John James Audubon China Cup, Formerly at Mill Grove, by Tasha O’Neill
On a scintillating autumnal Sunday, two Princeton friends and I recently crossed the Delaware, then the Schuylkill Rivers, on pilgrimage to John James Audubon’s first American home — Mill Grove.
Mill Grove, by Tasha O’Neill
Over near Valley Forge, this mansion (referred to as ‘farm home and barn’ in professional literature) presides high on a wooded slope over Perkiomen Creek. In these woods, John James Audubon, fresh from Napoleonic France, encountered and grew enchanted by the birds and animals of his new country.
Birds as Audubon Painted Them, formerly at Mill Grove, by Tasha O’Neill
One of our first (and often controversial) naturalists, this man remains our most superb avian artist. No one equals his composition, exact depictions of vital habitat, even drama.
Chair of Audubon’s Era, Formerly at Mill Grove — Tasha O’Neill
One autumn, in a cave on the property, this young man tied silver threads onto phoebe legs, America’s first bird-banding. He would watch in delight as the migratory silver-marked pair returned the following spring.
Here the graceful Frenchman successfully courted neighbor Lucy Bakewell, his lifelong love. As his wife, through her gifted piano teaching, Lucy supported John James throughout major physical and financial perils. Without her loyalty and persistence, letters of encouragement, and financial acumen, we would not have the spectacular The Birds of America. This double-elephant folio edition, in which John James rendered birds life-size, was engraved and hand-painted by brilliant colorists in London between 1826 and 1839.
Ice Skates of Audubon Era, Tasha O’Neill
Each set cost $1000, by subscription, in 1827-1839. Each set is, today, beyond price. One resides at Mill Grove, glowing like crown jewels in its locked glass case.
After John James’ (to me premature) death, Lucy went on to found the society we know as Audubon. She dared protest and bring to a stop the killing of birds to decorate hats, dresses. suits, and fill curio cases, of women of her time. With this petite, determined woman, preservation took a giant and reverberant leap.
Strung Eggs and Sketches, Formerly at Mill Grove, Tasha O’Neill
Mill Grove is a dreamy place, suffused with river mists, dappled by lofty trees. My hiking and birding friends and I began our Sunday visit with a peaceful interlude on what had been the front (waterway-facing) porch. Rocking, as John James may have, we scanned woods, water and horizon for winged creatures. After our long [Pennsylvania Turnpike] journey, we were granted timeless contentment. On John James’ porch, we were transported far from 21st-century strife.
Somewhere on the property are remnants of the lead and copper mine to which this young man was consigned as manager by his father back in Napoleon’s France. My theory is that the lad’s arrival on these shores was to keep him out of the Emperor’s ‘hands’ and armies.
Reading of Audubon’s voyages in quest of bird, and later of mammal subjects for The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, it’s clear that this man required the outdoors. It’s hard to imagine that immigrant, –famous for silks, satins and skating–, spending significant time in a lead and copper mine. As a manager, here and in Kentucky, he was not a success. But his images of birds and their habitat have never been surpassed.
Fireplace, Mill Grove, Audubon Bedroom, Tasha O’Neill
We were warmly welcomed in the outstanding gift shop; questions answered as needed before, during and after our visit; treated to a lively video setting the stage for Audubon’s Mill Grove existence. Particularly helpful is Nancy Powell, Senior Curator. Their Staff will even advise and/or send restaurant and hotel information (two excellent choices mere blocks from Mill Grove’s gate.) We came home with books, Audubon note cards, and handsome items of clothing, some portion of which sales support the Center’s preservation and education mission.
Former Set-Up of Audubon Bedroom, Mill Grove Tasha O’Neill
Many programs are run in all seasons to educate and delight the public. HIkes, lectures, Important Bird Area programs, Backyard Birding presentations, even birding-by-canoe on the Perkiomen, are among the possibilities. If I lived nearer, I would be at Mill Grove every month. They also present sequential art exhibitions by nature artists of today.
Tasha O’Neil’s splendid interior pictures render scenes from our early springtime visit some years ago. Photographs are not permitted inside, because of the fragile nature of this superb art. So I cannot give you my scenes of Sunday’s riveting interior experience.
Mill Grove literature informs that, due to a series of owners, nothing at Mill Grove actually belonged to Audubon. Today’s interior rooms are not set up as they were when Tasha and I were there, officially, for a journalistic assignment, with permission to photograph. The artist’s presence, however, remains palpable throughout.
This week, we were all enthralled with this aura, as well as the Center’s informative and even playful artistic and scientific displays on three floors.
Lively murals tell the story of Audubon’s travels in search of knowledge and images, painted by Philadelphia artists George Harding and John Hanlen in the 1950’s.
Kentucky Scenes, Upstairs Mural, Tasha O’Neill
The property belonged to the Herbert J. Wetherill family, until transferred to Montgomery County, PA, in 1951. “The Audubon Shrine and Wildlife Sanctuary” was rechristened “The John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove,” “a Montgomery-County-owned historic site under the daily management of the National Audubon Society”, in 2003.
Raptor and Large Strung (Turkey) Eggs by Tasha O’Neill
On Tasha’s and my visit, we were so enthralled by interior ‘richesse’, that we never had time for a hike. This time, we purposely accomplished the aesthetic/historic and the natural. We enjoyed dappled interludes in woods John James would have explored, although not on trails!
As birders, it’s gratifying to know that birds who had been injured and rehabilitated are utilized for teaching by the Audubon Center. Staff and volunteers have been precisely trained to care for and handle these birds, brought to them by licensed rehabilitators. Schools and other public settings are the richer for these avian experiences.
Tasha O’Neill Former Scene, Mill Grove, Turkey, Eggs, and Sketch
It is sobering though, –walking the woods between John’s and Lucy’s homes (though still present, hers is not open to the public–), to consider the significance of Mill Grove’s woods, waters and creatures. Without this site, the world have been denied John James’ spectacular art and natural history.
Species thriving today could well have vanished with the dodo and the passenger pigeon, were it not for the love of John James’ life, Lucy Bakewell Audubon.
John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove
Museum and Gift Shop Hours
Closed Mondays and Major Holidays
1201 Pawlings Road
Audubon, PA 19403
Post a comment