Clyde Fisher was a well-known naturalist, scientist and lecturer who served as curator at the American Museum of Natural History and as head of the Hayden Planetarium. He was a close friend of famed author and naturalist John Burroughs. Being an avid photographer Fisher took many photographs of Burroughs, his home and the surrounding Catskills environment.
John Burroughs on Veranda at Woodchuck Lodge, Roxbury, N.Y.
“The modesty with which he [Fisher] carried his learning was engaging; the width of his study was remarkable. He walked with John Burroughs. He talked with Dr. Albert Einstein. He went to baseball games and track meets and enjoyed them hugely. He was the ideal companion for field trips, always in a merry mood, always carrying more than his share of the burdens. He was an inspiring teacher, an industrious student, a modest scholar, a delightful friend and a great gentleman. It was a wonderful privilege to have known him.”
George Clyde Fisher, more commonly known as Clyde Fisher, was born on May 22, 1878 on the 1,500-acre family farm near Sidney, Ohio. He was the second of eight children born to Harrison Fisher (1851-1909), a farmer, and his wife Amanda (Rhinehart) Fisher (1848-1936). Harrison was a deeply religious man who was well respected in the community.
“He [Harrison] was a model husband, father and neighbor, a man of few words, but active in good deeds, proving his faith by his works. His one aim in life was to aid and comfort his family and educate his children to be useful men and women . . . We have felt the model life he lived from a child was such that parents, and brothers and sisters, and his family, certainly have reason to believe that he was guided by some power that was more than the work of man. I feel free to say this, because I knew him from infancy, he being my cousin; he was also my playmate in youth and faithful friend through life. I have often wished I were possessed with his quiet, peaceful and upright manner. His character all his life was without spot; I never knew any one who possessed a more gentle spirit, always esteeming others better than himself.”
Amanda (Rhinehart) Fisher, Clyde’s mother, was born on December 4, 1848 to Noah Rhinehart (1821-1897) and Rebecca (Huddle) Rhinehart (1824-1907) near Melmore in Seneca County. Amanda moved with her parents to Shelby County in her childhood and resided there for the remainder of her life. She was married to Harrison J. Fisher on February 3, 1876. She was a lifelong member of the First Presbyterian Church and for many years operated a market stand at the Sidney Saturday Market. Amanda passed away on September 9, 1936 and is buried, along with her husband, at Graceland Cemetery in Sidney, Ohio.
From a very young age, having been born on a farm, Clyde Fisher spent much of his childhood outdoors, and expressed much interest in all aspects of nature, including rocks, plants, trees, stars and planets. Upon learning that the family farm was located on the glacial drift, he collected over one hundred varieties of rocks as evidence. Two uncles who had taken up astronomy as a hobby had taught Clyde, who in turn attempted to teach the subject to anyone who would listen.
“Farmers around Sidney, Ohio pitied Harrison Jay Fisher, a fellow farmer, on account of his son Clyde. Instead of following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a good husbandman, the lad took to books and studies, which, from their practical point of view, meant that the boy was going to the dogs.
When his family was busy with the corn crop, Clyde would be preoccupied with the investigation of the life of a daisy or a dandelion. When he was expected to take care of the domestic animals populating the farm, he would likely be found somewhere in the woods ’possum hunting. Poor Harrison Jay!”
Fisher received his early education at “a little red-brick schoolhouse” in the local schools of Orange township in Shelby County. Perhaps in a telling sign of his future, Fisher, at his 9th grade commencement ceremony, gave the valedictorian speech titled “Examples of Great Men.” In 2002 the Sidney school district honored Fisher by inducting him into their Hall of Honor as an accomplished scientist and “the father of astronomy in America.”
Upon graduation, and with a country schoolteacher’s certificate in hand, he began teaching at the young age of 16. During the summer months he attended the Ohio Normal University at Ada.
After teaching for approximately six years, and having saved enough money, Fisher returned to school full-time, ultimately receiving in 1905 his A. B. degree in geology from Miami University in Ohio. While attending the university from 1902 to 1905, he was also a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity, captain of the intercollegiate debate team, and editor-in-chief of the college magazine. In 1903 Fisher was awarded a gold medal during a contest of the newly established Miami Oratorical Association.
In 1905, with his degree in hand, Fisher married Bessie Wiley (1883-1964), his high school sweetheart. She was the daughter of Johnston Crozier Wiley and Anna M. (Wright) Wiley. Together Clyde and Bessie had four children, including Clyde Jr. (b. 1914, died at birth), Ruth (b. 1916), Beth (b. 1918) and Katherine (b. 1920). After a period of separation Clyde and Bessie divorced in 1933. Later that year, on September 28, 1933, Clyde remarried to Te Ata (1895-1995), also known as Mary Frances Thompson Fisher, a Native American storyteller, actress and citizen of the Chickasaw Nation. Clyde and Te Ata would remain together until his passing.
Upon graduation from Miami University in 1905, Fisher taught science in the local high school at Troy, Ohio for two years from 1905 to 1907. Fisher then moved to Florida where he served as the Principal of Palmer College Academy at Defuniak Springs, Florida from 1907 to 1909 and served as acting President from 1909 to 1910. After leaving Palmer College, Fisher taught at Cornell University, and then worked as an instructor at the University of Florida and in 1912 at the University of Tennessee.
Having saved enough money from his work in Florida, Clyde returned to school for his graduate studies, attending the prestigious John Hopkins University in Baltimore. Fisher graduated in 1913, receiving his Ph.D. with a focus on botany, zoology and plant physiology. His dissertation was titled “Seed Development in the Genus Peperomia.”
