Audubon History

Moving into the next century

A news item in Frank Chapman’s publication, Bird-Lore (1915, v. 17, p.527), which called for the creation of society’s in the name of John James Audubon, was directly responsible for the creation of Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania (ASWP). A gathering of several hundred people at the Fort Pitt Hotel on March 24, 1916, would mark the birth of the organization. Orchestrated by Mr. Horton, at the request of C.W. Parker who read the Bird-Lore article, the dinner featured the director of Carnegie Museum, Dr. W. J. Holland as toastmaster, and Witmer Stone of Philadelphia as guest speaker.

From 1916 to 1921, monthly meetings were held in various places in Pittsburgh, including the Y.M.C.A. auditorium. In 1921, the director of the Carnegie Museum offered space within the museum, an offer that was gratiously accepted. Annual membership varied from a few hundred to over 500. The montly meeting tradition continued through 1962, when the expanding membership prompted a change to the multipurpose room of Hunt Library at the Carnegie Institute of Technology. When meetings exceeded the capacity of that room, the lecture room of the Institute was used.

In 1923, ASWP president C.W. Parker is credited for publishing the first-ever Bulletin, a 53-page pamphlet containing articles on birdlife by members, poems and a membership directory. The same year, the original constitution was developed, at the request of C.W. Parker, by Helen Blair. The constitution stated:

“The purpose of the Society shall be to encourage the study, conservation and protection of birds, to disseminate information concerning their biology, and economic and aesthetic importance, and to that end to promote by lawful means in every way possible the conservation of all pertinent natural resources.”

In 1927, the Baltimore Oriole was chosen as the society’s emblem and in 1929, Edith Reilly made a color design and one in black-and-white, from them a color block was made for use in official printing.

Edmund W. Arthur became the first outings chairmen. Called the “County Rambler” he attracted men, women and children to follow him in pursuit of birds. The first outing was to Squaw Run and it is said that the attendance was so large that parties were formed and instructed to go in different directions, and to return at an afternoon hour for an assembly where notes might be compared.

The first recorded observations of the society were kept by G.M. Sutton, the statistical secretary. At the time, notes were kept in a large loose-leaf binder and important observations were sent on to Bird-Lore. It was not until 1939 that a more systematic procedure for reporting and recording birdlife was developed by P.P Malley and C. B. Shoemaker. This information was used to collect data throughout the year and establish dates of migration of the various species.

Around the same time, printed lists on self-addressed cards were developed for the membership by C. B. Shoemaker. Sightings were sent to him for inclusion in the records – for outings, only the outing leader sent in a card. Mr. Shoemaker continued this task until 1956, when G. Bernard Van Cleve was appointed to succeed him.

Mr. Van Cleve is also credited for being the society’s Christmas Bird Count compiler. Much like today, the area about Pittsburgh was dividing into districts, each with a responsible leader who reported data to Mr. Van Cleve for tabulation. The highlight of the count was a covered-dish supper at King Center followed by verbal reports by leaders of the rival teams. The idea of the bird count dinner is credited to Dr. Alfred Milsch.

There were many requests for bird talks from schools, clubs and other organizations, that President George Thorp appointed a committee of three members who were able and willing to carry out this important task. The response to the committee was remarkable and reports for five years showed an average attendance of over 60,000 people. The estimate was actually considered an underestimate. Dorothy Auerswald, one of the three-person committee, contacted teachers and gave talks of nature study to schools. In the early 1940’s, she reported 45 Junior Audubon Clubs in the Pittsburgh vicinity. She continued this work until her death. Beulah Frey continued this important work, beginning in 1953. Beulah took students on field trips, arranged tests on bird identification in which 984 pupils participated, and in many ways introduced them to the outdoor world.

It had long been the hope of the society to establish a bird sanctuary. Several attempts to acquire tracts, including Denny’s Pond at Harmarville, failed. Without being incorporated, or having the necessary funds to acquire property, the society struggled to realize this goal. In 1936 a more successful proposal came from Allan Kirk and Edmund W. Arthur to lease land from the Pennsylvania Railroad, two islands in the Allegheny River: Sycamore Island and Nine Mile Island. It was then that the Kirks posted the society’s first sanctuaries, which were favored stopover sites for migrating birds.

In 1941 it seemed advisable to incorporate the society as a non-profit corporation so it might own property and receive bequests and gifts. On March 21, 1941 the Honorable John P. Egan signed the decree granting the charter.

In 1942, at the 25th anniversary banquet at the University Club, President George Thorp rose before the 184 members and guests to read a letter from W.E. Clyde Todd to the society, dated April 8, 1942:

Dear Mr. Thorp:

You will be interested to learn that I have decided to offer to the Audubon Society, for the sum of one dollar ($1.00) all that tract of land situated at the head of “Watson’s Run”, in Buffalo Township, in Butler County, Pennsylvania and comprising seventy-five (75) acres, more or less, and having erected thereon a stone and tile cottage – subject only to a right of way to the tract of land lying to the East.

