's genealogy begins with a quote of John Q. Adams that fits with Maureen Ogden's career, and just fits in general: "Think of your forefathers! Think of your posterity!"

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Woods That Is in Fact a Woods

It was a gorgeous fall day at Herrontown Woods yesterday. I stopped by to hike in for an inspirational view from the cliff, and to see if the one patch of Hearts a' Bustin' that I know of in Princeton was showing its ornamental seeds (see photo). On the way I met a couple returning to the parking lot who were seeing the preserve for the first time. They had moved to Princeton not long ago, bought a house on the other side of town, and in their first look at a map of Princeton's open space had thought that Herrontown Woods must be a development, judging from the name. Developments are often named for what is no longer there, so they assumed the "Woods" would be houses all in a row, and few trees. Then they saw it was owned by the county, and decided to have a look. Surprise! Herrontown Woods is ......... a woods!

There is, by the way, some question about whether it is a woods or a wood. The Veblen's original gift of 81 acres in 1957 was augmented by 14 additional acres in 1974, which brings it pretty close to the fabled 100 Acre Wood of Winnie-the-Pooh fame. There's also early reference to it as Herrontown Arboretum, and on the county website it's called Herrontown Woods Arboretum. Somewhere, I'm sure, there's a development called "The Arboretum", where all the trees were cleared to put in houses. 


Photo by Sally Curtis.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Seeking to Preserve the Farm Next Door

For as long as anyone can remember, this was farmland in northeastern Princeton. Now, it's the last six acres of farmland field in a neighborhood that a century ago hosted many small, self-sufficient farms in what is now known as the Herrontown neighborhood, at the foot of the Princeton Ridge. Time, however, is running out, and we are scrambling to find a way to save this special feature of the neighborhood and give it an productive and educational purpose.
Here is the lovely viewscape people currently see as they emerge out of the woods, heading south on Herrontown Road.
The land is shaped like a horseshoe--lots 8,9, and 11 on the map--with the publicly owned Veblen House and Herrontown Woods to the north, and Smoyer Park just across Snowden Lane, down and to the left. This is a strategic location, since it provides a linkage between two parklands. Farming and associated educational activities would provide synergy with the Veblen House restoration and the community gardens at Smoyer Park.
Now the home of two head of cattle each year, the farm was originally owned by the Pyne family of Drumthwacket fame. The prominent Princeton family (described here as one of Princeton University's greatest benefactors), would travel across town to ride their horses, which were kept in a beautiful barn that still stands just across Herrontown Road from this remaining farm.
 Viewed from the east, one can see the quonset huts that house the tractors. The owner of this farm had been the farm manager for the farm that is now Smoyer Park.

The land slopes gently down to a small pond on the left.

There is not much time left to save this land. We're reaching out to any and all with interest, ideas, and/or means.

(Thanks to Barbara Cuneo and Alan Kesselhaut for supplying the first three photos.)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Prominent Ancestors of Mary Marshall Ogden

Thus far, we know the women who lived at Veblen House primarily by the men in their lives and in their pasts. Elizabeth Richardson Veblen was sister of Owen Willans Richardson, who won the Nobel Prize in 1928. Her sister, Lillian, married one of Owen's students at Princeton, Clinton Davisson, who won the Nobel Prize in 1937.