Upon graduation Fisher joined the American Museum of Natural History in June of 1913, in time becoming the Curator of the Department of Public Education in 1928. In 1924 he was also named Curator for the Astronomy department and in 1935 he became the first Head of the Hayden Planetarium. In 1938 Fisher became the editor of The Sky, a magazine for amateur astronomers that was published from 1935 to 1941. (The Sky merged with The Telescope magazine in 1941, and remains in existence today as the Sky & Telescope publication.) In 1941 Fisher officially retired as Curator of Astronomy and the Hayden Planetarium, but was named Honorary Curator of the same department. Fisher remained connected with the museum, either as a staff member or lecturer, from 1913 until his passing.
Throughout his career Fisher displayed a remarkable interest in all aspects of scientific work. His breadth of knowledge was noted in a 1940 magazine article.
“Dr. Clyde Fisher, Curator-in-Chief of the Hayden Planetarium, may not be another Leonardo but he is surely a man of parts. In his time he has been a member of the Sioux Indian tribe, a college president, an astronomer, photographer, botanist, ornithologist, mammalogist, geologist, and paleontologist, and as a dabbler or specialist has been associated with every classification of scientific work conducted by the American Museum. . . .
As he looks back upon the years, Doctor Fisher does not regret that he took so long in settling upon a single specialization. Internationally famous as a great teacher and a pioneer in the broad field of visual instruction, he feels that his natural talent always has been that of the all-round naturalist. And though his contribution in weighty monographs are small, it can safely be said that he has brought the vast subject of Natural History in all its ramifications to the attention of a greater public than any research specialist could ever hope to do”
As the head of the Department of Education at the American Museum of Natural History, Fisher was considered a “true scientist with a great respect for scientific truth.” Using his background as a teacher, he worked tirelessly to educate the public, with a guiding belief that science should be fun.
“By personal choice, Fisher was a teacher and truly loved people. He especially loved children due to their thirst for knowledge and inquisitive nature. His greatest interest was in presenting the wonder and beauty of science in such a way that others would also share the feeling of fascination that he had. His greatest strength as a teacher was exhibited in his enthusiasm, knowledge, and sincere interest in the individuals he taught.
Seemingly with infinite patience, Fisher would take great care in explaining the intricacies of science and in answering any and all questions that came his way. He never seemed too busy to respond to an inquiry or to chat with members of the public about astronomy, even for many hours at a time.
As an educator, he was very progressive, and quite ahead of his colleagues in the field of education. His main philosophy was that learning about science was fun. He never considered his duties as a teacher and science lecturer a labor, but a joy.”
In the pursuit of science Fisher traveled extensively. He often visited the American Southwest to study the languages and customs of Native Americans. He has inspected meteor craters in Arizona, Kansas and Estonia. In 1922 he conducted an expedition to Arctic Lapland for the museum and visited Norway and Sweden, where he studied the educational systems of those countries and visited the Universities of Uppsala and Lund. In 1924 he conducted a photographic expedition to Bermuda, where he captured many images of angel fish and other rare specimens of fish. Later in 1924 Fisher and Carveth Wells journeyed to the little-known Sweden and Norwegian Lapland, never before crossed by any American or Englishman.
In 1925 Fisher traveled to Europe to tour a variety of astronomical museums and observatories, including the facilities at the University of Upsala, the Zeiss Planetarium at Jena, Germany and the observatory connected with the Vatican. In 1927 Fisher, along with Ernest Thompson Seton, a noted naturalist, toured several Native American reservations from North Dakota to Arizona. In 1930 he traveled to Iceland as a representative of the New York Bird and Tree Club, with the goal of donating 1,000 trees “to inaugurate a reforestation project as a part of the millennial celebration of the founding of the first parliament in the world.” After the Iceland portion of the trip, Fisher also visited Norway, Denmark and Sweden in order to take photographs on behalf of the American Museum for their educational work in the schools of New York City.
In 1936 he journeyed to the Ak-Bulak region of Siberia (modern day Kazakhstan) as a member of the joint Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology expedition to view the total eclipse of the sun. In 1937 Fisher served as the leader of the American Museum’s expedition to Peru to observe the total solar eclipse, the path of the Moon’s shadow and to record their scientific observations. In 1943 and 1944 he visited Mexico twice to study the volcano Paricutin from the ground and from the air.
Fisher was a friend and colleague of Albert Einstein, whom he believed to be one of the greatest astronomers and physicists of the word. Fisher often lectured about Einstein’s theory of relativity, stating in one such lecture that Einstein, who won the Nobel Prize in 1921, could have won the prestigious award for any one of three different accomplishments. Fisher wrote a book review of Einstein’s book The Meaning of Relativity, noting that “the only conception of the universe that can now be framed is a mathematical conception, and that after we have it, only a mathematician can understand it.”
Fisher was a contributor to the popular Information Please radio program, a popular quiz show that aired from 1938 to 1951. During the show a panel of well-known experts would attempt to answer a diverse set of questions submitted by listeners. Fisher would also contribute to the book version of the show titled Information Please Almanac.
In addition to his scientific endeavors, Fisher was also widely known as an accomplished photographer. His photographs were featured in many magazines, scientific journals and books, including several books about John Burroughs. Subjects included just about anything, including flowers, trees, landscapes, people, wildlife, scientific instruments and natural events. Throughout his career he would use the photographs and motion pictures created during his journeys to illustrate his instructional classes and public lectures.
The annual report of the American Museum of Natural History in 1956 notes that in the early 1920s “Clyde Fisher began making educational motion pictures of local small mammals and birds. His first such venture for the department was a film of the life of a gray squirrel. This and other films Fisher made were added to the Museum’s growing library of films. It is quite possible that Fisher’s film “The Gray Squirrel” was the first educational motion picture produced by any museum.”
Fisher would take many motion pictures as well as still photographs on many of his expeditions. He took 10,000 feet of motion pictures and some 500 still photographs during his 1924 expedition to Lapland.
“They made a valuable and most interesting record of the Lapps, with still and motion picture cameras, and their splendid observations upon the life of the nomadic tribes and the natural history of the beautiful northland were widely acclaimed on their return to civilization.
