Saturday, October 14, 2017

Themes from Veblen House Show Up in Children's Books

When the Veblen's donated their house to the public trust, they conceived of it becoming a museum and library. We hope to incorporate these elements into the house as part of its future use as a community gathering place for meetings, talks and performances. The library would ideally be a collection of books connected thematically to the Whiton-Stuart and Veblen families. 

So it was that, amid the crowds of kids and parents exploring the sea of books and talking with the authors at the recent Princeton Children's Book Festival,  I sought out books with themes related to those who had built and lived at Veblen House.

Daniel Kirk's book, Rhino in the House, caught my eye. It tells the story of Anna Merz, who witnessed the plight of rhinos in Africa and decided to create a preserve where they would be safe from poaching. Our Veblen House historical research has uncovered a remarkable connection to these heroic efforts. The Whiton-Stuarts' grandson-in-law is Esmond Bradley Martin, who has devoted his life to saving rhinos and elephants in Africa and Asia. 

In Anna Merz's obituary, we learn that Esmond Martin was Merz's first contact in Africa as she became interested in rhinos.
Retiring to Kenya with her second husband in 1976, Merz learned from elephant and rhino conservationist Esmond Bradley Martin that rhinos were close to being poached to extinction throughout their range in both Africa and Asia. In 1982 Merz invested her own savings in helping David and Delia Craig to convert their Lewa Estate into the Ngare Sergoi Rhino Sanctuary.
This interview of Martin, in Swara Magazine: The Voice of Conservation in East Africa, includes a photo of Anna Merz with the orphaned rhino, Samia, that she raised and is featured in Kirk's book. 

There's a short video about the book, with the author on location in Africa.

Author Jane Yolen's work first caught my eye with the assonant title "Thunder Underground". I had been looking (in vain) for books that depict the invisible mechanisms of climate change, and Thunder Underground seemed a related effort to convey the unseen to children.

But more relevant to Veblen House is her book, "The Devil's Arithmetic," about the detailed records the Nazi's kept of what became known as the Holocaust. Veblen led efforts to find employment for jewish physicists and mathematicians seeking refuge in the U.S. as the Nazi's took control of Germany in the 1930s.

Kate Hosford's "How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea" looks like good reading for an envisioned children's reading hour next to the hearth at Veblen House. The Veblens instituted the tradition of tea, first at the original Fine Hall mathematics center on Princeton University campus, then later at the Institute for Advanced Study. The tradition lives on, daily at the IAS, and periodically at what is now called Jones Hall. Elizabeth Veblen developed her passion for tea growing up in York, England, before moving to Princeton and meeting Oswald, whom she must have decided was her perfect cup of tea.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Writers Stephen Dixon and E.B. White, and the Veblen Cottage in Brooklin, Maine

This time of year, as summer loses its hold on the land, people of means or circumstance return to Princeton from their summer retreats in the north. Through coincidence or serendipity, the story of Veblen House, and the profound meaning a homestead can have in people's lives, will head the opposite direction: north from the unexpectedly endearing vulture family perched on a farm cottage in Herrontown Woods to the town in Maine where a beloved spider named Charlotte once lived. There were many spiders weaving their webs on E.B. White's farm in Brooklin, Maine, but Charlotte became singularly famous for making the leap into White's imagination, and coming to life in the story he weaved.

E.B. White's farm overlooking Allen's Cove in northern Brooklin, with Arcadia National Park rising in the distance, is for sale. For properties with special histories and owners, like E.B. White's farm or, as we'll see, the Veblen's seaside cottage 5 miles to the south, a change in ownership, like the change in leadership of a nation, is fraught with peril. Will a house's special charms be preserved, or be lost to neglect or gentrification? Both E.B. White's farm and the Veblen's cottage in Brooklin came up for sale in the mid-1980s. Veblen's cottage at the time was being rented out in the summer to the writers Anne Frydman and Stephen Dixon, who loved the cottage like E.B. White loved his farm. How E.B. White's farm fared since being sold in 1986, perhaps aided by its historic designation, is described in this article in New England Today. The trajectory of the Veblen's Maine cottage is described in the correspondence I had with Stephen Dixon, below.

The Veblens would journey north from Princeton each summer to their rustic cottage on Nasqueg Point in Brooklin. They had discovered the area through Elizabeth's close relatives, the Denissons, who had bought a house there. Beginning in the mid-1960s, with Oswald gone and Elizabeth getting up in years, the cottage stood empty for about ten years, until poet and translater Anne Frydman found it and convinced the Veblen's niece Elizabeth Denisson to let her rent it.

From 1979 to 1986, Anne and her husband, writer Stephen Dixon, spent their summers there, surrounded by the simplicity and soul of the cottage, and breathing what must be the most delicious ocean breezes. As Stephen describes in his emails to me, he and Anne left everything in the cottage just as it had been when the Veblens lived there--the formidable cooking wood stove, the bookshelf of Ulysses, Conrad and Yeats, the antique clocks, even the Veblen's spicerack, with spices long since hardened in their jars. The cottage was "too beautiful to change", even the curious combined toilet-shower accessed from the patio (knowing about it adds extra meaning to a similar toilet-shower combination in the Veblen House).

Like E.B. White's farm, whose barn and animal life found its way into Charlotte's Web, the Veblen's cottage in Maine found its way into stories Stephen Dixon wrote while living there. He sent me a list, which I'll include here further down, and the cottage shows up in photos on the front and back of a book of Anne Frydman's poetry, published posthumously in 2016, The Three O'Clock Bird.

There are many characters in the story of Veblen House, and not all of them are people. Some are animals, others are plants (the writer of the story being a botanist), and a number are the buildings themselves. Along with the Veblen House and the Maine cottage, there was, and still is, the cottage in Herrontown Woods that began as a farmhouse in 1875. Both cottages were unwinterized when the Veblens owned them, with two chimneys and a large cooking stove.

Brooklin, as described on its wikipedia page, sounds like "Herrontown North". Fish fertilizer was used to make the rocky ground productive, and back in the 1880s, around when Veblen was born in Iowa, the town of Brooklin was known for its smoked herring. All this can also be said of northeastern Princeton, which was originally known as "Herringtown". Is it chance that a man whose grandparents had come to America from Norway would be drawn to rocky landscapes and live his summers with a view eastward across the Atlantic?

