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Gleanings from the Life of J. Warren Jacobs,

America's First Martin House Manufacturer

1868 - 1947

D. Kent Fonner

860 Lansberry Court

In 1935, sitting in his library and Museum of Applied Oology located at his residence in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, Joseph Warren Jacobs, an internationally-known oologist [an ornithologist specializing in the scientific study of bird eggs and nests], and this nation's first Purple Martin birdhouse manufacturer, drafted a poignant letter to Dr. T. S. Palmer, United States ornithologist for the Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. Having reached the age of 67, Jacobs began to despair about what the future would hold for the eggs, notes, and other materials he had amassed over a scientific career spanning more than half a century. As he reviewed for Dr. Palmer the careers and interests of each of his eleven surviving children, it seemed that none of them was destined to follow his path and that if he "passed out," it would fall to Mrs. Jacobs to find some way of disposing of his hard-earned and priceless, scientific treasures.

Now, he sought Dr. Palmer's advice as to the course he should follow. Unpublished manuscripts lay unread by the scientific community because hard times since World War I had denied him the financial resources to publish them. His dream of founding a national center for the study of ornithology and an accompanying bird sanctuary was unrealized because fate had denied him the finances to do these things on his own; and despite his contacts with men of science and wealth throughout the country, none had come forward to offer himself as a patron for his work. He now asked Dr. Palmer if he knew of any "alphabetical projects" sponsored by the Roosevelt government that could provide him with the necessary funds. For J. Warren Jacobs, sitting in his museum, surrounded by glass cases and cabinets containing over fifty years worth of oological and ornithological specimens, the future appeared bleak.

The depth of his despair that day in 1935 can be realized by the fact that as a younger man he had once resolved to destroy his precious egg collection rather than see his life's work interfered with by the Federal Government. Members of his family recall that once, when he heard of a movement for legislation in Congress that he perceived as a threat to the quiet enjoyment of his scientific work, he

slipped into his private museum and carefully removed the screws holding the glass lids for the cases containing his prodigious egg collection. He then fashioned a mallet in his woodworking shop and prominently displayed it on top of the cases. Determined that the government would not interfere with his work, he had resolved to the family that if the suspicious legislation passed, he was prepared to smash each and every one of the 12,295 eggs that he had collected over the previous 52 years. Fortunately, the offending legislation was defeated, but he kept the mallet on display and was prepared to use it if he ever saw the need. Now, however, he turned to the same government that had threatened his peace earlier in the century, this time to seek aid in preserving his life's work for posterity.

No doubt J. Warren Jacobs received some of his stubborn pride from his parents. Born on December 5,1868, Warren was the eighth child of the ten children born to Henry and Eleanor Kent Jacobs. Warren was the seventh son of his blacksmith father and he remained an enigma to the man and his other sons throughout their lives. When Warren was a child, the family lived in a log house located on Smith Creek two or three miles south of Waynesburg. Even as a toddler, Warren picked up the habit of collecting winged creatures and a story is told that he used to hide his dragonflies and butterflies in various places in the house to avoid a scolding from his exasperated parents. When Warren was about eight years old, Henry Jacobs moved his family to the south edge of Waynesburg where he purchased a house and lot from his brother-in-law, John Kent, and built a blacksmith shop on the corner of Washington and First Streets. From that time on, members of the Jacobs family have lived in this house and Warren Jacobs made his home there until his death in 1947. One of his sons is the present owner, and his youngest daughter and her husband make their home there.

As a young boy, Jacobs found the location ideal for his bud-ding pursuits as a naturalist. Tenmile Creek flowed only a few hundred feet behind the house, and woods and fields were only a short walk away. In contrast to his burly father, Warren was a

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sensitive, artistic child. Spending long hours alone in the woods and fields near his home, he soon became a puzzlement to the rest of the family. His pursuits left him with little time for, or interest in, a formal education. Although by the age of four-teen he had read the Bible four times and the dictionary twice, he completed only six years of formal education in the public schools.

Henry Jacobs tried to entice his son to enter the family business. As a buggy maker and wagon builder, along with his work as a blacksmith, the elder Jacobs found use for his young son's artistic talents by giving him the job of painting the scroll-work and trim on his wagons. The boy became an accomplished artist with the brush. Residents of Waynesburg spent hours watching the young boy, not yet in his teens, working at his father's wagon shop, painting delicate lines on the wagons and buggies brought in for re-pair.