Mary Marshall Ogden, who with husband JP Whiton-Stuart moved the (prefab) house to Princeton and lived in it for a time in the 1930s before selling to the Veblens, appears to have been a direct descendant of John Marshall, the fourth chief justice of the United States. At least, that's what the Nov. 16, 1964 Tucson Daily Citizen says in an obituary:
"Private funeral services for Mrs. Mary Stuart, 89, a Tucson resident for 13 years and a direct descendant of a chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, were held at noon today at her home, 2710 E. Mabel St. She died at her home Saturday. A descendant of Chief Justice John Marshall, she was the daughter of the late John R. Ogden and the late Mary Marshall Ogden of Natchez, Miss. Mrs. Stuart was the sister of the late Mrs. Pierpont Davis of Tucson. She was the mother of the late Mrs. Nelson Olcott, formerly of Tucson. She is survived by a son, Robert W. Stuart of Palm Beach, Fla., and three grandchildren."
And so another intriguing connection is made to the Veblen House. Here is a snippet on John Marshall, for those like me who are not up on that era:
John Marshall, (born Sept. 24, 1755, near Germantown [now Midland], Va.—died July 6, 1835, Philadelphia, Pa.), fourth chief justice of the United States and principal founder of the U.S. system of constitutional law. As perhaps the Supreme Court’s most influential chief justice, Marshall was responsible for constructing and defending both the foundation of judicial power and the principles of American federalism.
By uncanny coincidence, a colleague of my father shows up in a news story just above the news about Mary Stuart:
"To Speak At Dinner--Meet Dr. Gerard Kuiper, director of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, will speak Sunday at the annual Compact Day dinner meeting of the Society of Mayflower Descendants in the State of Arizona."
An earlier post suggested that the Ogden name dates back to the Pilgrims, so the juxtaposition of Mary (Marshall Ogden) Stuart's obituary with news about the Society of Mayflower Descendants may have been intentional. Not all Pilgrims came over on the Mayflower, though. John Ogden, referred to in this article as The Wandering Pilgrim Who Helped to Settle New Jersey, came over in 1641, 20 years after the Mayflower made its voyage. This post on a genealogy forum says that no Ogdens were on the Mayflower passenger list. I'm guessing that Mary's ancestry was close enough for jazz, and for the Mayflower society.

Update: Mary turns out to be a direct 8th generation descendant of pilgrim John Ogden.

Another tidbit: According to History.com,
"The Mayflower Compact, signed by 41 English colonists on the ship Mayflower on November 11, 1620, was the first written framework of government established in what is now the United States"
Actually, the Iroquoi Nation might take exception to that statement, but lots of interesting threads here nonetheless. Now, if only we can learn something of the (later to be known as) Veblen House's voyage to Princeton, skippered by the Whiton-Stuarts! 
 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Veblen Cottage in Brooklin, Maine

Late August is right about the time the Veblens would have been heading back to Princeton from a summer in Maine, at their cottage overlooking the ocean in Brooklin. Assumptions that the old cottage would have been demolished and replaced with an upscale structure (see below) fortunately proved wrong. Thanks to friends Scotia and Dick, who researched the cottage while visiting Brooklin this summer, we now know that, though the cottage was later winterized and added on to, it's still standing and in good repair, on its perch overlooking the ocean.
The one-story section is likely the original cottage. (Update: Some photos left by the Veblens to be part of a museum at Veblen House and now at the IAS suggest the 2-story portion may be original as well.) Gordon Davisson, the nephew of Elizabeth Veblen's niece, told me he remembered visiting the cottage as a child, and was very impressed by what seemed to him a massive wood stove.
The chimney is in fine shape.
Off in the distance is a shed with similar window treatments, suggesting it was originally part of the same property.
Here is the view of the ocean from the cottage. Thanks to Dick Blofson for the photos, to Scotia for all her sleuthing to track down the cottage, and the people at the Brooklin Keeping Society for their well-kept historical documents and memories.

(Below is an email I received a year ago from the Keeping Society's Richard Freethey, who has since passed away.)
"I asked one of our volunteers who knows more about Brooklin history than anyone. She is around 85. She says her grandfather Walter Crockett did some carpentry work on the cabin for the Veblens. She said they were very quiet and not at all public people who lived a very simple life while they were here. Of course the property was on one of the prettiest spots on Blue Hill Bay, with the lighthouse in the background and the mountains of Mt Desert Island in the background... None of us know but we all suspect that his cabin was replaced by something not as rustic.

June (the volunteer lady) said that some publication she remembered had a picture of Dr Veblen on the beach beside his cabin, but we looked in our files and couldn't come up with it. If we do, I'll let you know."

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

William Albert Hiltner Turns 100

A bit of a personal note. My father, William Albert Hiltner, turns 100 today. (He's on the far left in the photo.) I wish he were still around to celebrate it, but even though he died 23 years ago, the day still has meaning.

Somewhat akin to Oswald Veblen, he became a prominent academic after growing up in midwest farm country, a descendent of farmers and carpenters. Whereas Veblen went to graduate school at the University of Chicago, my father got his first job there some 40 years later, first as an instructor and later as professor of astronomy. In the 1940s, that meant moving to Wisconsin, where U of Chicago had its world famous Yerkes Observatory, with its largest of refracting telescopes and clear, "photometric" winter skies making it a center of research. There's a Wisconsin connection for the Veblens, it having been where Oswald's grandparents first settled after immigrating from Norway. Also like Veblen, my father assumed leadership roles, first as director of Yerkes and later as head of AURA, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy.

