Historical Society’s 2022 annual meeting goes to the birds – and historic birders

A stranger who wandered unaware into the Bulloch County Historical Society’s 2022 annual meeting, over lunch Monday, might have thought it was a bird watchers club or ornithological society gathering instead.

Before it was over, avian calls ranging from a Carolina wren’s “teakettle, teakettle, teakettle” to the black-bellied whistling duck’s whistle echoed from the Pittman Park United Methodist Church social hall. But first, more than 100 Historical Society members and guests heard about internationally recognized bird scholars, dating back to the 1700s, who migrated through the region, some becoming residents, and one early 20th century Statesboro birder who camped with some of the most famous Americans of his time but left a tarnished legacy.

Brent Tharp, Ph.D., director of the Georgia Southern University Museum and again the Bulloch County Historical Society’s vice president, and Diana Churchill, author of the long-running “Birder’s Eye View” column in the Savannah Morning News and two birding books , presented a two-part audiovisual program called “The Wildlife About Our Cabins: RJH DeLoach, Burroughs and Georgia Birding.”

Giving the historical portion of the talk, Tharp began by noting ways that past Native American inhabitants of the region used bird imagery in their rituals and art.

Then as “early ornithologists of Georgia” he cited Mark Catesby, 1683-1749, an English naturalist who set up base a few miles south of what is now Augusta, Georgia in 1723 while making observations and drawings for his “Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands”; William Bartram, 1739-1823, the renowned Philadelphia naturalist, who visited Georgia, documenting its birds and other wildlife, more than once; and John Abbott, 1751-1840.

Abbott, whom Tharp called “Georgia’s first really resident ornithologist,” was born in England but immigrated to America, came to Georgia in 1776 and eventually made his home in Bulloch County. Although best known today as an entomologist, Abbot was also a keen observer and documenter of birds.

“Today in fact, in Europe and America there are several collections of his paintings of Georgia birds, most importantly the set in the British Museum of Natural History, which consists of over 200 watercolors accompanied by his handwritten texts on their lifestyles and his observations, Tharp said.

Burroughs and DeLoach

But the period Tharp explored in greatest detail was the late 19th and early 20th century, when Bulloch County native Robert John Henderson DeLoach befriended John Burroughs, one of the most famous naturalists of the time, and went on highly publicized trips with Burroughs, Henry Ford , Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone. Years later, while a professor in Statesboro at South Georgia Teachers College, now Georgia Southern University, DeLoach became one of the founders and an early president of the Georgia Ornithological Society.

Born in 1873, RJH DeLoach graduated from the University of Georgia in 1898 and received a master’s degree in 1906. Early on he taught in Swainsboro and also at American Indian schools in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and was briefly principal of Statesboro High School.

In 1908, he was hired by the University of Georgia as a botanist and Agricultural Extension Service director. DeLoach authored a book on agriculture for schools, and in 1913 moved to Chicago to serve as a director of agricultural research for Armor & Company.

He became a nationally recognized expert on cotton cultivation and returned to Statesboro as a professor in 1931 or 1932.

“But it was his extraordinary relationship with naturalist and essayist John Burroughs that most changed Deloach’s life. John Burroughs, again, was in the late 19th and early 20th century, among the most respected and popular American naturalists and essayists,” Tharp said. “His work was critical to establishing the conservation movement in the United States.”

DeLoach wrote that he was very young when he discovered Burroughs’ first book of nature essays, “Wake-Robin,” published in 1871, and that it “made a bird lover” out of him. Burroughs gave him “new eyes with which to see, new ears with which to hear and a new heart with which to love God’s great outdoors,” he wrote.

By DeLoach’s own account, his personal association with Burroughs began with correspondence about a poem in 1906. Burroughs invited DeLoach to visit his home in West Park, New York, and DeLoach was also introduced to Burrough’s cabin in the woods, called Slabsides, where he did much of his writing.

Later, DeLoach built a “sylvan retreat” of his own, a cabin he called Beechwood, on a bluff overlooking Mill Creek in Bulloch County.

The Vagabonds

Beginning in 1916, Burroughs, Ford, Firestone and Edison, labeled “the Vagabonds,” went on a series of highly publicized camping excursions by automobile caravan, continued by the others for a few years after Burroughs death in 1921.

“These were holidays, yes, but they were mostly carefully planned publicity stunts carried out before a press corps that followed the men from stop to stop and talked every evening with them,” Tharp said.

DeLoach was invited along on the trips in 1916 and 1918. The one in 1918 drew the most attention, as the men traveled from Maryland to Georgia and back along the Blue Ridge. Five “helpers” assisted with chores such as setting up tents, and a chef with fine hotel credentials prepared meals, DeLoach wrote. But Tharp noted that the famous men posed for photographs “roughing it,” doing things such as chopping wood.

He displayed a photograph from the Henry Ford Museum’s collection showing DeLoach and industrialist EN Hurley with Ford, Edison, Firestone and Burroughs on the 1918 journey.

Backyard sanctuaries

Eighteen years later, Dec. 13, 1936, DeLoach was one of 22 people who met in Atlanta to form the Georgia Ornithological Society. In 1939 he was elected its president, and wrote in the society’s newsletter, The Oriole, that one of his goals was “to induce the public to convert back yards into bird sanctuaries” providing food, even chicken feed or “a sprinkling of hominy grits ” and selected plants.

“The new friends that we make daily will repay us in music and all kinds of comedy for the money that we invest in bird food,” DeLoach wrote. “The new songs that come into our sanctuary from day to day will soon be as familiar to us as any of our human friends.”

He turned the grounds of his Savannah Avenue home into a bird sanctuary and hosted the Ornithological Society’s third annual meeting in Statesboro, with programs at the college on Saturday, dinner at the Jaeckel Hotel that night and breakfast Sunday morning at Beechwood.

DeLoach also established, in 1933, the college’s first museum. In addition to historical relics and pottery, it included an exhibit of more than 400 birds of the region and was open to the public, Tharp noted campus from a George-Anne newspaper article of the period.

‘A legacy lost’

But today’s GS Museum director had wondered why, despite all of DeLoach’s accomplishments and recognition in his day, no building, room or program on campus bears his name. The answer was DeLoach’s role in racist politics in the late 1930s and early 1940s when Gov. Eugene Talmadge sought to drive officials who might favor the desegregation of colleges out of the University System of Georgia.

Talmadge had Walter Cocking fired as dean of the College of Education at the University of Georgia in 1941, and then fired Marvin Pittman as president of what by then was Georgia Teachers College for expressing support for Cocking. Pittman was later reinstated after Georgia’s state colleges lost accreditation.

“Unfortunately, DeLoach’s legacy was ultimately destroyed over his inability to overcome his deep prejudice and his poorly chosen alliance with white supremacist and demagogue governor Eugene Talmadge,” Tharp said.

DeLoach supplied Talmadge “with wild accusations and lies that were used to purge Marvin Pittman and others from their positions at the college,” Tharp said. “When Talmadge was finally removed from office and Marvin Pittman was reinstated, DeLoach saw the writing on the wall and retired.”

He lived until 1964.

Birdsongs heard

Diana Churchill, whose books are “Birder’s Eye View: Savannah & the Lowcountry,” and “Birder’s Eye View II: The Lowcountry” then displayed dozens of her photographs of birds, some of which migrate through the area, while others are year-round residents.

These were preceded by audio of the birds’ songs, as she asked the audience to identify each species. Those who watched and listened closely now know a house finch from a purple finch and the call of a chuck-will’s-widow from that of a whippoorwill.

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