It is funny how deep connections are periodically unveiled in life, that bring meaning where none was previously apparent. Recently, I have been digging deep into the history of Wyck, the historic house and garden in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, where I served as resident caretaker in 2010. Today, this line of inquiry led me in a strange loop that was 200 years in the making and connected two otherwise disparate periods of my life in a most unusual way.
Wyck is a rare gem in Philadelphia. It was the homestead of the Milan-Wistar-Haines family for nine generations (1690–1973), and the (then) countryside estate of Reuben Haines III, a Quaker naturalist and philanthropist who served as corresponding secretary of the Academy of Natural Sciences from 1814 until his death in 1831. Reuben enjoyed friendships with an extraordinary cadre of American naturalists, each of whom were hosted at Wyck at various times, including John James Audubon, William Maclure, Thomas Say, Alexander Wilson, George Ord, Thomas Nuttall, Charles Lucien Bonaparte, and Charles Alexandre Lesueur. When I first moved into Wyck, although I had already been engaged in ornithological activities for several years, I was not yet aware of its extraordinary history of science. It was only once I began to study its vast collection of documents that I came to realize its significance, and thereafter became a dedicated student of Wyck lore, a passion that continues to this day. In January 2011, I departed Wyck for northern Delaware to pursue my own ornithological studies in earnest.
Now let us rewind the clock.
It was the summer of 2003, the summer of my 21st birthday, and though I was studying Sociology at Pennsylvania State University, I managed to get a summer internship as an environmental educator for the Penn’s Valley Conservation Association in Penn’s Valley, PA. It was there that I first took notice of the songbirds around me and learned to identify them by sound and sight. With my dear friend Cory Neidig, with whom I later explored the jungles of Western Panama, I scribbled my first list of birds on the pages of a notebook and sang silly songs about them around the fire. My experiences in Penn’s Valley sparked what has since grown into a lifelong passion for ornithology and natural science. Had it not been for a series of serendipitous events, and the charming people of Penn’s Valley and Millheim, there is considerable doubt as to whether I would be an ornithologist today.
Here is the kicker.
Today, I learned that it was none other than Reuben Haines I, master of Wyck and grandfather of Reuben Haines III, who “in order to sell land in East Penns Valley…had a road built at his own expense in 1771 that extended from the Sunbury-Lewisburg area through the Woodward Narrows to the approximate location of Spring Mills, the earliest road built in what would become Centre County.” (Centre Co. Historical Society). That road became what is now Route 45 through Penn’s Valley, winding through the rural landscape in which my life as a birdwatcher began. What is now Penn Township (formed 1844), and part of Gregg Township (formed 1826), were once part of a much larger Haines Township that was already in place before Centre County was officially declared in 1800.
Seven years after leaving Penn’s Valley, I unknowingly moved into Reuben Haines’ house in Philadelphia. [and as of September 2015, I will be working in the ornithology department of the Academy of Natural Sciences]
Today, I made the connection.