He loved the outdoors, sailing, and took us on whitewater canoeing trips in northern Wisconsin even though he didn't know how to swim. Some of my fonder memories are of volunteers working together to get the piers and tents ready each year for girl scouts at a camp in northern Wisconsin--the sort of hands-on group effort Veblen may have been getting at when he'd organize colleagues for ventures into the Institute woods to clear brush. Such group effort is rarer today, removed as we are several generations more from the barn raisings of America's rural past.

Among other parallels was the influence that work for the military had on my father's approach to science. This is described in an online bio at the American Astronomical Society website:
"During World War II Al was engaged in the production of front surface mirrors, and in military optics design and modeling, an experience which influenced his later interest in astronomical instrumentation." 
Veblen's vision for an institute for advanced study was influenced by the informal atmosphere he found while working at a military proving grounds to improve ballistics during WWI.

My father's passion for his work extended from research, to teaching, to the hands-on aspects of instrument design. He maintained a youthfulness and inquisitiveness to the end, learning to swim at age 64, and spending the last seven years of his life as project manager for the Magellan Project, designing twin telescopes to be built on a mountain in Chile. 

These qualities are shared by Veblen, who made important contributions to mathematics but also leant early support to computer research, at a time when the potential of computers was far from obvious. Quoting from Deane Montgomery's obituary for Veblen in the Bulletin of American Mathematics, 
"Veblen remained rather youthful in his point of view to the end, and he was often amused by the comments of younger but aging men to the effect that the great period for this or that was gone forever. He did not believe it. Possibly part of his youthful attitude came from his interest in youth; he was firmly convinced that a great part of the mathematical lifeblood of the Institute was in the flow of young mathematicians through it."
It's this forward looking point of view, this capacity to see a path forwards and willingness to take on all the obstacles in that path, that I most admire in these men, and those who are working together to preserve and repurpose the house and farmstead the Veblens left to the public trust.

The Origins of the Veblen House's Eastern European Elements

 Over the years, I've shown the Veblen House to quite a few architects and carpenters. All have commented on its unique style. None have seen anything like it. One recently said it reminded him stylistically of wooden houses built in eastern Europe. I usually explain its uniqueness by telling the fourth hand story that a Russian cabinet maker is said to have spent two years working on the house.


But who would have thought to bring a Russian cabinet maker to the States to labor long on refinements for this house in the woods on the outskirts of Princeton, New Jersey. Not Veblen, it turns out, but one Jesse Palmier Whiton-Stuart, who originally brought this prefab house to Princeton and lived in it with his family before selling to the Veblens. For six years since discovering the house and working to save it, I felt no curiosity about the house's original owner. Stuart remained a footnote, a warmup act for the main draw.
 The additive power of so many comments by professionals about the house's uniqueness finally prompted me to ask who was that "masked man" with the long name, who brought house and family to live briefly in Princeton, sold to the Veblens, then vanished. From the self-descriptions below, found only after searching far and wide (via google), Whiton-Stuart turns out to share many traits with Veblen. He was a world traveler, a fine marksman, with a strong interest in mathematics. He came from a prosperous family, thrived in cultural centers, took an interest in fine buildings, but also was drawn to the outdoors.

Harvard University published reports every five years on what its graduates were doing. Though JP Whiton-Stuart left Harvard after his first year, he continued to be considered a member of the class of 1898, and fortunately sent in a couple reports. Both reports predate his family's move to Princeton.

Harvard Class of 1898, 2nd Report (1908)

"After leaving Harvard I travelled all over the Continent and through the Far East, nearly always with a tutor or professor, and am one of the very few having crossed over- land through Persia, visiting missionaries and hermits who had not seen a traveller for twenty-five years. Between these travels I attended Williams College, Massachusetts, and Cambridge University, England, principally for the courses in mathematics. I also hunted as an avocation throughout the West, and won many important events pigeon shooting around New York. I then became associated with Douglas Robinson in real estate, and am now in business for myself as a specialist in selling large private residences."

Harvard Class of 1898, 3rd Report (1913)

"I left Harvard on account of illness, and travelled when not in or preparing for Williams and Cambridge, England. I saw Russia, Armenia, all of Europe, the Far East three times, the Holy Land, Greece and was one of few that crossed Persia to the Gulf, also West and Africa. I was a real estate specialist for ten years in New York, and am still president of the J.P. Whiton-Stuart Company, New York, where I saved enough to buy a herd of cattle in Arizona. I now live on a horse's back, riding over one hundred square miles of cattle range I rent from the United States government in the largest forest in the United States. Member: Union Club of New York, Yavapai Club of Prescott, Ariz."