The expedition crossed the Arctic Circle into northern Scandinavia late in June, 1924, and remained in the Land of the Midnight Sun for a whole month. Dr. Fisher made 10,000 feet of motion pictures and some 500 still photographs, showing the summertime activities of the Lapps, including very unusual pictures of the snowy owl and other Arctic birds, of the midnight sun and of the lemmings in migration.
The explorers slept in the Lapp tents, ate rude fare of reindeer meat, fish and drank goats’ milk. They paid visits to the nomadic schools, and became friends with Turi, the only Lapp who has written a book.”
Fisher’s photograph of the January 24, 1925 solar eclipse was featured on the cover of the July-August 1926 issue of Natural History magazine. The photograph was taken from Jumel Mansion, near 160th Street, in New York City. Viewers above 96th Street witnessed a total solar eclipse, while those below 96th Street witnessed a partial eclipse. The photograph was taken with a Graflex camera with a Cooke lens, f 4.5, focal length 7 inches, stop f. 16, Kodak Cut Film. The exposure time was two seconds.
In the summer of 1927 Fisher took part in a three-month expedition to the American Southwest with Ernest Thompson Seton, famed naturalist, author, founder of the Woodcraft League (1902) and founder of the Boy Scouts of America (1910). During this trip Fisher shot a motion picture titled Camping Among the Indians, which captured a variety of Native American dances, sign language and cultural practices, as well as an intertribal ceremony. The footage from Camping Among the Indians was used by the American Museum of Natural History in its public programs in 1927 and 1928.
In 1932 Fisher shot a motion film titled Pottery Making in the Village of San Ildefonso, New Mexico. The film shows Maria Poveka Martinez (1887-1980) and her husband Julian Martinez (1897-1943), well-known potters that are credited with the rediscovery and revival of the ancient pottery techniques of their Native American ancestors.
In 1932 Fisher took several photographs that had never been accomplished before that time. In a plane piloted by Casey Jones, they “flew up above the clouds and observed the eclipse and photographed the shadow of the moon on the clouds below.” During the flight he “made several successful still-photographs of the partial phases of the eclipse with panchromatic plates, using the special Eastman filter, which was said to admit about one one-thousandth of the visible light . . . The thing we set out most determined to do was to photograph the oncoming shadow of the moon, since this had never been done before . . . We had a perfect opportunity to observe the phenomenon, and to see a total eclipse of the sun from above a continuous blanket of clouds, with no earth visible below, is an unforgettable experience. This most impressive spectacle, seen under these conditions, makes one realize the inadequacy of words.”
Fisher’s photograph of a flower from the Franklinia tree was featured on the cover of the October 1945 issue of Natural History magazine. The Franklinia tree, considered “one of those mysteries of botany in this country,” was discovered in 1765 by botanist John Bartram in Georgia along the Altamaha River. The tree was named Franklinia alatamaha in honor of Benjamin Franklin. (Alatamaha is the old spelling of Altamaha.)
The cover of the May 1949 issue of Natural History, published several months after Fisher’s passing, featured Fisher’s photograph of Chief Hind Bull. The photograph was taken at a place called Belly Buttes in Alberta Canada during the annual Sun Dance. In the photograph Chief Hind Bull wears “a typical war bonnet of the Blood Tribe, made of eagle feathers and tipped with horsehair. This spectacular headdress originated in this area among the division of Indians known as the Plains Indians. Only since the coming of the white man has the feather bonnet become symbolic, in the popular mind, with Indians in general. Chief Hind Bull was dressed for his Medicine Pipe Dance, a part of the greater Sun Dance Ceremonial. It was said that he gave away 22 horses and many other gifts on this occasion.”
Fisher authored countless essays, articles and books about nature. Some of his published books include Exploring the Heavens (1939), Astronomy (with Marian Lockwood, 1940), The One Volume Nature Encyclopedia (first published under the title Nature’s Secrets, 1940), the well-illustrated The Story of the Moon (1943) and a biography of John James Audubon titled The Life of Audubon (1949). Partnering with Marion Langham, Fisher published a series of six books intended for elementary school age children with titles that included Our Pets (1st grade, 1936), On the Farm (2nd grade, 1936), World of Nature (3rd grade, 1934), Ways of the Wild Folk (4th grade, 1934), Our Wonder World (5th grade, 1934) and In Field and Gardens (6th grade, 1934).
Fisher served as president of the New York Bird and Tree Club and was a fellow the New York Academy of Sciences. He was a member of the Explorers Club, the American Ornithologists Union, the Torrey Botany Club, the American Astronomical Society, the Linnaean Society, The American Society of Mammologists, among many other organizations. He was a member of several honorary fraternities, including Phi Beta Kappa and Tau Kappa Alpha. In 1926 he was awarded an honorary LL.D. degree by his alma mater, Miami University.
“I have played with a camera all my life – if any of my friends from western Ohio are here they will know that. When I got my camera I felt that if I could make one picture of John Burroughs I would be satisfied. I have made something like two hundred pictures of John Burroughs.” – Clyde Fisher
John Burroughs Providing for the Chipmunks, Roxbury, N.Y.
Born and raised in Roxbury, John Burroughs (1837-1921) would grow from his humble roots to become a famous author and naturalist. He authored 27 books that sold over 1 1/2 million copies as well as numerous magazine essays. Burroughs’ most popular writings became generally known as the nature essay. The nature essay relied on Burroughs’ astute observation of his natural surroundings. He took long walks in the woods, collected plant and animal specimens and read voraciously about nature. He would often write not about faraway places that few readers would ever see but about his immediate surroundings. Subjects would include flowers, trees, birds, country living, open fields, barns and barnyards and farm animals. He would write about long hiking trips and fly-fishing. Readers could individually relate to the subjects and his essays resonated with wide audiences. His literary prominence brought him the audience of John Muir, Walt Whitman, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and even President Theodore Roosevelt. While his fame has diminished over the past century since his death, his contribution to the literary arts and environmental conservation has ensured that his legacy will not be forgotten.