In our work to save and repair the Veblen House and cottage in Herrontown Woods, there's been discussion of whether it's worth saving the cottage, which is in considerable disrepair. Veblen bought it in 1936, and used it for his study. Now it is unique in Princeton, a small, simple but well-built farmhouse, made both vulnerable and enchanting by its isolated setting surrounded by woods.

Both E.B. White, writing at a simple bench he built in a converted boathouse, and Stephen Dixon's descriptions below, speak to the affection people can hold for simple but elegant shelters. E.B. White's favorite book is said to have been Thoreau's Walden. Less can be more, and the cottage in Herrontown Woods can be an enduring reminder of a simpler past if we are able to save it.

I learned of Stephen Dixon and his 8 years residency at the Veblen cottage in Maine through Jane Smith of Charlottesville, Virginia, a good friend of the Veblen's niece, namesake and sole family heir, Elizabeth Denisson, who inherited the Veblen cottage when Elizabeth died in 1974. Stephen taught in the Writing Seminars program at Johns Hopkins for 26 years, and over the course of his life has written more than 500 short stories and 15 novels, two of which were nominated for the National Book Award.

During the summers they spent in Brooklin, the Veblen Cottage found its way into their hearts and into their writings. After a lifetime of writing on a manual typewriter, Dixon's hands overpower a computer keyboard, like a steam engine casting sparks of collateral letterage as he types his emails. The collateral letterage has been edited out, the better to appreciate all he has to tell.

Of note in the correspondence is what he heard about Oswald (that "he got his best ideas chopping wood"), the gradual memory of the special kind of tea the Denisson's drank (lapsang souchong, which is truly distinctive and delicious), the mention of caretaker Stan Gray (who served in Maine as Max Latterman served at the Veblen House), and Stephen's deep appreciation of the cottage's charm and simplicity. There is a mix of joy and sadness. While the Veblen's farm cottage in Herrontown Woods suffered from neglect after it was donated to the public trust, the Veblen cottage in Maine experienced the opposite when it was sold in 1986--a gentrification that preserved the cottage while sacrificing the qualities that the Dixons had found so appealing.

The correspondence can be seen by clicking on "Read more".

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

A Black Vulture Family Up Close at the Veblen Cottage Farmstead

Black vultures four--who could ask for anything more? Okay, there are just three in this family photo. We'll get to the fourth one in a minute. This past Sunday, prior to a work session clearing invasive shrubs in Herrontown Woods, and equipped with better cameras, we returned to Veblen Cottage to check in on the black vulture family mentioned in a previous post.

I guess family values aren't the first thing that comes to mind when people think of vultures, but these black vultures are a tight-knit group. That's mom and pop on the right, with the wrinkly skin on their heads (best not to sully any feathers when dipping one's head daintily into rotting carcasses). Hard to know which parent is which. Vultures don't flaunt their sexual identity. And that's a fledgling on the left, still with baby fuzz on the head.

Family means something for black vultures. On this AllAboutBirds site, they are described by the writer as "one of my favorite birds." He describes their characteristic flight pattern: a few beats of the wings followed by a glide." "Highly social birds with fierce family loyalty," he says, "Black Vultures share food with relatives, feeding young for months after they’ve fledged." It may not be coincidence that, in this serendipitous photoshoot, the parents gave their fledgling the top perch on the chimney.

As we snapped photos from below, the birds were surprisingly cooperative, adopting various poses, from noble, to domestic, to nobly domestic.

Laurie Larson, longtime birder in Princeton who has tracked population numbers over the years as part of the Christmas Bird Count (her data and stories below), suggested the fledgling bears a striking resemblance to Voltaire. People have long suspected a ghost residing in the rather disheveled Veblen Cottage. Was it Veblen himself? Einstein? Now we know.

While the three vultures were preening for the camera up on the chimney of the cottage, another fledgling, looking a bit down and out, was hiding in the corn crib. It didn't seem to be able to fly up to join its kin on the chimney.

When I approached, it shuffled out of the corn crib and hid in the brush.

Laurie's Voltaire comparison is spot on, but I also see something of Art Garfunkle here.

As an aside, given that the photos were taken at the Veblen Cottage at Herrontown Woods, Oswald Veblen died on the brink of the 60s era, but Garfunkel, who performed last year in Princeton, shares Veblen's broad interest in math, architecture and great books. Garfunkel initially majored in architecture, and completed coursework for a PhD in math education while part of Simon and Garfunkel. His interest for numbers expressed itself early on as a fascination with the rise of hits on the pop charts. He has kept a full and public accounting of books he has read, including Voltaire in 1969. He also has that second banana status, which Veblen knew well from living, perhaps contentedly enough, in the shadow of his more famous uncle Thorstein and science icons like Einstein and von Neumann. Part of the joy of the Herrontown Woods project is rediscovering the value of forgotten buildings and legacies that have long flown beneath most people's radar.

Here's the farmstead's little barn and corncrib, whose impending demolition earlier this year by the county, along with all the other Veblen buildings, seemed unstoppable until so many people in the community spoke out to support an initiative by Friends of Herrontown Woods ( to save them. Fortunately, for the black vultures as well as the history of Herrontown Woods, Princeton town council swooped in, raptor-like, and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. FOHW is now working on an agreement with the town to repair and sustain the buildings, while, of course, continuing habitat and trail work, and snapping photos of the local wildlife.

It's funny about the black vultures. They've provided a somewhat haunting presence around the farmstead for years. Not sure what to do with the connotations they carry, we tried to pay them little mind, preferring to talk about the flashy pileated woodpeckers and the elusive great-horned owl. But maybe it's time to give the vultures their due. They are a cleansing force in the universe. They deal with stuff no one else wants to deal with. They find sustenance in unlikely places, and extend the food chain one link further. They're faithful and diligent parents.

I liked this pose, two generations on a branch.

In the distance, you can see the other parent perched on the chimney of the cottage. This was just before they assembled for the group shots on the chimney.

The vultures appreciate the Veblen Cottage's classic design with a chimney at either end. If they knew, they'd appreciate its "balloon" construction, too, meaning the studs extend from the foundation all the way up to the roof. Balloon construction, according to one builder I spoke to, explains why the cottage is still standing, after so much neglect.

Any good photo shoot includes grooming behavior. The parents groomed the juvenile; the juvenile groomed the parents.

One adult aimed for the noble raptor look, confirming the AllAboutBirds writer's view that these vultures are "almost dapper."

Things got downright statuesque here, with the juvenile taking the parents under its wings.