Thursday, July 24, 2014

Veblen Summer Cottage in Brooklin, Maine, Reportedly Found!

Some friends who were visiting Brooklin, Maine, this summer report that they have tracked down the Veblen's cottage, down close to the beach. The Veblens would go to Maine during the summer. Last year I was told that the cottage had probably been demolished to make room for more upscale homes, so the discovery of what may be the original cottage is an exciting surprise. Brooklin is known particularly for its tradition of boat building, and also as the home of E.B. White and the farm he modeled Charlotte's Web after. Veblen is mentioned in the Wikipedia page on Brooklin as one of the local notables.

My friends took some photos, which will be very helpful not only as a portrait of the Veblen's vacation spot but also for comparing with their "cottage" farmhouse that still stands near the Veblen House. Here is Scotia's account of finding the Maine cabin earlier this week. The "Keeping Society" is the group dedicated to keeping Brooklin's history alive and well accounted for:
"We went today to the Brooklin Keeping Society, open one day a week, and met June Eaton, in her eighties, who called in Lorna, in her sixties, from the Town Hall. Lorna drew us a map, and told me that the building where the Veblens lived was very near the water. She said that the people who had bought it kept the original chimney and renovated the kitchen. So Dick and I went back down a lane that we had missed and found what we believe was the the original wood shingle house with an old stone chimney and the view described. The house also has windows with diamond-shaped panes, and a nearby small shed on what is now an adjoining property has the same kind of windows. The house, which has a beautiful garden, has been enlarged with an attractive two-story wing."
The Veblens are said not to have socialized much while up at their cabin in Maine, and the location of the cabin, far from downtown, helps explain that. Here's another quote from Scotia's email:
"June Eaton mentioned that Veblen was simple in his tastes and did not dress up when he was in Brooklin so she was surprised to learn at the time he lived there that he was a "big brain."

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Green Fringed Orchid Blooms

In an uncanny way, the Veblen House and surrounding landscape have time and again rewarded curiosity and optimism. Both the Veblen and Stuart histories have proven richer than they appeared on the surface, so it shouldn't be surprising if a few gems pop up in the plain-looking field next to the house.

This spring, walking through the field, I noticed the first few leaves of a plant that looked out of the ordinary. I put a fence around it, since deer are all too fond of native wildflowers. There were more of the same kind of plant nearby, but I figured they all might be common lily of the valley, so only protected the one.

Once again, I had underestimated the richness of the Veblen site, because the one protected plant grew not into a run of the mill garden plant but a green fringed orchid (Platanthera lacera). It rates 8 out of 10 on the NJ Plant Stewarship Index, which measures the quality of a plant community. Not bad. Without protection, all the others in the field have been eaten down to the ground. Next year, if they still have enough energy in the roots to make another go of it, we'll know to protect them.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Happy Birthday, Sylvia Whiton-Stuart

This evening, on July 4, I happen to be researching Sylvia Whiton-Stuart, daughter of Jesse Palmier Whiton-Stuart, the original owner of what we now call the Veblen House. It turns out that she was born on July 4, 1906. What I've learned thus far is that she eloped at an early age with a writer by the name of Eric Hatch.

Here's what Wikipedia has to say about Eric Hatch: Eric S. Hatch (October 31, 1901 - July 4, 1973) was an American writer on the staff of The New Yorker and a novelist and screenwriter best known for his books 1101 Park Avenue, (which became a hit film under the title My Man Godfrey) and The Year of the Horse (which was adapted as a Disney comedy with the title, The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit).[1]

She later remarried, still at an early age, according to a society article which may or may not have been tongue in cheek, to Lawrence Turnure, who has the same name as a very wealthy businessman from the previous generation. Lots of mysteries to explore.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Before Veblen, there was J.P.W. Stuart

Who was J.P.W. Stuart, and why does it matter? Well, the Veblen House was not built by the Veblens, but was originally brought to Princeton in pieces around 1920, by a man named Jesse Palmier Whiton-Stuart. Some reports say it was moved from Morristown, NJ, others mention New York. When I told a builder friend that the original owner was a Stuart, he said that there was a prominent New York City family by that name. Some preliminary internet research suggests that Stuart was indeed a man of means, with prominent friends and interesting pursuits.