Upon the passing of John Burroughs in 1921 Fisher wrote a touching tribute to his friend titled “Reminiscences of John Burroughs.” The article was published in the March-April 1921 issue of Natural History. In the beginning of the article Fisher talks of his early impressions of Burroughs through his writing, and the privilege of meeting the famed author for the first time many years later.
“Some twenty years ago there fell into my hands the first volume of Mr. Burroughs’ essays that I had ever seen. It happened to be Signs and Seasons. I am now sure that the result would have been the same, had it been any other volume. The interest and charms that this book held for me prompted me to secure and read the others that he had written up to that time, and to be on the look-out for those that have come from his pen since. One cannot read any book by Mr. Burroughs without a feeling of affection for the author. He has put his lovable self into his essays in a way that few men of letters have succeed in doing.
As my interest and admiration grew, I ventured to hope that I might sometime have the privilege of knowing him personally. On my first visit to New York, eighteen years ago, what I wanted to do more than anything else was to visit the Sage of Slabsides. So I went up to Riverby, his home, which is situated on the west bank of the Hudson about eighty miles north of New York City. It will not be difficult to imagine my disappointment when I was informed by Mrs. Burroughs, who came to the door, that her husband had gone to Slide Mountain, the highest peak in the Catskills, and would not return for several days. I could not wait, so had to leave without seeing him. Like a thoughtless schoolboy, I had neglected to find out beforehand whether he would be at home and whether it would be convenient to have me call. However, I saw Riverby, the stone house, the building of which he described in the essay “Roof-Tree,” which is included in the first book of his that I had read. Here he makes us feel the joy he felt and the enthusiasm he had in building his home by the river.
It was not until after I joined the staff of the American Museum eight years ago, that I actually had the privilege of meeting the poet-naturalist, and later of visiting him at Riverby. This first visit was on a bright November day in 1915, an ideal day for such a pilgrimage. Mrs. Fisher and I were to be the guests of Dr. Clara Barrus, Mr. Burroughs’ physician and friend, while we visited our hero. Mr. and Mrs. Burroughs were then living in the stone house at Riverby, but were taking their meals with Dr. Barrus, who lived in The Nest on adjoining grounds. This cottage, which Dr. Barrus on making her home there had rechristened The Nest, had been built for Mr. Burroughs’ son, Julian. It is one of the most attractive little houses I have ever seen.”
Fisher also wrote of taking his first photograph of Burroughs at his Riverby estate.
“I had brought my camera hoping to get one picture of the great poet-naturalist. Before noon I started out to secure a few photographs about his home. First I undertook to make one of the Summer House on the banks of the Hudson just a few steps from the bark-covered Study between the stone house and the river. In this Summer House, which commands a wonderful view up and down the river, Mr. Burroughs used to sit by the hour during the warmer months of the year, reading or thinking out the essays he has given us. While focusing my camera on the Summer House, I was discovered by Mr. Burroughs, who appeared at the door of his Study, and after cordially greeting me, said, “I thought you might like to have me in the picture.” I was so delighted that I could hardly operate my Graflex camera. However, I made a picture of John of Birds examining a wren box on the big sugar maple by the Summer House, one of him standing in the door of the Study looking out over the Hudson, and one of him sitting by the fireplace in the Study. So, my wish was more than fulfilled on that first visit.”
During this first visit Burroughs and Fisher talked of both having grown up on a farm and of Fisher’s training as a botanist. Burroughs talked of the rare plants that grew in the area. They walked from Riverby to Slabsides, at a distance of 1 3/4 miles, with Burroughs occasionally stopping to “pluck a gorgeous leaf from a young oak tree, and, holding it up between his eye and the sun, and would comment on its beauty.” Burroughs told of John Muir, the naturalist of the Sierras, being one of the first visitors at Slabsides in 1897; and of their journeys together in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado and Yosemite. Burroughs gave a lively account of President Roosevelt visiting Slabsides in July 1903, proclaiming of his active nature, “There is no dead wood in Roosevelt.” Together Burroughs and Fisher were delighted “to find a wild flower in bloom so late in the fall – a little reddish-purple flower, the herb-robert.” As Burroughs bade Fisher farewell at the station at West Park on the evening of their first meeting Burroughs proclaimed “Whenever you want to come to Slabsides the key is yours!”
After this first meeting “Fisher was hooked not only because Burrough’s observations on flora and fauna always brought new knowledge and fresh insights but also because the author put so much of himself in his essays. In fact, Burroughs once told Fisher that literature is observation plus the man. That is why he replied to a friend who was urging him to write his autobiography ‘“My books are my autobiography.’”
In the years between that first meeting in 1915, when Burroughs was 78 years of age, and the passing of Burroughs in 1921, the friendship blossomed. Fisher frequently visited Burroughs at his Riverby home in West Park, at Slabsides, his writing retreat located one mile from Riverby, and at Woodchuck Lodge in Roxbury. Fisher was often accompanied by his wife Bessie during these visits. Fisher once estimated that he visited the rustic Slabsides cabin for two or three days at a time about twice a year since their first meeting.
John Burroughs at his Study, Riverby, West Park, New York
During one such visit to Slabsides, in November 1917, Fisher observed an interesting event involving the Dusky Salamander, an event that he afterwards summarized for a scientific magazine.
“After dark , on the night of November 25, 1917, I went to the spring to get a bucket of water, and when I returned to the light, I was surprised to find that I had dipped up two active immature salamanders. A few minutes later one of these was inadvertently poured out into a pan containing a little water, scarcely a half-inch deep, and allowed to remain in that all night. The next morning, the temperature having dropped to about 20 degrees F., the salamander was frozen solid in the ice – that is, the ice was apparently frozen solid all around it. But after we had started a fire in the fireplace and the room had warmed up a bit, the ice thawed out, and the salamander, as soon as it was free from its icy prison, was as lively as it was the evening before, seemingly unharmed by the experience. In fact, after the two specimens were again placed together in water, it was impossible to tell which had been encased in ice, as they were uniformly active and continued so during the several days that I kept them alive.”