Five days later, we were standing in the Veblen House driveway in late morning when we heard a great ruckus in the treetops behind the barn, not far from the cottage. My friend was giving me advice about fixing up the Veblen House. He didn't have much time, and what he was saying was important. I dismissed the ruckus in the treetops as small birds hassling a crow or hawk or owl. I continued to listen to my friend as the calls reached a blood curdling frenzy. Life was on the line, be it a bird or squirrel. We headed over to take a look just as a large black bird flew off down the hill, the noise fading behind. It looked large enough to have been an eagle.

We walked over to the cottage, and found the second juvenile had been hiding in the crawlspace. It came out and walked ahead of us around the corner,

then hopped onto the old kitchen sink and spread its wings, looking our way, as if to impress us, then hopped down and headed towards the corncrib.

Later, I grew concerned about what might have transpired in the treetops. Who was the aggressor and who was the victim? Eagles are one of the few predators of black vultures, which in turn occasionally prey on weak or injured animals. Was that large dark bird that flew off a vulture, and had it been on the attack or defending its own fledgling? Black vultures lack vocal organs, so the mortal cries must have been generated by something else.

It occurred that the reason the vultures had been so patient with our photoshoot five days prior was that they were lingering at the cottage to guard the weaker fledgling, hoping it would find the strength to join them in flight.

I returned to the Veblen Cottage the next day to find the vultures gone. After years of trying to ignore them, I suddenly felt their absence.

(This post also appears at, along with some historical data on vultures in Princeton.)

Monday, August 7, 2017

Princeton to Take Ownership of Herrontown Woods and Veblen House

Today is a special day. It's my younger daughter's birthday, but from now on, August 7 will also be remembered as the day Mercer County announced an agreement to transfer Herrontown Woods and the Veblen buildings to the town of Princeton. Town council, responding to a groundswell of support for saving the Veblen House, has agreed to take ownership of the house, cottage and other structures, along with the 142 acres of preserved Princeton ridge forest, and will work out a lease arrangement with our nonprofit.

The Friends of Herrontown Woods got a green light four years ago to restore the trail system and habitat. Our success at making the preserve welcoming to hikers, along with the tremendous support people have shown for our work, has convinced town council to give us a chance to repair and repurpose the buildings as well.

The Veblens donated Herrontown Woods in 1957, as a place "where you can get away from cars and just walk and sit." Now, after a ten year effort to gain recognition for the value of the buildings, we will develop an agreement with Princeton that will allow us to honor the other part of the Veblen's legacy--buildings that can serve as a gathering place, complementary to the open space that surrounds them.

At this turning point, we feel great gratitude to all of our supporters who spoke out when demolition seemed imminent, and to the mayor and town council for their positive intervention. Now, finally, we can look forward to putting these well-crafted buildings on a positive trajectory, and making them a great asset for the Princeton community.

Note: The youthfulness of my daughter in the first photo attests to how long we've been working to reach this point. I first came upon Veblen House ten years ago, while doing plant inventories in Princeton's nature preserves.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Happy Birthday, Christine Paschall Davis Stuart

There are many paths that lead to and from the Veblen House and cottage in Herrontown Woods. Some are literally paths in the woods. Many of those paths had become overgrown until volunteers with the Friends of Herrontown Woods rediscovered and cleared their routes. Others are historical paths--lines of meaning that can be pieced back together through online research of the people who once lived there. There are the buildings themselves, each of which has a story behind it, as yet not fully known, and the Veblens, who left such a profound mark on Princeton and the world.

This story, however, is one of many to tell about the prosperous Whiton-Stuart family that brought the house to Princeton in the 1930s.  The story takes us from the spring waters of south central Tennessee to the highest levels of the Wilson and Roosevelt administrations, and the decades-long efforts of Norman H. Davis to prevent the Second World War.

July 29 this year would be Christine's 112th birthday, Christine being the first wife of Robert Whiton-Stuart, son of the builders and first occupants of what later would become known as the Veblen House.

Like Robert's mother, Mary Marshall Ogden, Christine had southern roots. Christine Paschall Davis was born July 29, 1905 in a town in south central Tennessee called Tullahoma, known for the waters there that bubble generously from the ground. In the 1850s, the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad was routed to pass by the springs, so that steam engines could fill up their tenders with the dependable spring water. Tullahoma later served as the headquarters for the Confederate army in Tennessee in 1863. The town's recovery after the Civil War was aided partly by the railroad line, partly by Tullahoma's educational institutions, which were exceptional for the region. It was likely also those educational institutions that brought Christine's future parents together.

Christine's grandfather, McClin H. Davis, had prospered in the distilling business, having perfected the recipe for Cascade Whiskey, later known as George Dickel. Though she spent her summers in Tullahoma, Christine graduated from the Milton Academy, a boarding school in Massachusetts that dates back to 1798. After attending Vassar College and graduating from the Presbyterian Hospital nursing school, she worked for a time at the Manhattan Eye, Ear, and Throat Hospital on east 64th St.

As with others who figured in the lives of the Whiton-Stuarts, Christine's name acquires more and more significance with time and research. Her ancestry has deep roots in America. One of her father's ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War. She's listed in a book as descendent #1144 of Jackson M. Yancey and Elizabeth B. Goode, his wife, though it's not yet clear who Mr. Yancey was, to have had his descendants so well researched. Nor is it yet clear whether the Paschall family of Christine's mother has notable history.

The name Davis, however, is best known through the career of her father Norman Hezekiah Davis, who would play significant roles in the Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt administrations. Before entering public life, Davis was a successful businessman. He briefly ran the distillery business, then took advantage of family connections to do business in Cuba. By 1918, at age 40, he had made a million dollars in Cuban banking and Cuban sugar.

Remarkably, and it's not yet clear what the prompt or precedent might have been, at that young age he retired from business and devoted himself to public service. Serving Wilson as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, then as Undersecretary of State, Davis would become highly involved in seeking peaceful solutions to international tensions in the years between the World Wars. Briefly serving as Wilson's secretary of state, he likely would have gained that position in FDR's administration, if not for his close association with J. Pierpont Morgan. Instead, he served as a close advisor of FDR's secretary of state, and played an often parallel role as FDR's "ambassador at large". Later, FDR appointed Davis the national chairman of the Red Cross during the very demanding years of World War II.