A story is told by the family that one day Warren was painting a wagon for a customer at a farm near Graysville, a small village a few miles west of Waynesburg. As he worked, neighbors dropped by to watch his progress. Seeing that the work would probably take a while, the men began to find places to sit on the top rail of a nearby split-rail fence. Eventually, the rail became so overloaded with onlookers that it splintered in two, throwing the spectators on the ground in a heap, much to the delight of the small boy who would retell the story time and time again,

roaring with laughter at each retelling throughout his life.

Despite his young son's talent with brush and woodworking tools around the shop, Henry Jacobs was still exasperated by Warren's long walks and what he perceived as just plain laziness. Finally, Henry resolved that it was time for his son to start earning his own way. Since Warren did not have any serious interest in the forge and anvil, his father roughly suggested he find some work that did suit his fancy and start carrying his own load for the family. For a time, he was apprenticed to the painting and finishing shops of the B. & O. railroad, where he learned calligraphy and wood finishing techniques. When he returned home, however, the young

naturalist took up the profession of sign painter, and he continued to earn a meager living as a sign painter and calligrapher throughout his entire life.

J. Warren Jacobs' calligraphy work became quite popular with the residents of Waynesburg. Waynesburg College hired him to hand-letter diplomas for each graduating class, and many of Waynesburg's finest families asked him to copy family records into antiquated Bibles. While copying records into the family Bible of Jasper Dulany, a Waynesburg merchant, Jacobs met the Dulany's young daughter, Emma. The two were eventually married on March 24, 1897. During their fifty-year marriage, the couple were parents to 12 children, 11 of whom survived to adulthood.

Sometime during the
early 1880's, Warren Jacobs
began taking a serious inter-
est in the study of birds. He
first became interested in
preserving egg shells and
starting a small collection in
1883. During that year he
was primarily interested in
preserving eggs for artistic
purposes, and he spent hours
drawing pictures on the
emptied shells of domestic
fowl eggs. At that time, he
was not aware of the science
of oology or that anyone
could take a serious scien-
tific approach to the collec-
tion and study of bird eggs.
In 1884, however, a friend
acquainted him with several
important ornithological
treatises, including Audu-
bon's Birds of America and
Coues' Key to North Ameri-
can Birds. In addition, he
also told Jacobs about a jour-

nal published in Boston called Ornithologist and Oologist. During the
next two years, Jacobs' passing interest in the subject of birds

became a consuming passion. He became a subscriber to the Oologist. He scraped together enough money to buy a first edition

copy of Oliver Davies' Nests and Eggs of North American Birds. He

taught himself by studying in the field as well as devouring the

other oological and ornithological publications of the 1880's and 1890's, including the Auk, the Condor, the Wilson Bulletin, the Nidolo-

gist, and a host of other short-lived journals, pamphlets, and maga-

zines. By the age of 19, he was well on his way to amassing the

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knowledge and expertise that would make him well-known in ornithological and oological circles at the turn of the century.

By 1890, Jacobs' correspondence with several ornithologists brought him to the attention of well-respected authorities around the country. In 1891, W. E. Clyde Todd, Ornithologist for the United States Dc-pa rtment of Agriculture, who later became ornithologist at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, invited Jacobs to assist in the formation of an ornithological society to study the avifauna of Western Pennsylvania. Thus, Jacobs be-came an Associate Member of the West-ern Pennsylvania Ornithological Association, which was headquartered in Beaver, Pennsylvania. Though Todd had never met Jacobs, in 1893, he offered to hire him to

collect birds and prepare study skins for use at the Smithsonian Institution. The correspondence between the two men in the 1890's became the basis of a personal friendship and professional relation-ship that lasted throughout the remainder of their lives. By 1893, Jacobs' participation in various scientific organizations, such as the American Ornithologists' Union, and his growing egg collection earned him a place on the Board of Advisors for the Chicago Columbian Exposition that year. Dr. B. H. Warren, the Pennsylvania state ornithologist, asked him to loan the collection to the state for display as part of the Pennsylvania exhibit.