Though the research is just getting underway, it's likely that J.P.W. Stuart was born into a prominent NY family, and may well have married into another. In 1905 (the year Oswald Veblen was hired by Princeton University), Stuart married Mary M. Ogden, daughter of John Ogden. Mary's wedding attire is described in detail in a NY Times article that also mentions what Mrs. Vanderbilt was wearing, at a different wedding that weekend. The Ogden name appears to date back to the Pilgrims.

When one account gave Stuart's father's name as Robert, there was the tantalizing possibility that his father was Robert L. Stuart, who made his fortune in the sugar business, and who with his wife and brother were deeply involved in philanthropy, including large donations to Princeton Seminary and Princeton College. There's a Stuart Hall over on Alexander Street. They collected Hudson River School art, and Robert L. was president of the NY Museum of Natural History for some years. But our Stuart takes his name from Robert Watson Stuart, whose background is as yet unclear.



In 1908, Jesse and Mary had a daughter, Sylvia Jean, whose christening was attended by some prominent-sounding members of NY society. In 1964, Sylvia pops up as Sylvia Olcott, living in Tucson, AZ.

Perhaps it would be asking too much for the poet Ogden Nash (Ogden was his middle name) to be related to both Mary Ogden and the brilliant mathematician John Nash, Jr, who came to Princeton when Veblen was still around. On the other hand, the Mrs. Augustus Juilliard mentioned as having attended the christening of Mary and Jesse's daughter may well be the wife of the founder of the Juilliard School of Music.

Other articles from that time document a J.P.W. Stuart who was an excellent marksman. He channeled his talent into winning pigeon shooting contests. If that was our J.P.W., then the dovecote shown as standing near the Veblen House in the 1950s (on the right in this photo) may date back to Stuart's time. It also suggests that the transfer of ownership of the house from Stuart to Veblen is symbolic of the shift in views of wildlife over the course of the 20th century, as birds became something to watch rather than to shoot.

Veblen excelled at both math and marksmanship while growing up in Iowa. He combined these two talents by leading U.S. efforts to improve the accuracy of artillery during the world wars.

All in all, this preliminary foray into the story of Stuarts suggests yet another rich vein of history awaits appreciation out at Herrontown Wood.




Sunday, June 22, 2014

Native Chestnuts at Veblen House

From small seedlings, giant chestnuts grow. Thanks to local tree expert Bill Sachs for supplying four chestnut seedlings and the "grow tubes" to protect them from the deer. The seed he grew them from, obtained from Connecticut, is the product of decades of breeding to develop native chestnuts resistant to the introduced chestnut blight that devastated the American chestnut a century ago. Terhune Orchards provided Bill with room in their greenhouse to grow some 80 seedlings, which he has been planting at various sites in the Princeton area and in Pennsylvania.

The product of our labors doesn't really look like new trees. The "grow tubes" are experimental, designed to provide the seedling protection and sufficient light, while discouraging lateral branching.

For more posts on the initiative to reintroduce native chestnuts to Princeton, go to PrincetonNatureNotes.org and type in "native chestnut".

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Liberating House and Grounds from Vines

We had another highly productive and rewarding workday this past Saturday at the Veblen House, organized by the Rotary Club of Princeton as one of their service projects. The focus was on removing invasive vines from house and grounds. It was a real pleasure to have the help of Bob Wells, and hear his many stories about living there with his family from 1975 to 1998. Also in the photo are architect Ahmed Azmy and neighbor John Powell, both Rotary members and strong supporters of rehabilitating Veblen House.
 John was wielding loppers against the wisteria, which had begun back in Elizabeth Veblen's day as a pretty ornament for the trellis, but which has spread into the surrounding woods. You can see the strangle hold it takes on trees, in this case a dawn redwood planted by Bob decades ago.
Wisteria can also climb around itself,
forming a trunk almost as large as the flowering dogwood it was mobbing. We speculated whether the dogwood would recover now that the vines have been cut. I took the more optimistic point of view, noting various branches still showing healthy leaves reaching out beyond the smothering embrace of the vine.
This Pieris, now liberated, may live to grow another day.
Bob told us that Elizabeth's fishpond, now visible again with the vines removed, used to hold water and was stocked with goldfish.
 Meanwhile, vines have been showing interest in the house. This vine, possibly a Virginia creeper, has a stem growing up inside the wall. Not ideal. A snip with the loppers should have been applied years earlier, but at least that vine won't be growing any farther. It's reassuring at such times to remember that builders have consistently found the building to still be in solid condition and worth saving.
A much smaller vine, Japanese honeysuckle, had headed into the basement. You can see the white shoots that indicate the lack of sunlight. It took me back to 6th grade science class, when we grew one set of bean plants in a closet and another set on a windowsill. Several weeks later, everyone was surprised to find that the ones grown in the closet were much longer, and lacked any chlorophyll. The lack of sunlight stimulates the plant to invest what energy it has in length, the better to eventually reach a source of light.
The moist ground made digging soil away from the foundation relatively easy. A backhoe will be needed to do a more thorough regrading, but hand shoveling allows for some serendipitous discoveries, like a beautiful buried boulder that used to serve as a step for the side door.