Norman Davis's world view appears prescient, and relevant to our day. He spoke out against harsh economic punishment of nations defeated in WWI, asserting that steep tariffs and other forms of "economic warfare" were as destructive as a conflict of arms. He warned that economic punishment of Germany would cause resentment in that nation. History proved this warning correct, as Hitler later exploited that resentment to gain power. Through the 1920s, Davis criticized isolationist, protectionist policies that sound reminiscent of those being proposed today, almost a century later. The U.S. absence from the League of Nations was as conspicuous back then as the president's departure from the Paris climate accord is today. "America First" was a slogan as current then as now. Davis argued that a policy of independence instead of international cooperation was promoting nationalist tendencies that could lead to another world war. The U.S., he believed, needed to actively exercise its moral and political influence in the world.

Christine and Robert married in 1937, when her father was ambassador-at-large for FDR, and world tensions were escalating. Robert's parents, the Whiton-Stuarts, were living in Princeton at the time, presumably much more buffered from world events. It's not at all clear how Christine and Robert met. The wedding photo appeared in newspapers all across the country, as well as in Life Magazine. They were married at 5pm, March 23, 1937, by Rev. Elmore McKee, rector of St. George's Church at the Davis home on E. 79th St. "Christine will wear the ivory satin gown which her three sisters, Mrs. John Fennelly, Mrs John C. Potter, and Mrs. J Sterling Getchell, wore, and a Juliet cap with a veil. Her flowers will be white narcissi." The rector's church, by the way, was once known as "Morgan's church". J. Pierpont Morgan was its most influential parishioner, to whose company Norman Davis had close ties.

President Roosevelt's mother, the formidable mother-in-law of Eleanor Roosevelt, attended. The marriage date had been pushed forward when Norman Davis was called to Europe for meetings about the growing tensions there.

Perhaps the hasty rescheduling explains why the only attendant to the bride and groom was Lawrence M.C. Smith, as best man. Again, an internet search opens up another world of significance and meaning. Smith and his wife, Eleanor Houston, had an extraordinary life as "collectors, conservationists, environmentalists, farmers, philanthropists, and preservationists." Like the Whiton-Stuarts, they were "old money", their lineage dating back to the days of William Penn. Eleanor's father developed the Chestnut Hill area of Philadelphia. She was inspired by writer Louis Bromfield's organic farming experiments at Malabar Farm (an important book for me as well, in my formative years), and was on the board of governors for the Nature Conservancy. She and her husband founded a classical radio station in Philadelphia, and raised organic beef on their Wolfe's Neck Farm in Freeport, Maine. Much of the property they acquired, including an island, was later donated for preservation. The Smiths' philosophy--"At some point you have to decide how to use your money to benefit society."--is very much the credo by which the Veblens lived.

Christine's and Robert's marriage lasted less than ten years. Christine died in 1946 in Harkness Pavillion, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, after a long illness.

Her mother, the former Miss Mackie Paschall, had died in 1942, and her father on July 2, 1944--both in their mid-60s. The reasons for early death in the family are not clear. Christine's grandfather, McLinn Davis, had died young, though his work perfecting the taste of whiskey could have had consequences. Norman Davis may have succumbed from the enormous stress of high level public service during the war years, compounded by the death two years earlier of his wife, who was his constant traveling companion. President Roosevelt, in a telegram to the family, said "He had worked far beyond his strength, and indeed was a casualty of war."

At the time of Christine's death, they were living at 1158 Fifth Ave. in New York City, and her husband Robert was described in the obit as "assistant to the president of the George A. Fuller Company, contractors." Their son, Robert P. Whiton Stuart Jr. of New York, has left no trace on the internet that we have yet to find. Clues for further research come from the obits:
Besides her husband, Mrs. Stuart is survived by a son, Robert P. Whiton Stuart Jr. of New York, three sisters, Mrs. Malcolm Smith of New York, Mrs. John F. Fennelly of Lake Forest, Ill. and Mrs. John Potter of Peterson Farms, Mount Kisco, N.Y. and four brothers, Macklin P. Davis and J. Pascall Davis of Nashville, Tenn., Goode P. Davis of Santa Barbara, Cal., and Norman P. Davis of Chappaqua, N.Y. Funeral services were held Saturday at 2:30p in Georges Chapel, 17th St, and Stuyvesant Square, New York City.
Some themes from this story continue in Robert's subsequent two marriages. From the springs of Tullahoma, where Christine was born, and Hot Springs, where her father Norman Davis went as his health worsened, we'll head north to the cool, curative sulphurous waters of Sharon Springs, NY, which feature prominently in Robert's second marriage. And then there's alcohol, profited by if not directly imbibed. Whereas the whiskey distilling business contributed to the wealth of the Davises, the second family Robert married into achieved its wealth in the brewing business in pre-prohibition NY. Researching his third marriage, we've found another heroic in-law, still alive, devoting many decades not to saving the world from war, but to saving elephants and rhinos from extinction. 

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Happy 111th, Sylvia Jean Whiton-Stuart Hatch Turnure Olcott

Today is Sylvia Jean Whiton-Stuart’s 111th birthday. She being the daughter of the builders and original owners of what would later be called the Veblen House, it’s fitting to include here an account of what we know about Sylvia’s life.

Since first writing about her three years ago, I've researched backwards and forwards from Sylvia's birth on July 4, 1906, and in so doing have come closer to an answer to the question of why the House began its “life” in Morristown, NJ. Veblen House was owned and lived in by two families, the Whiton-Stuarts followed by the Veblens. Both Jesse Whiton-Stuart and Oswald Veblen loved buildings. Jesse prospered by buying and selling them in Manhattan. Oswald loved his own cottage and home, but also saw buildings and their design as an integral part of his vision for advancing scholarship in Princeton and more broadly in America.

Interestingly, the grandparents of Veblen, and the grandparents of Whiton-Stuart's wife, Mary Marshall Ogden, were both builders of houses--one built a series of them in Wisconsin and Minnesota, the other built one on a plantation in Mississippi. Research into the Veblen House's history may lead to a contrast between what it meant to build a home in the early 19th century in the North and South.

Exploring Sylvia's life takes us into many different worlds. While one set of great grandparents owned a plantation in antebellum Mississippi, she was born into the highest echelons of Manhattan society, with a pedigree that included some of the great movers and shakers in U.S. and NJ history. Her parents rubbed shoulders with leading philanthropists of New York City, then lived for part of her childhood out on a ranch in Arizona. Like her brother, she would marry three times. As a debutant and fodder for the gossip mills of the era's society pages, she eloped at 16 with a well-known writer, later married a stockbroker a month before the crash of 1929, then finally settled down to what looks like a quieter life with a lawyer.