In addition to his visits to Riverby and Slabsides, Fisher also affectionately recalled his visits to Woodchuck Lodge, located about 1/2 mile from Burroughs’ birthplace. During these visits Burroughs recalled his amazement at having observed his first warbler, and early fishing trips with his grandfather in Montgomery Hollow. They spoke of making maple sugar, the only farm task which appealed to Burroughs as a youth. On one of his visits Fisher observed the record Hubbard squashes grown by Burroughs on his farm, one of which was given to Thomas Edison. They spoke of the numerous woodchucks shot by Burroughs, from which he made rugs for his home, a coverlet for his bed on the sleeping porch and coats for himself and Dr. Barrus. Fisher, to his surprise, even learned to appreciate eating woodchuck with Burroughs. They listened to the bark of the red fox. Fisher observed the very cradle in which a young Burroughs had been rocked to sleep 80 years prior. Burroughs talked of the large-flowered white wake-robin which, with the help of Walt Whitman, became the title of his first book Wake-Robin in 1871. In summary of these visits Fisher wrote that “the visits that have meant the most to me have been subsequent ones. Perhaps the most inspiring have been those at Woodchuck Lodge . . .”
Fisher last visited with John Burroughs during the weekend of November 6-8, 1920, almost an exact anniversary of his first visit with Burroughs in 1915. During this visit
“We camped in Slabsides, and on the second day (November 7) Mr. Burroughs ate his midday meal and spent several hours with us. He cooked one of his favorite brigand steaks for luncheon – the last he ever cooked at Slabsides. While preparing the steak, we talked about his latest book, Accepting the Universe, which had appeared a little while before. He told me of a number of letters he had received concerning it, and that two or three preachers had thanked him warmly for writing such a book.
On the afternoon of that day, I made what proved to be the last photographs of him at Slabsides. In fact, he visited Slabsides only once after this date. We found the herb-robert in bloom near by, as we found it on my first visit. We also found the climbing fumitory or mountain fringe and the witchhazel in bloom.
When he left Slabsides toward evening, we walked with him to the bend of the road in the hemlocks, and there bade him good-bye. Little did we think that this would be the last time we would see him alive. While we shall not be able to talk with him again, or to shake his hand, or to look into his honest gray-blue eyes, he still lives in our hearts. The spirit of John Burroughs will live on.”
John Burroughs would die less than five months later on March 29, 1921 during his return trip from spending the winter in California. Funeral services, conducted by Reverend Franklin D. Elmer, were held at Riverby on Saturday, April 2, 1921 and were attended by approximately 150 people including Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone. In his prayer for Burroughs, Elmer eloquently spoke “There are here to pay tribute those who come from the woodlands and the fields, the shop and office, the church and state and from shore to shore. This man, O Lord, has taught us the beauty of your creation, of the rivers, the valleys, the skies, the birds and the animals.”
Burroughs was buried the following day on what would have been his 84th birthday. His grave is beautifully situated next to his beloved Boyhood Rock of his youth near Woodchuck Lodge at Roxbury, New York.
John Burroughs and "Cuff" at Burroughs' Birthplace, Roxbury, N.Y.
Over the years Fisher took numerous photographs at Woodchuck Lodge, at Riverby and at Slabsides. The photographs included portraits and candid shots of Burroughs as well as architectural images of the buildings so closely associated with the writer. Some of the images were published as postcards that were sold to the public. One album of 94 gelatin silver prints is in the possession of the Library of Congress. This album includes photos of Burroughs, with some photos also including Fisher and his wife Bessie, at Riverby and at Slabsides.
Woodchuck Lodge was built in the early 1860s by Curtis Burroughs, John’s older brother, and is located on the southern slope of Old Clump Mountain near Roxbury on the property where Burroughs grew up as a child. Woodchuck Lodge was Burroughs summer home from 1910 until his death in 1921. Upon his passing, Burroughs’ close friend, Henry Ford, purchased the property, likely in order to help preserve it. Today, the lodge is owned by a nonprofit community preservation organization and is open to the public on select summer weekends. Located adjacent to the Woodchuck Lodge property is the John Burroughs Memorial Field State Historic Site, the final resting place for John Burroughs. Woodchuck Lodge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Riverby (pronounced River bee), a 9-acre property located in the community of West Park on the banks of the Hudson River, was purchased by Burroughs in 1873. Burroughs constructed a three-story house here that would remain his permanent residence for the remainder of his life. The property included a small separate building known as “The Study,” where Burroughs wrote extensively between 1881 and 1895. Books written here included Fresh Fields (1884), Signs and Seasons (1886), Indoor Studies (1889) and Riverby (1894). “The Study” at Riverby is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The rustic cabin known as Slabsides was constructed by Burroughs in 1895 about one mile west of his home at Riverby in Ulster County, New York. Burroughs used Slabsides, named for its bark-covered siding, as a summer residence and as a retreat from the obligations that his fame called for. He wrote many books here, including Whitman: A Study (1896), Far and Near (1904) and The Way Nature (1905), as well as other articles and essays. Burroughs entertained many famous visitors at Slabsides, including John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt.
After the passing of Burroughs, Henry Ford, in 1923, purchased the nine acres surrounding Slabsides and donated them to the newly created John Burroughs Memorial Association. Additional lands were added to the property over time. Today Slabsides is located on the 170-acre John Burroughs Sanctuary which, in addition to the cabin, offers miles of quiet, scenic hiking trails. The Sanctuary grounds are open year-round while Slabsides is open twice a year for Slabsides Day. Visit the John Burroughs Association website at www.johnburroughsassociation.org for more information. The historic cabin is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Boyhood Rock, located at the John Burroughs Memorial State Historic Site in Roxbury, is located on the family farm where Burroughs grew up. He would spend hours upon the sandstone rock gazing out over the farm, fields and mountains. It was perhaps his favorite place in the world. As per his last wishes Burroughs is buried in his final resting place only feet away from “the big rock in the pasture”: “Here I climbed at sundown when a boy to rest from work and play, and to listen to the vesper sparrow sing, and here I hope to rest when my work and play are over – when the sun goes down – here by boyhood rock.”
