Audubon's Legacy: Where It All Began

Photograph by Susie Cushner
Photograph by Susie Cushner

Audubon's Legacy: Where It All Began

On a farm in rural Pennsylvania, John James Audubon first glimpsed the curious birds of the New World that would become his lifelong passion. Now the Audubon Center at Mill Grove shares his home and his artistry with the conservation movement he continues to inspire.

By Frank Graham Jr./Photography by Susie Cushner
Published: November-December 2004

This is where it all began: Here at Mill Grove in eastern Pennsylvania, with its big farmhouse built of rough-cut local fieldstone, enveloped now in a century's growth of ivy and set discreetly into a slope on the eastern shore of Perkiomen Creek, just above its entry into the Schuylkill River. Here a young John James Audubon settled upon his arrival from France in 1803 to embark on one of the most flamboyant and productive lifelong adventures in American history.

"Its fine woodlands, its extensive acres, its fields crowned with evergreen offered many subjects to my pencil," the supreme painter of America's birds was to write years later. "It was there that I commenced my simple and agreeable studies with as little concern about the future as if the world had been made for me."

[gallery:42276|align:left|caption:GALLERY See a selection of Audubon's iconic birds.] If the Audubon movement had a Plymouth Rock, it would be Mill Grove. It was through Audubon's artistry that his idea of a bird, of birdness itself, passed into the nation's consciousness. Beneath his paintings' plumage lies something wild and inexpressible, something that implies to viewers that by observing birds they may open themselves to the poetry of their own lives. It was only natural that when embryonic conservationists rallied to protect wild birds, they chose the American most identified with them and called their organizations Audubon Societies.

Last year, exactly 200 years after the prodigy's arrival, the National Audubon Society signed an agreement with Pennsylvania's Montgomery County to establish an Audubon center at Mill Grove. Plans for the property include developing an art gallery to house and protect Mill Grove's collection of John James Audubon's prints--the most valuable wildlife art in the world--and expanding the environmental education programs the county has offered there for many years.

"We don't want this to be simply a traditional art museum," says Jean Bochnowski, a former executive vice-president of Zoo New England and now director of the Audubon Center at Mill Grove. "We want it to be a place where we can use Audubon's art to tell the stories of the species and habitats that they represent in a landscape which is where Audubon first explored America and got to know its wildlife."

Located about 25 miles northwest of Philadelphia, Mill Grove is among America's genuine shrines. Although its house and huge barn are somewhat the worse for wear since Audubon's time, many seminal American landmarks, including Thoreau's Walden Pond, haven't aged as gracefully. Suburban traffic reaches near-gridlock proportions beyond Mill Grove's main entrance, but within its boundaries tranquillity reigns.

In the early 19th century, when the youthful artist tirelessly "studied" the local birds with the aid of a flintlock gun, the farmyard was astir with horses and cattle, and the air resounded with the clamor of a working lead mine and the water-powered mill for which the property was named. Now the farm animals and mill are long gone. The site of the abandoned mine is a grassy hollow among lush trees and shrubs. Descendants of the fallen house wrens, chimney swifts, and eastern phoebes provide much of the song and stir. No ghosts walk here, and none are necessary. Mill Grove exudes to the visitors of today its own rich and remarkable history.

 

The neat dormers and solid chimneys of the house at Mill Grove stamp it as a practical and respectable farmhouse. Built in 1762, with a new wing added a few years later, it served as a tavern for a time and never gained the more ostentatious proportions of some neighboring homes. That was perfectly acceptable to Jean Audubon, captain of a French cargo vessel and a trader in rum, sugar, and slaves on his rounds from France to various Caribbean and U.S. ports. He bought the property as an investment in 1789. The senior Audubon also owned land in what is now Haiti. There he fathered two illegitimate children, a son and a daughter, by two different women of French descent. The boy became known later as John James Audubon.

"Slave revolts threatened the planters in Haiti, and Jean Audubon wanted to take his children to France and raise them as French citizens," says Alan Gehret. A walking encyclopedia of Auduboniana who grew up near Mill Grove, he has worked there for 19 years and currently serves as museum coordinator. "We don't know for sure, but it's possible that four-year-old John James was aboard his father's ship when he stopped in Philadelphia and bought Mill Grove."

The aging sailor arranged for a tenant farmer and his wife to care for the property. In 1803, worried his son would be drafted into Napoleon's army, he slipped the 18-year-old out of France and sent him to Mill Grove. John James, already entranced by birds and by the prospect of exploring America's wilderness, found himself in what he must have thought of as an opulent aviary, a glitter of the strange and beautiful birds of a new world.

He was then just coming into manhood. Romantic and narcissistic, he described himself later as "quite a handsome figure," with an "aquiline nose and a fine set of teeth" and hair that fell in luxuriant ringlets to his shoulders. He was also a gifted liar and made up elaborate stories. He reported that George Washington had visited old Jean Audubon at Mill Grove during the general's winter at nearby Valley Forge, and claimed a beautiful and wealthy mother in New Orleans to disguise his bastardy. But few men have ever matched their deeds so closely to their bull. Contemporaries marveled at Audubon's exceptional abilities as a marksman, fencer, dancer, musician, horseman, and charmer of women.

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Frank Graham Jr.

Frank Graham Jr. is a field editor for Audubon.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

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