Sylvia’s mother’s name is Mary Marshall Ogden, part of a long line of Ogdens extending back to the 17th century pilgrim, John Ogden, who, according to this link, “was one of the founders of the New Jersey Colony, and one of the first to settle in the original community of Elizabethtown,” around 1664.

Sylvia's mother was born in Natchez, Mississippi, which sounded like a strange place for a future Manhattan aristocrat to start out. For lack of knowledge--perhaps it's an uninformed northerner's stereotype--I imagined a family of modest means, torpid from the heat in a dusty town surrounded by flat expanses of woods. Turns out that Natchez is perched strategically on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, and for two centuries prospered as a pivotal center of trade in the region. The city is one of the earliest European settlements in the lower Mississippi, having celebrated its tricentennial in 2016. It's one year older than the state of Mississippi, and two years older than New Orleans. The Natchez tribe, for which it is named, predated the Europeans by a millennium. Sylvia's great grandfather, Elias Ogden, had moved down there after studying medicine in Morris County, NJ, built up a lucrative practice in Port Gibson, then married into the wealthy Routh family.

The move of a Whiton-Stuart ancestor from Morris County, NJ to Mississippi is a puzzle. Was it a move into a vastly different culture based on slave labor, or was Morris County, like Princeton, home to slave-owners as well? Ogden relatives may already have been established in Natchez. One notable Ogden from Natchez is Jennifer Ogden Combs, who has done film production for Woody Allen and Mississippi native Oprah Winfrey, and organized Natchez's tricentennial celebration.

Perhaps assisting the move of Elias Ogden from Morris County, the Natchez Trace, a major north/south trading route dating back to pre-colonial times, extends from Nashville down to Natchez. The Trace, named for the traces herds left behind, was originally a bison migration route, following ridges and passing by natural salt formations used by the bison like cattle use salt licks. For a period in U.S. history, travel on the Mississippi was downstream only. Settlers in the Ohio River basin would build flatboats to carry their wares down the Mississippi to Natchez, MS, where they'd sell them, along with the lumber from their boats, then return to the north by horse or foot along the Natchez Trace. Steamboats changed all that, with the power to travel upstream against the swift Mississippi current. The two-generation residency of Sylvia's ancestors in Natchez coincided with the golden age of steamboats.

Sylvia's great grandmother, Ann M. Lane, who was born a Routh, owned "one of the largest and finest plantations in that section of the country". Great grandfather Elias retired from medicine, built "an elegant residence called 'Kenilworth'", and cared for his wife's extensive estate until he died around age 43, in 1845.

One of their sons, John Routh Ogden, married Josephine E. Marshall, who is reportedly a descendent of the great Chief Justice John Marshall, a guiding force in shaping the U.S. justice system. Sylvia's mother-to-be was born to this couple in 1874, not long before the family left postwar Natchez to live in a town near New York City that no longer exists, called Bartow-on-the-Sound. There, Sylvia's grandfather worked as a banker in New York City.

Sylvia's parents, Jesse Paulmier Whiton-Stuart and Mary Marshall Ogden, were married in 1905. On April 21, 1908, a year and a half after Sylvia Jean was born, Jesse and Mary had her christened by Rev. Harris Ely Adriance. A newspaper article listed 13 of the guests, including Mrs. Kiliaen Van Rensselaer and Mrs. Augustus Julliard. The Van Rensselaers were a powerful political family in U.S. history, and Kiliaen Van Rensselaer was surely named after a distant ancestor, one of the founders of the Dutch West India Company in the early 1600s. Augustus Juilliard's estate funded what became the famous Juilliard School in New York. The lives of the Whiton-Stuarts are filled with associations of this sort.

Sylvia's story is to be continued, but here are a few elements. Her father, Jesse Whiton-Stuart, seems to have divided his itinerant life into decades. In the 1890s, after spending a year at Harvard, he traveled around the world. For the first decade of the 20th century, Jesse lived in Manhattan, selling high end real-estate. With two young children, he and his wife appear to have spent the next decade in Prescott, Arizona, where Jesse ran a cattle ranch on public land. By 1920, they had moved back east and were living in Morristown, NJ, perhaps to help ailing parents and involve their children in eastern social circles.

In 1922, at age 16, Sylvia eloped with Eric Stow Hatch. A newspaper describes their adventure this way:
On Sunday, according to dispatches received from Matawan, young Hatch and his bride, accompanied by Miles Vernon, appeared before Mayor Sutphin at Matawan with the request that he marry them. He declined to do so on the ground they had no New Jersey license and had not complied with the state law requiring a residence of forty-eight hours in the state prior to the ceremony.
That was quite discouraging to the trio, but they didn’t consider letting it stop them. They motored to Connecticut, apparently with the view of getting married there, it is said, but before long they were headed southward again, and finally arrived at Elkton, MD (where the ceremony was finally performed).
Son of a NY financier, Hatch became a writer for the New Yorker, and wrote some popular books, two of which were made into Disney movies, including My Man Godfrey. They divorced in 1928, having had one daughter, Eve (Evelyn) Hatch Holmes. Eve died in 2011, in New York, before we found out about her existence. Her obit says this about her:
She had a long and distinguished career in the world of fashion and was for many years fashion editor of Town and Country magazine. Eve was an active member of the Lawrence Beach Club, Rockaway Hunt Club and the Colonial Dames of America. To her galaxy of dear friends worldwide, Eve was especially loved for her loyalty, razor-sharp mind and rollicking wit.
A second marriage, poorly timed, was to Lawrence Turnure, a stockbroker, one month before the stock crash of 1929. The NY Sun reports a divorce in Reno less than a year later.

The Whiton-Stuarts reacted to the stock crash by moving to Princeton in the early 1930s, Jesse having brought a prefab house along from Morristown. In a potential tie to Veblen, Jesse's interest in mathematics may have drawn him to Princeton at a time when so many great mathematicians and physicists were arriving to work at the University and especially at the newly formed Institute.