The bronze plaque attached to Boyhood Rock includes a wonderful engraving of Burroughs sitting upon the rock gazing upon the beautiful scenery. The engraving is an interpretation of a nearly life size bronze statue of John Burroughs created in 1918 by well-known sculptor Cartaino di Sciarrino Pietro. The original bronze statue is located at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, having been dedicated on the officially proclaimed “Burroughs Day” in 1918 during a ceremony attended by thousands. The Boyhood Rock plaque also includes a brief excerpt from his famous “Waiting” poem: “I stand amid eternal ways, and what is mine shall know my face.”
Upon the passing of Burroughs, his dear friend Fisher reflected that “My privilege of knowing him has meant more to me than knowing any one else that I can think of. No one could know him without loving him. Like all great men, his outstanding characteristics were his simplicity, genuineness and naturalness. As an interpreter of nature, it is hard to estimate what he has meant to the people of this country.”
In honor of his close friend Fisher frequently lectured about his life and work. Fisher traveled across the country with presentations titled “With John Burroughs at Slabsides,” “John Burroughs and His Birds,” and perhaps the most popular “With John Burroughs in his Favorite Haunts.” He lectured in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Missouri, South Carolina, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Texas, among many other states.
In October 1927, at the meeting of the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, Fisher presented “With John Burroughs in his Favorite Haunts.” The presentation was illustrated with a large number of color lantern slides.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, Members of the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society:
It is a privilege and an honor to be welcomed back to my home State, and to speak before this Society this afternoon.
I do not intent to try to talk about the literature that John Burroughs produced; except casually. It was my privilege to know John Burroughs a great many years. In fact, I began correspondence with him when I was a boy on a farm in western Ohio more than twenty-five years ago. I later knew him personally, and had the privilege of visiting him, during his last years, in his various haunts.
It will be my plan to bring before you, if I can, John Burroughs the man, John Burroughs the very human man. To know John Burroughs was to love him. I have been told by his publishers, who also publish the works of other eminent naturalists, that many more copies of Burroughs’ books have been sold than of the others. I do not wish to make comparisons, and I do not mean to say that John Burroughs knew more about animals, birds, and nature than the others. John Burroughs was not an encyclopedia, a walking dictionary of facts. John Burroughs was, first, a man and, second, a naturalist. Mr. Burroughs said that man can have but one interest in nature – to see himself interpreted there. I think he might have extended that statement to literature and art, as well as nature. He is the great interpretive naturalist for us.
His friends urged him to write his autobiography, and he said “my books are my autobiography,” and I think that is true. Mr. Burroughs was better able to put himself into his books than most of our men of letters. He wrote with a simplicity of style that makes us forget the style. We read John Burroughs; his essays read so smoothly that we do not realize how much hard work has gone into the making of his books. One critic said, “John Burroughs writes with a style that we all feel we can go home and imitate, but we can’t.” I consider myself fortunate in the opportunity to know John Burroughs. His first book was written when Abraham Lincoln was President. He continued writing until 1921, the year of his death . . .”
Fisher wrote of the impact that Burroughs had on conservation, “perhaps not much directly, for he was no preacher or propagandist,” but through his observations and writings. Burroughs, as a “literary naturalist,” opened “the eyes of his readers to the beauty of nature, especially of nature near at hand.” Fisher observed that “the great conservationists of wild life in this and other countries have been naturalists, those who have really been interested in the wildflowers and the trees, the birds and other animals. And this was to be expected. How could it be otherwise?”
Fisher also quoted a letter from Frank Chapman about the impact that Burroughs had on the public. “John Burroughs, as a widely read literary naturalist, did more to arouse an interest in nature than any other writer of his generation. Much of his work was based on original observation; his standards were high and were never sacrificed to popular demands.”
Fisher, along with several associates, also quickly established the John Burroughs Memorial Association upon the death of their friend. The association, with its headquarters located at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, sought to preserve the places most closely associated with the writings of the poet-naturalist, including Slabsides, Woodchuck Lodge, Memorial Field and Riverby. Fisher served as president of the association, which also included noted dignitaries such as Mrs. Henry Ford; Mrs. Thomas Edison; Judge A. T. Clearwater; Hamlin Garland, noted writer; Carl E. Akeley, noted naturalist and explorer; W. Ormiston Roy; and Kermit Roosevelt, son of President Teddy Roosevelt. The association continues to operate today, the name having been changed in the 1960s to the John Burroughs Association (JBA) as it sought to expand its mission. More information about the society and its mission can be found at: www.johnburroughsassociation.org.
In 1931, ten years after his passing, the American Museum of Natural History held John Burroughs week, which included displays of manuscripts, portraits and other memorabilia. As part of the event Fisher discussed his high opinion of the poet-naturalist.
“Burroughs was no scientist, but he had an extraordinary gift for interpreting natural history, for conveying his own enthusiasm in such terms that it could not only be understood but shared by everybody, no matter how little the reader might know about the subject to begin with. He interested more people in the subject than Thoreau and Muir combined.
He maintained that man sought and saw Nature in terms of himself. And it was in those terms that he interpreted what he saw. He had a genius for the exact word, the word that would make you see with absolute vividness his picture of outdoor life.”
