Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

The Biltmore Forest School: Poking Back into an Extraordinary Time

Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

The Biltmore Forest School: Poking Back into an Extraordinary Time

Article excerpt

Julian Weatherbee was my grandfather on my mother's side. When he died in the mid-1970s, I inherited his old roll-top desk (Figure 1), hand crafted to his specifications when he was a forester in the state of Washington. It was well built, and the western oak withstood both the escapades of grandchildren and the moves from Spokane to New Hampshire to Baltimore to Raleigh. To my surprise, on arrival it still held its original contents. I examined the sundry objects as I sorted them into appropriate drawers. The upper roll-up work space was to become mine, compartments to stash unanswered letters, unpaid bills, envelopes, and checkbooks, with the small drawers for pencils, dysfunctional pens, paper clips, stamps, rubber bands, and all the other things that are accustomed to living in desks. The top of the desk, above the roll-up compartment, became a display area for various memorabilia from three, perhaps four family generations: mostly old photos, interesting hand-me-down artifacts, and an old brass lamp from God knows where. The six larger drawers in the lower half of the desk would remain the domain of my grandfather's clutter: space for his World War II ration books, several well-smoked pipes, family genealogy charts, protractors, slide rules and compasses, pens that you actually filled from inkwells, a number of black-and-white photographs, degree and award certificates, and class notes from when he attended forestry school in western North Carolina. Noticeably lacking was anything that was photocopied or made from plastic. I felt a little guilty when I drilled a hole through the back for my laptop cables, but it is a solid piece of furniture, and what is one little hole? Geez!

One of the items I discovered among his piles of papers was a printed copy of his school's standards for admission. The Biltmore Forest School, the first forestry school in the nation, was open to men who were high school graduates in good standing and at least 20 years of age (Figure 2). High school studies were to include "algebra to quadratic equations, the first five books of plane geometry, and plane trigonometry." It was recommended that applicants have at least 3 months' experience in lumbering or in the government service prior to enrolling. There was a probationary period, and enrollment was limited to 25 students. The admission fees were of interest too, particularly by today's standards: Tuition $200, Board and Room $330, Incidentals (including railway fare, clothing, club dues, study excursions) $200, Care and feed of horse $160, Books $20. Yes, a horse--each student was required to have a horse. The cost of the horse itself ($100-150) was not included because departing students usually sold them to incoming students for what they had cost. Thus, the total cost, minus the horse rental, was $1000 in 1908, the year my grandfather enrolled.

My grandfather's handwritten class notes from his days at Biltmore were the most informative item. Although I had the desk and its contents in my possession for over 30 years, last month I decided it was time to read through them. A hundred years seemed an adequate time for the contents to have properly aged. There were four bound notebooks: two from class lectures and what appears to be class assignments and two for field notes from class excursions (Figure 3). I could immediately see from these notes that the lessons were well advanced for their time. For example, the notebooks contained explanations of the principles of ecological succession, a topic that was not described formally until 1916.

In addition to class notes, the books contained my grandfather's detailed sketches of native trees--not just the leaves and twigs, but also enlarged likenesses of their seed pods and sometimes of the individual seeds (Figure 4). What quickly caught my eye were four illustrations of winter twigs of poplars and one willow. The twigs, of course, had no leaves in November, and my grandfather's pencil sketches carefully illustrated each species' distinct placement of buds. …

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