Sylvia's whereabouts during that decade are unclear. The 1940 census had Sylvia married to Nelson Alcott, or Olcott, and living on E 55th St in New York. (This appears to be the same Nelson Alcott that a 1925 city census describes as 35, a lawyer living in Brooklyn, Kings, in a house with 12 members, including what appear to be wife Mary Alcott, 35, daughter Leslie, 13, son William, 11, and servants from Ireland: Sadie Higgins, 30, Bessie Campbell, 28, Beatrice Farrell, 35, and Margaret Ryan, 34.) In some accounts, including her death certificate, her last name appears to be Olcott.

By 1941, as if ready for a new life in a new decade, Jesse had sold the Princeton house to the Veblens.

The rest of the story is sketchy. There are accounts of Sylvia's parents living variously in Greenwich, CT, and the luxury gated community of Tuxedo Park, NY. The 1940s were Jesse's last decade, ending in a house in San Luis Obispo, California, in 1950.

By 1957, Sylvia was living at 901 N. 6th Ave in Tucson, AZ, as documented in a suit she filed after an auto accident two blocks from her house, in which she suffered a concussion, fractured elbow and broken ribs. In 1964, Sylvia pops up as living with her husband in Mexico City, and traveling to Tucson to visit her mother. She died that year, July 21 in a Mexico City hospital, presumably at the age of 58 (the death certificate says 56), "paro respiratorio y cardiaco, colapso respiratorio periferiso" (congestive heart failure), and her mother died soon afterward. Playing the role of biographer, piecing together forgotten lives, I was surprised by a sadness when coming across news of their death. 

This is a preliminary sketch of her life, hastened together to honor her 111th birthday. Her death certificate stated her employment as "hogar", spanish for "home". Who she was, and what she did with her days--any curiosity about the world, any passions or causes, having carried the names of so many men through the years--remains a mystery.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Plant Workday at Veblen House This Sunday

Join us this Sunday, June 11 at 10am, before the day heats up, to pull garlic mustard before its seedpods have a chance to burst. We'll have some refreshments on hand, the better to socialize while snipping off the seedpods. Veblen House is up the gravel driveway across the street from 443 Herrontown Rd, or walk up from the main Herrontown Woods parking lot off of Snowden (map here).

This is Stage II of creating an ecological campus on the Veblen grounds. Stage I, largely complete, included the removal of wisteria, Japanese aralia, and the invasive brush that had obscured the historic features of the grounds.

Removal of garlic mustard will protect and free up space for new plantings, some of which are already in place.

For more on garlic mustard and the workday, there's a related post at

Here's a weed we'll allow to grow: moth mullein, a few fine specimens of which have popped up in the horse run next to the house.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Veblen's Role in John von Neumann's Career

Some of the richer, more colorful writing about the Veblens was uncovered recently via google. Many people who are unfamiliar with Oswald Veblen will recognize the name of John von Neumann, whom IAS director Robbert Dijkgraaf recently described as "perhaps an even greater genius than Einstein". Veblen had a keen eye for mathematical talent, and in both of these accounts is credited with bringing von Neumann to Princeton. Veblen also lent vital support to von Neumann's proposal to build one of the world's first computers at the Institute for Advanced study in the 1940s, when many scholars viewed such a machine as an intrusion.

In one, "The Martian's Daughter: A Memoir", von Neumann's daughter Marina Whitman describes the role the Veblens played, not only in furthering her father's career but also in her birth.

John L. Casti, in his book about the Institute for Advanced Study, "The One True Platonic Heaven", describes Oswald Veblen's support for von Neumann, first by getting him a position in the Princeton University Mathematics Department, soon thereafter advocating successfully for his appointment to the IAS, then supporting von Neumann's controversial project to develop a computer. Presumably, in a book that intermixes fiction and fact, the excerpt below sticks to the facts.

Two phrases in Casti's description catch the eye for anyone seeking to understand Veblen and his legacy. One is that Veblen "regarded von Neumann almost as the son he had never had." The Veblens had no children, and one interpretation of his enormous generosity towards young scholars is that he was channeling a nurturing instinct that had no familial outlet. The other is Casti's description of Veblen as "ultrarespectable and enormously influential". The more one learns about Veblen's legacy, the more one wonders at his invisibility--the multiple examples of how his name goes unmentioned, whether in the hallway history exhibit at the Institute, the literature offered to tourists at Old Fine Hall (now Jones Hall), or as founder of Princeton's open space movement. Even the house he donated for public use has been left boarded up and threatened with demolition, despite a nonprofit having been formed to repair it.

One theory, conjured early on in this research, was that he had a dark side that made people reluctant to give him credit for all the good he had done. This, it seems, is not the case. A closer look reveals a visionary, a man ahead of his time, who appears to have been on the right side of every issue, whether fighting early on against discrimination towards jews and African Americans, saving land from development, freeing scholars to pursue their research interests, or supporting the development of computers long before their potential was clear.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Memories of Elizabeth Veblen

J David Donahue, of Quantico, VA, left a wonderful comment on a previous post that I'd like to share more widely. It gives us some insight into the interior of the Veblen House and the last decade of Elizabeth's life there. Thanks so much to Mr. Donahue, who retired as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marines, for sharing these childhood memories. (Note: The photo is from the 1950s, and is the only one we have of the Veblen House interior when the Veblens were still living there.)

I was Mrs Veblen's paperboy for a year, 1965-1966. I never received payment from her but I did not care. She never could find cash and instead tried to pay me with old magazines or with little boxes of matches. I often sat with her in her living room and listened to her stories. At first I found her difficult to follow, to understand. Soon I looked at the pictures on the mantel. Although only 11 or 12 I easily recognized pictures of Woodrow Wilson with, as became evident, Mrs Veblen and her husband and others. She seemed to always have a fire going in the fireplace. The home had the aroma of a hunting lodge. I loved visiting with her when I made my bi-monthly visits to get paid. She was lonely and eager to have company. She was wonderful to talk to and I loved her voice and accent. I knew she must be a kind person. I hope the Veblen home is preserved. It is a remnant of an era long gone. Years later, after a career in the Marine Corps and federal law enforcement, I look back and wish I had more conversations with Mrs Veblen.

In email correspondence, Mr. Donahue shared more of his memories of Elizabeth and the house. This would have been five years after Oswald died, and gives a portrait of an elderly woman who had had a remarkable, active, highly social life, now with unaccustomed solitude and the challenges of aging.