As part of the John Burroughs Memorial Association or the Torrey Botanical Club Fisher would often lead trips to Slabsides and surrounding area. In 1930 a large group of 171 people journeyed to Slabsides. The group made pen holders out of the stalk of the cattail plant which grew along the edges of the Slabsides swamp (as Burroughs had so often done), dined on the celery grown on the property for lunch and heard from Julian Burroughs about how he had found the Slabsides location while hunting as a young boy and how important the location was to his father. Fisher talked about the group of 12 Burroughs’ lovers who had visited Slabsides on April 3, 1921 following the funeral services for Burroughs. Other speakers, including Clara Barrus, biographer of Burroughs, read from his writings and Reverend C. Hazeltine Osborne gave a speech titled “Religion of John Burroughs” which discussed “the permanence of Burroughs’ place in the literature of nature and the analysis of Burroughs’ philosophy of life.”
In 1933 Fisher led a group of 25 people on a field trip to the cabin. The group visited Julian’s Point, walked in the woods and along Black Creek and, with the permission of Julian Burroughs, visited Riverby and the Study. In 1948, at the age of 70, and only a year before his passing, Fisher was still leading annual pilgrimages to the rustic cabin. In May of that year a group of 30 people identified over 150 species of plants in the area, while the October visit also included the reading of parts of John Burrough’s essays that related to Slabsides.
In 1937, 16 years after the death of Burroughs, Clyde Fisher, as president of the John Burroughs Memorial Association, was the guest speaker at a celebration held at Hartwick College to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of John Burroughs. Fisher talked of their time together and about the writings of Burroughs. A few of his anecdotal comments included:
“John Burroughs’ books are his own autobiography and in them he places his character and knowledge . . .
Take your first step in John Burroughs’ books and you will have a ticket to the whole shelf . . .
Burroughs was called John O’Birds because of his intense interest in them and his love for their habits. Read his books and you will have a complete picture of Burroughs the man and the poet.”
As part of the ceremony Burroughs was honored as the first inductee into the Hall of Fame at Hartwick College. Events included a trip to Woodchuck Lodge at Roxbury, followed by an elaborate luncheon. Over 500 people attended the day’s events.
In a Natural History magazine profile of Fisher published in 1940 titled “He Brought the Stars to America” it was noted that Fisher “considers his long friendship with that beloved interpreter of Nature, John Burroughs, to be one of the most important influencers of his entire career.”
Farida A. Wiley: Grand Birder of Central Park
“Miss Wiley taught people to make a connection with the world, to look up, and out, beyond themselves . . . She had led an extraordinary life, and was a woman of uncommon character, a product of the 19th century who seemed to have drawn her identity not from movies and magazines but from a clear sense of purpose, her calling as a teacher.”
The deep admiration of John Burroughs and his writings spread from Clyde Fisher to his extended family. Farida A. Wiley, Clyde’s sister-in-law, compiled a book titled John Burroughs’ America, a book with a carefully curated selection of Burroughs’ most popular and enjoyable passages.
In the foreword of John Burroughs’ America, Julian Fisher, son of John Burroughs, writes: “The purpose of this present volume is to gather into one book selections from a variety of his works. Miss Wiley is well fitted for this task. She is not only an expert ornithologist and botanist herself but also has a wide knowledge of the literature of natural history, and knew Father [Burroughs] and much of the country he roamed. She was one of the few guests invited to attend his burial services and went with the group up to Slabsides afterwards, where the organization of a John Burroughs Association was discussed. This group was formed in 1921. Miss Wiley has been a director for many years and is Secretary-Treasurer at the present time.”
In the introduction of John Burroughs’ America Wiley talks of her visits with Burroughs.
“It was my own good fortune to spend many delightful days at Slabsides, together with my sister [Bessie] and her family. We were with John Burroughs on one of the very last days he ever spent there. On this particular occasion he cooked a “brigand steak” for us over an outdoor fire. Here is how he did it: he would find a green twig of sugar maple or black birch, remove the bark, and sharpen one end so meat and onions could be easily pierced. He would alternate on the stick a piece of steak about one inch square with a piece of bacon and a slice of young onion, repeating the process. Resting the end of the stick on the rocks, back of the bed of coals, he would turn it slowly over the fire till done. Then he would serve it between slices of bread or in a roll. He would usually observe, as he slowly revolved the skewer, “It takes all the conceit out of the onion when you cook it.”
The brigand steak that John Burroughs cooked for us that day was his last at Slabsides. A few days later, in September 1920, he left for California. He passed away during the return journey on March 29, 1921.”
Farida A. Wiley (1887-1986), like her brother-in-law Clyde Fisher, worked at the American Museum of Natural History, getting her start in 1919 as a part-time botany teacher for blind children. She would rise to become a well-respected teacher and director of various educational programs. In addition to teaching at the museum, she also taught at Pennsylvania State College, the Audubon Camp in Main and at a New York University branch on Long Island.
As a self-taught naturalist she would become a recognized expert about birds, plants, trees and wildlife. Wiley, as author or editor, had six books to her credit, including Ferns of the Camp Wigwam Region (1928), Ferns of Northeastern United States (1936), John Burroughs’ America (1951), The Story of Landscape (1952), Ernest Thompson Seton’s America (1954) and Theodore Roosevelt’s America (1962). She was perhaps most well-known for her early morning naturalist tours through Central Park. She worked at the museum as a full-time staff member for over 60 years.
“To be learned is an accomplishment; to be lovable is a gift. When both characteristics are so combined in one man that all who even know about him admire and love him, surely greatness is nearly attained. Such a man undoubtedly was Dr. Clyde Fisher . . .”
Before having met Burroughs in person Clyde Fisher stated that he felt that he knew John Burroughs through his writings. And although Fisher only had a personal connection with Burroughs in the twilight of his life for six years from 1915 to 1921, his photographs and reminiscences of his time spent with Burroughs adds much to the history of Catskills. Fisher’s photographs intimately capture the man and the places most associated with his naturalist writings.
George Clyde Fisher passed away at New York City on January 7, 1949 after a lengthy illness. Memorial services were held at the Little Church Around the Corner in New York. His body was cremated and is buried at Graceland Cemetery in Sidney, Ohio. He was survived by his wife Te Ata and several brothers and sisters. The engraving on Fisher’s gravestone reads “He has loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night,” which was written by Sarah Williams (1837-1868) as part of her popular poem “The Old Astronomer.”