This offer is without conditions, but it is my earnest hope that the Society if it sees fit to accept, will take serious steps to acquire the rest of the acreage needed to round out the present tract and use it as a perpetual wild life sanctuary.

This offer solidified the first bird sanctuary owned and operated by the society. The remainder of the tract, 26.5 acres between the cottage and the road was acquired from the Warner family and in April 1956, Mr. Todd gave the society an additional 26 acres of land adjoining the east side of the property. A sanctuary committee was established to formulate a code for visitors, ready the cabin and lay the trails, as well as keep a watchful eye on the property. C.H. Manley was appointed chairman of the Sanctuary Committee, as were seven aides.

At about the same time, May 25, 1955, actually, the society accepted an offer to use a space in the King Estate as an office. The office, offered at no charge by the City of Pittsburgh, provided the society with formal record keeping space, as well as a place for the committees and other official business to be held.

Through the 1960’s, ASWP continued to provide lectures and with the help of Ruth Cooper and Ruth Scott, conservation-education took center stage. The hazards of pesticides, insecticides and water pollution was widely talked about, and articles in the Bulletin instructed members to contact their representatives in government often.

In 1966, ASWP was granted tax exemption by the IRS, and in 1968, ASWP became an affiliate of National Audubon Society. In this same time period, a fund drive was held which raised $9000 for improvements to Todd Sanctuary (now Todd Nature Reserve). The parking lot, road and pond were constructed. The following year, 1969, Joe Grom became the first Todd Naturalist, providing programs and impromptu natural history to visitors.

In 1969, an additional 39 acres of land was added to Todd Sanctuary, bringing the total acreage to 160. The purchase was made possible by a $6000 grant from the Sarah Mellon Scaife Foundation. At end of the fiscal year, ASWP had recorded $19,149 in assets, and spent $6511.

A contract with Fox Chapel School District enables ASWP to provide Environment and Ecology standards to all K-5 students within that district. A resident camp is created for all 5th grade Fox Chapel students.

In 1976, Josh and Farley Whetzel, handed over a tract of land in Fox Chapel to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy called Beechwood Farms. Rachel Mellon Walton, who also owned a parcel of land did the same. In February, 1977, it was announced that ASWP would run Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve. In the same year, Bill Edgar became the first sanctuary director at Beechwood, and Charles Bier, the first teacher/naturalist. Five years later, Fred Rimmel is named the first Director of Beechwood, and in 1985, Rimmel is named Executive Director of ASWP.

1980 marked the introduction of AppleJamm, ASWP’s fall family festival hosted at Beechwood. The highly attended festival ran every September until 1990, when a new parking ordinance was established in Fox Chapel.

In 1988, ASWP would mount a massive fund drive to obtain funds needed to develop an educational wing. The successful campaign lasted three years, and construction began in spring of 1989. Western Pennsylvania Conservancy deeded to ASWP the 4 acres of land along the road, to enable the new building. On November 16, 1989, the new education building was dedicated.

Through the late 1980’s a drought struck western Pennsylvania, and in 1990, Gypsy Moth’s appeared. The moth larvae attacked oaks at both Todd and Beechwood and killed many of the large trees on the reserves.

By 1992, education was the primary direction of the organization, under the direction of Fred RImmel’s wife, Janet, who was the Education Director. The first summer nature camp was held at Beechwood for children. A full team of professional environmental educators are now employed by the organization.

With increased costs of managing a nature center, the board of trustees withdrew money from the endowment fund in 1993 to hire a fund-raiser. 16 ½ acres were added to Todd Sanctuary along Kepple Road and a Great Blue Heron Rookery was established along Loop Trail.

In 1995, a native plant nursery began at Beechwood. Volunteers collected seed from wildflowers and propagated them for sale. Much of the activity occurred at the volunteers’ homes, but a few plant frames were established behind the education wing.

In 1999, ASWP’s first naturalist Charles Bier, and his wife Terry (Horigan) Bier approach ASWP with an opportunity for a land purchase near Todd Sanctuary. The following spring, the “Horigan Tract” of Todd Sanctuary is established through grants from R.K. Mellon and McCune Foundations. This brings the protection of the Todd Sanctuary area to 286 acres.

On May 5, 2000, ASWP holds a grand opening of the new Audubon Center for Native Plants at Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve. The facility, located on the far side of the parking lot, was built as dedicated space to propagate native plants and educate about their importance in landscaping and use in restoration. The facility greatly improved upon and expanded the amount of space used to propagate and store native plants for sale.

In the fall of 2001, ASWP opens its new James H. Hardie Raptor Center. The center includes outdoor mews, where permanently injured hawks, owls, and falcons can be kept and trained for education, as well as an indoor food prep and health check area. A Red-tailed Hawk, Great-horned Owl, two Eastern Screech-Owls and an American Kestrel were brought in as education birds.