She had two large, stuffed upholstered chairs in front of the fireplace. They faced the fireplace and its adjacent wall, not at a 90 degree angle, but closer to 45. She would sit in one and I in the other and she would tell stories. There was a dark oriental rug and bookshelves. There were lots of books in the room, and a small table next to her chair with a cup and saucer. She liked to drink hot tea and many times offered me tea. Her train of thought was hard to follow and she did not always speak clearly. She did most of the talking. She always had a shawl around her shoulders and she moved slowly, stooped over, and shuffling when she walked. 
Because there was always a fire in the fireplace, the home smelled like the hunting and fishing club my grandfather belonged to in the 1950s and 1960s. It smelled smoky, but was not overpowering. It was a good aroma. A warm, cozy aroma. I think that I mentioned the photos on the mantel above the fireplace. As an eleven year old, I had already read a lot of American history and recognized group pictures of Woodrow Wilson with a handful of other people. I remember asking Mrs. Veblen why pictures of the former president were on the mantel and she said that she and her husband knew Mr. Wilson. I was impressed! 
Prior to my middle school years I spent time in Herrontown Woods. My friends and I found several streams and flooded areas that provided good frog breeding grounds. I remember finding masses of frog eggs in several places where the water was deep and slow moving. We went home and read about frogs and returned a week or two later to find the tadpoles. It was a cool place to learn about nature. 
As a boy I liked to listen to my grandparents tell stories, so it was easy for me to sit with Mrs. Veblen. My visits sometimes lasted 20 or 30 minutes, certainly not the norm for a paperboy attempting to get paid. Usually, transactions with my other customers lasted a minute or two on a cold front porch or doorstep. After my one year as an eleven/twelve year old paperboy, I knew that the business world would not be my livelihood. Although she did not pay me, I did not have the heart to cut off her paper subscription. As a child, I did not know much about psychology or aging, but I could tell Mrs. Veblen was not totally coherent. I suppose now we might call it dementia. But I did recognize that she was kind and needed companionship. I knew that I spent way too much time at her home, but we both enjoyed each other's company.  
When the spring of my 7th grade year arrived, I had to quit the route. In 1966, the Trenton Times was an afternoon newspaper and I had to choose between playing catcher on the Princeton Middle School baseball team or being a paperboy. I chose baseball. Occasionally, in my secondary school and college years I wondered what happened to Mrs. Veblen. Then a few weeks ago I read in the Town Topics online about a group trying to save the Veblen home. From there I found the blog. I hope your group is able to preserve the homestead. It provides a connection to the past, to a special time in our country's intellectual history, and the history of Princeton.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

A Closer Look at the 2011 Architectural Report On Veblen House and Cottage

The fate of Veblen House now hangs in the balance, as the Friends of Herrontown Woods proposes to acquire and repair the buildings. The county has moved ahead with preliminary environmental studies, and has stated its intent to demolish the structures. One document it has used to rationalize demolition is "The Oswald and Elizabeth Veblen House and Cottage Conditions Assessment, prepared in 2011 by Mills and Schnoering Architects. A close look at the document reveals a number of basic errors, a negative bias, and a questionable approach to estimating costs.

The firm was paid $20,000 to develop a cost estimate for repairing the Veblen House and cottage. The report begins by reiterating research done in 2001 when the buildings were determined to be of national historic merit. There's a detailed history of ownership of the relevant parcels, along with some biographical information on Oswald Veblen's extraordinary career and the House's original owner, Jesse Paulmier Whiton-Stuart.

The county report then proceeds to detail the buildings' flaws. There is no positive language about such things as the high quality of construction or the custom craftsmanship inside the Veblen House. Though it offers some useful insights, the report makes some fundamental errors, misidentifying the materials used for interior walls and roof of the Veblen House. It estimates the cost of repairs by going room by room, rather than giving, for instance, one quote for painting the interior of the house.

The county has referred to the report, most recently in an April 25 document from the county administrator, and is using its cost estimates as a means of measuring the fitness of the Friends of Herrontown Woods for becoming the owner and caretaker of the buildings.

Members of FOHW, including a distinguished architect, have studied the county's architectural report and dug into its calculations. Along with the uniformly negative tone, the misidentification of basic elements like wall and roof material, and the room-by-room cost estimates, the report also boosts its cost estimate by adding a 50% "general conditions" and "concept design contingency". We also know that the cost of government projects tends to be higher, sometimes much higher, than when done by nongovernmental organizations.

To what extent, then, should we consider the Conditions Assessment to be the last word in determining actual cost of repairs? Below is a sampling of the report's cost estimates for repairing the Veblen House:

"Urgent Work"

$37,500 to replace wood shingle roof--Roof is not wood shingle. Most of it is metal, and is not leaking. The area covered by the roof is 1000 square feet.
$10,000 to install drainage system and waterproof foundation--Improved drainage around house should be done first, and may be sufficient
$5000 to install rat slab in basement--not necessarily advisable
$30,000 to mothball building with window covers and ventilation--FOHW would not mothball building but continue working
$36,500 in "general conditions" and "concept design contingency"--essentially, this assumes a 50% cost overrun.

"Necessary Work"

$36,800 to raise the house--Real problem is that gravel was piled next to the house, making the ground higher than original. Lowering ground to original level, and redirecting drainage away from house may be sufficient.
$71,000 to repair and paint exterior walls--seems high for replacing and painting some boards
$11,000 to repair exterior doors--also seems high for four doors
$26,500 to repair interior plaster walls and ceilings--Walls are not plaster. This does not include painting
$30,500 to repair windows and screens--Windows are very high quality. Some window sills and windowpanes need replacing. Other than that, they appear in good condition.
$10,000 to replace fixtures in bathrooms--Fixtures are from the period, in good condition, and don't need to be replaced. Two modern efficient toilets can be purchased for $400 total.
$26,500 to paint interior walls. Add to $26,500 for wall repairs, to equal $53,000 for interior walls.
$19,000 to refinish hardwood floors. For comparison, a ballpark figure offered for a 2000 square foot house by a local business was less than $10,000.
$183,000 for "general conditions" and "concept design contingency"--this is the 50% cost overrun added on to the already high estimates above.

The architectural study claims a total cost for "urgent" and "necessary" work of $600,000 for the Veblen House. Essentially, $220,000 of that is "general conditions" and "concept design contingency".