Barton, D. R. “He Brought the Stars to America.” Natural History. Vol. 46, no. 1. June, 1940. pp. 59-63.
Fisher, Clyde, and Clark Wissler. “Indian Pottery Making in the Village of San Ildefonso,
New Mexico.” New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1932.
Fisher, G. Clyde. “John Burroughs and Conservation.” Bird-Lore. Vol. 39, no. 2. March-April 1937. pp. 115-117.
Fisher, G. Clyde. “Reminiscences of John Burroughs.” Natural History. Vol. 21, no. 2. March-April 1921. pp. 113-125.
Fisher, G. Clyde. “The Optimistic Philosophy of a Naturalist.” Natural History. Vol. 20. New York: The American Museum of Natural History, 1920. pp. 572-573.
Fisher, Clyde. “Visits to John Burroughs at Slabsides.” The Slabsides Book of John Burroughs. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1931. pp. 103-119.
Fisher, G. Clyde. “With John Burroughs in His Favorite Haunts.” Ohio Archaeological and Historical Society Publications. Vol. 36. Columbus, Ohio: Fred J. Heer, 1927. pp. 676-683.
Green, Richard. Te Ata, Chickasaw Storyteller, American Treasure. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.
Huddle, Rev. W. D. History of the Descendants of John Hottel. Strasburg, Virginia: Shenandoah Publishing House, Inc., 1930.
Wallace, Rich. “Sidney Man Touches the Last Frontier.” Shelby County Historical Society. www.shelbycountyhistory.org. July, 1999. Accessed February 19, 2023.
Zacharoff, Lucien. “Made Astronomy Popular.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York). November 4, 1928.
 Kieran, John. “Memorials. Dr. Clyde Fisher.” Proceedings of the Linnaean Society of New York. Nos. 58-62. 1945-1950. pp. 76-78.
 “Harrison Jay Fisher.” Signs of the Times. Vol. 78, no. 5. March 1, 1910. p. 156.
 “Aged Resident of County Dies After Illness.” Sidney Daily News (Sidney, Ohio). September 10, 1936.
 Zacharoff, Lucien. “Made Astronomy Popular.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York). November 4, 1928.
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 Barton, D. R. “He Brought the Stars to America.” Natural History. Vol. 46, no. 1. June, 1940. p. 63.
 Fisher, Clyde. “The Meaning of Relativity.” Natural History. September 1945. p. 296.
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 Zacharoff, Lucien. “Made Astronomy Popular.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York). November 4, 1928.
 Fisher, Clyde. “The Eclipse From Above the Clouds.” Popular Astronomy. Vol. 40. pp. 467-469.
 “The Cover This Month.” Natural History. Vol. 54, No. 8. October, 1945.
 “The Cover This Month.” Natural History. Vol. 58, No. 5. May, 1949.
 Fisher, G. Clyde. “With John Burroughs in His Favorite Haunts.” Ohio Archaeological and Historical Society Publications. Vol. 36. Columbus, Ohio: Fred J. Heer, 1927. p. 677.
 Fisher, G. Clyde. “Reminiscences of John Burroughs.” Natural History. Vol. 21, no. 2. March-April 1921. p. 113.
 Fisher, G. Clyde. “Reminiscences of John Burroughs.” Natural History. Vol. 21, no. 2. March-April 1921. p. 114.
 Fisher, Clyde. “Visits to John Burroughs at Slabsides.” The Slabsides Book of John Burroughs. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1931. p. 115.
 Green, Richard. Te Ata, Chickasaw Storyteller, American Treasure. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002. p. 115.
 Fisher, G. Clyde. “Notes on the Dusky Salamander.” Copeia. No. 58. June 18, 1918. p. 65.
 Fisher, G. Clyde. “Reminiscences of John Burroughs.” Natural History. Vol. 21, no. 2. March-April 1921. p. 121.
 Fisher, G. Clyde. “Reminiscences of John Burroughs.” Natural History. Vol. 21, no. 2. March-April 1921. p. 125.
 “Throng Honors Burroughs at Last Services.” New York Tribune. April 3, 1921.
 Barrus, Clara. John Burroughs: Boy and Man. Doubleday, Page & Company, New York, 1920. p. 47.
 “John Burroughs, Naturalist, Dead.” New York Evening Post. March 29, 1921. p. 7.
 Fisher, G. Clyde. “With John Burroughs in His Favorite Haunts.” Ohio Archaeological and Historical Society Publications. Vol. 36. Columbus, Ohio: Fred J. Heer, 1927. pp. 676-677.
 Fisher, G. Clyde. “John Burroughs and Conservation.” Bird-Lore. Vol. 39, no. 2. March-April 1937. p. 115.
 Fisher, G. Clyde. “John Burroughs and Conservation.” Bird-Lore. Vol. 39, no. 2. March-April 1937. p. 115.
 Fisher, G. Clyde. “John Burroughs and Conservation.” Bird-Lore. Vol. 39, no. 2. March-April 1937. p. 115.
 “Naturalists Honor Burroughs As Work Is Shown at Museum.” New York Evening Post. March 31, 1931. p. 3.
 “Pilgrimage to Burroughs’ Old Slabsides Camp.” Kingston Daily Freeman (Kingston, New York). October 20, 1930.
 “Burroughs Described as Man of Humor and Integrity by Hayden Planetarium Curator.” The Binghamton Press. April 3, 1937. p. 16.
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 Brown, Chip. “Miss Wiley, Grand Birder of Central Park.” The Washington Post. December 26, 1986.
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 Wiley, Farida A. John Burroughs’ America. New York: Devin-Adair Company, 1967. p. xiii.
 “Pruett, J. Hugh. “Dr. Fisher A Brilliant, Lovable Man.” Argus-Leader (Sioux Falls, South Dakota). March 13, 1949.