We ended the workday with pizza, basking in the beauty of the day and the peacefulness of the Veblen House grounds.

Thanks to the Rotary Club of Princeton for the support and talent it brings to the Veblen House project.




Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Magnetic Rocks in Herrontown Wood

We call it Herrontown Wood, but this post is about Herrontown Rocks. What makes this nature preserve extraordinary is the layers of meaning to be found there. Begin with the soil, which was formed out of and influenced by the underlying diabase rocks. Add the woodland, of course, whose botanical richness is so well preserved in part because the many rocks discouraged any plowing back during Princeton's agricultural era. (Plows obliterate the roots, seedbank, microorganisms and complex structure that comprise a soil's biological memory.) Add the wildlife drawn to the long corridor of forest, where stubborn boulders discouraged development long enough for open space groups to achieve permanent protection. Add to that the cultural history that endures in rock walls, rock foundations, quarried stone, and the farmstead and house of Oswald and Elizabeth Veblen, with their multifaceted legacy of international import.

Along with the many roles the rocks have played in the past two hundred years, there is the story of how the rocks got there in the first place. It's told by the great majority of rocks and boulders never piled in rows or split apart. One important point to grasp from the get go is that the glaciers did not form the Princeton Ridge. The glaciers' southernmost extent coincides with where Manhattan is today, some distance to the north. What forces, then, created this long ridge of boulders?

A couple weeks ago, I joined my neighbor Jon Johnson on one of his morning walks with his dog Cocoa in Herrontown Woods. His expertise is in groundwater, but he's been studying the rocks he finds in the streams and along the trails, and sharing some of what he's discovered with students at Little Brook Elementary, where his kids go to school.

He begins by asking the kids a simple question. Why is one stepping stone along the trail rounded, while the one next to it is square?

Why are some boulders and pebbles magnetic, while others are not?
And why are some rocks rough textured while others are more smooth?
The story he tells goes back to the time of Pangaea, that is, when Africa and America were all one land mass. As the continents pulled apart, a basin expanded between them, received sediment from eroding land masses on either side, became interrupted by upwellings of molten rock that rose through the sedimentary layer, cooled into diabase and subsequently eroded to form the boulders we see today.


Jon showed how Herrontown Wood tells this story through the geologic transition visible in the park. If you walk west from the parking lot (the one off of Snowden Lane), then follow the main creek upstream, you'll see the rocks in the stream are at first squarish. This is the sedimentary rock. Some are rougher than others, suggesting that they may have contained fossils that lost their shape when heated by molten diabase.

Head upstream and you'll see the rocks getting rounder
and larger. This transition goes from sedimentary to metamorphic, to the big, round diabase boulders further up the slope. (A similar transition can be found at Witherspoon Woods, up the hill from Mountain Lakes.)
You can see in this photo a magnet stuck to a boulder. The magnetism comes from magnetite, which usually makes up only 2% of the diabase, but may comprise up to 20% of some rocks. Even different layers of the same boulder can differ in the presence of magnetite, which explains why a magnet may stick to one part of a boulder, but not another strata a few inches down.
To find the areas of the park with the most magnetite, Jon has played the role of prospector, walking up one or another tributary of the stream, testing the pebbles for magnetism.



When my kids were younger, we would go to Herrontown Wood and find joy in climbing the rocks. The main story we saw was how the rocks got bigger as we walked up the hill. Now, thanks to Jon, we can go beyond aesthetics and size, and more deeply appreciate these rocks that have served Herrontown Wood in so many ways.