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

Ever since finding Oswald Veblen's will, which stipulated that the Veblen House was to be a "museum and library", I've been collecting books to sit on the custom chestnut wood shelves in the living room when Mercer County finally allows our Friends of Herrontown Woods nonprofit to fix the house up. Two new additions were purchased last month at a talk by Robbert Dijkgraaf, the charismatic director of Institute for Advanced Study. With his rich baritone voice and well crafted slides, he gave a talk to a packed room at the Princeton Public Library on "The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge." The title comes from Institute founder Abraham Flexner's 1939 essay, for which Dijkgraaf has written a companion essay. During the talk Dijkgraaf made a compelling case for funding research "motivated solely by curiosity and without concern for applications."

During Q and A, I asked a leading question "How did the Institute end up in Princeton?" Dijkgraaf said "Oswald Veblen", his Dutch accent imbuing the name with consequence, as he pronounced the "Ve" syllable as "vay" rather than "veh". (There's been an ongoing question as to how Veblen pronounced his last name.) The funders of the Institute, the Bamberger family that started Macy's, had wanted the institute to be near Newark. When he read about the planned institute in the NY Times, Oswald Veblen contacted Flexner and suggested locating the institute in Princeton. Like many of Veblen's ideas, initial resistance finally yielded and the idea was realized. Veblen's ideas influenced the Institute in many other ways as well, and he became its first professor.

On a personal note, the importance of basic research--following one's own curiosity--was a matter close to my father's heart, as an astronomer at Yerkes Observatory, and it was good to hear Dijkgraaf present the case so beautifully and convincingly.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Hazelnuts and Pawpaws in the Ground

We had a good workday this past Sunday, with three board members and three additional volunteers. Here, board member Sally Tazelaar and Laura Strong are planting one of the 16 hazelnut plants rescued from a construction site nearby. Stan de Riel donated nine pawpaws grown from seed collected locally.

A strong theme in our restoration of the Veblen grounds is the use of donated materials, skills and time. The stakes next to each new tree, and the protective fencing to be added later, are also of the "found" variety.

Of course, by far the most important "found" material is the buildings on the site: the Veblen House, cottage, garage, barn and corncrib at the site. The Friends of Herrontown Woods has officially submitted its detailed proposal to acquire and repair these historic structures, at no cost to county or town.

The planting was done in an area cleared of invasive shrubs by board member Kurt Tazelaar. In the middle of this aerial photo from 1988 is a square open area. We're turning some of that area into an unusual native orchard for nut and fruit trees. The woodland opening will expand as the many ash trees growing nearby are lost to Emerald Ash Borer. Sunday's planting will help insure that diverse native species are in place to catch the additional sunlight as the forest thins.

Meanwhile, some daffodils that have long ornamented a spring drive up Snowden Lane are being rescued prior to pending construction. They will be planted in the Veblen field.

Thanks to all who lent their spirit, skill and energy to the workday.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Hazelnut, PawPaw, and Daffodil Planting this Sunday, April 2, 2-4pm

Thanks to a former tenant of the Veblen House, we have many photos that show the Veblen's garden in the 1950s, when both the famous mathematician and his wife were still alive. In this photo, the field to the left of the house is filled with daffodils, a particular passion of Elizabeth's. Though daffodils look lovely in a field, they tend to die out if the field gets mowed before the daffodil leaves have harvested enough solar energy to make blooms the next year. That's probably why the field today is nearly empty of daffodils.

This Sunday, April 2 from 2-4pm, you're invited to join us as we continue the ecological and historical restoration of the Veblen grounds. Two recent events make Sunday's workday auspicious. Two weeks ago the field in this photo was badly damaged by two trucks that drove down to the house and got stuck. All those deep ruts and bare ground, along with daffodils available for rescue on a construction site nearby, suggested an opportunity to bring back daffodils to the field. That should be a fun project for volunteers. If we plant daffodils in the ruts, we'll want to make sure the field doesn't get mowed this spring, or in springs to come.

Daffodils have more to do with restoring history than ecology. More of an ecological nature, we'll also plant some rescued local native hazelnuts and pawpaws in areas recently cleared of invasive brush near Veblen House. As with the pawpaws planted last year, we'll stake and protect the new plantings with wire fencing. The plantings are part of the envisioned "ecological campus" on the grounds surrounding the Veblen House and Cottage, on the east side of Herrontown Woods.

Here's another view of the field that Elizabeth Veblen had planted with daffodils. She grew up in York, England, where daffodils ornament the berms of castles.

You're encouraged to come whether you can do physical work or not. You can always lend moral support and hear the latest news. We'll have refreshments. Kids welcome. Park down the driveway across the street from 443 Herrontown Rd, or walk up from the Herrontown Woods main parking lot.

UPDATE ON OUR PROPOSAL TO ACQUIRE AND REPAIR THE VEBLEN HOUSE AND COTTAGE: Two months ago, the Friends of Herrontown Woods submitted an official proposal to Mercer County to acquire and restore the Veblen House and cottage, to create a Veblen Center and ecological campus on the surrounding grounds. In particular, the house is of sound structure with wonderful custom interior. Though we have made great progress restoring the grounds of Veblen House, the county has not as yet given us permission to begin repairs of the buildings. We have submitted the insurance we believe sufficient to handle any liability concerns, so that we can begin repairing the buildings as soon as possible. Having demonstrated our skill and dedication by caring for the 140 acre county-owned Herrontown Woods over the past four years, we are awaiting a county response to our proposal so that we can negotiate a means to put these historic structures on a positive trajectory.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Rescuing Hazelnuts for Planting at Veblen House

One theme running through the Veblen House project is the capacity to see potential where others do not. Beneath its rather dilapidated outer "skin" is a house that is solid and extremely well crafted, with an intact roof and solid foundation. People who look no further than the outer skin won't see the quality hidden underneath.

The same story can be told of a hazelnut tree that was cut down along Snowden last year when a lot was cleared for a new house. I had spotted the hazelnut tree years prior. Calling hazelnuts a tree is a stretch. They grow about fifteen feet high, and instead of a trunk they grow a dense cluster of stems from a gradually broadening base. I knew that, once cut down, it would sprout many new shoots from the root.

The photo looks like a pickaxe lying on plain ground, but I knew there was treasure to be had. I asked the owner of the new house if I could rescue the hazelnut and plant the root sprouts at Veblen House.

He agreed, and the harvest was 8 sprouts, plus 8 chunks of root that could sprout if planted.

We may invite the public to join us for this planting, most likely in a moist forest opening where the hazelnuts will get enough sky light to bear well. The opening was cleared of invasive shrubs over the winter by Friends of Princeton Open Space board member Kurt Tazelaar.