Although somewhat reluctant to let his eggs leave his hands, Jacobs agreed. He carefully packed the irreplaceable cargo, and the collection made it to Chicago, by train, without the breakage of a single shell. The collection was prominently displayed in the Pennsylvania Exhibition Hall in connection with the state's bird and mammal exhibit. Containing eggs and nests from 127 species of Pennsylvania birds, the Jacobs exhibit occupied three glass cases, each case eight feet long, with the eggs labeled and arranged according to the classification adopted by the American Ornithologists' Union. The catalog of Pennsylvania exhibits at the Chicago World's Fair noted that the collection was "one of the finest ever gathered together, and Mr. Jacobs deserves every credit ,for its completeness and arrangement." The exhibit was given an "Honorable Mention" from the exposition judges.

Also during the 1890's, Jacobs began to take an intense interest in the migration habits of the Purple Martin. Noting that the Purple Martin population in and around Waynesburg had sharply declined since he was a child, he determined to obtain a colony for

study purposes. In 1896 he erected on the lawn of the Jacobs residence, the first of many Purple Martin bird-houses that he built in his father's wagon and buggy shop. Since the Jacobs family lived across the street from the Waynesburg & Washington railroad station, the birdhouses in the yard soon be-came a curiosity to passengers on the train as well as Jacobs' friends and neighbors. Eventually, people asked about the magnificent martin houses dotting the Jacobs yard, and soon requests piled up for duplicates for other people to use around town. When Jacobs decided to start manu fac-turing and selling the birdhouses on a com-

mercia 1 basis, he established the Jacobs Bird-House Company in 1908.

Jacobs, however, by 1899 had a large Purple Martin colony of his own housed in three large boxes of his

own construction and

design. He made meticulous notes of his observations of the colony over several years, and these observations became the basis for his Story of a Martin Colony, published in 1903, which became a minor classic in ornithological literature 'reprinted on pages 18-25]. The work that he did in Waynesburg with the Purple Martin had a good effect on the dwindling population. By 1911, approximately fifty martin colonies were located in Waynesburg, and the Jacobs Bird-house Company did a great deal to increase populations in other parts of the United States and Canada as well. At one point, Jacobs reported counting as high as 1400 Purple Martins nesting in the various houses within the borough limits of Waynesburg. The area quickly became a major staging area for martin migrations in the early twentieth century.

Throughout his long scientific career, J. Warren Jacobs remained an astute observer and a prolific writer. He was quite concerned with the "mystery of migration." He believed that many species of birds returned to the vicinity of their last nesting place year after year. His thesis was proved to his own satisfaction many times over by his observation of the Purple Martins that took residence each spring in the birdhouses that stood on his lawn. One piece of evidence he often pointed to, however, was four sets of crow eggs contained in his collection. Jacobs had obtained all four sets himself, one each year for four consecutive years, from nests found in the same general vicinity. Jacobs was convinced that all four sets had been laid by the same crow. Instead of being the normal blue-green color, all four sets of eggs were rust colored. Through years of patient observation and collection, he was able to establish the genealogy of certain individual birds through the

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study of cell structure and coloration of eggs.

Jacobs published dozens of articles on a wide range of subjects. His first article, describing a trip he made to study and collect Red-tailed Hawk eggs on Easter Sunday in 1886, was published that same year in the Naturalists' Companion, a short-lived magazine printed in Brockton, New York. From that point on, Jacobs wrote articles for the Oologist, the Auk, Bird Lore, the Pennsylvania Zoological Bulletin, and a host of other scientific journals and magazines. W. E. Clyde Todd, in the bibliography to his book, Birds of Western Pennsylvania, lists over fifty publications by J. Warren Jacobs. A. C. Bent, in his Life Histories of North American Birds cites J. Warren Jacobs extensively. In addition, from the proceeds of the birdhouse business, Jacobs obtained funds to publish a series of booklets, called Gleanings from Nature, that cover a wide range of topics from Purple Martins to oological abnormalities.

Story of a Martin Colony was originally issued as Gleanings No. IL Jacobs published further observations on the Purple Martin in Gleanings No. V, entitled The Purple Martin and Houses for it's Summer Home. In three supplements to Gleanings No. V (issued November 1909, November 1910, and November 1911), Jacobs published further observations on the contemporary growth and stability of the Purple Martin population based upon his continued research, correspondence, and photographs he received from customers of the Jacobs Bird-House Company. Other subjects covered by the Gleanings included Oological Abnormalities in Gleanings No. 1, Haunts of the Golden-Winged Warbler in Gleanings No. III, and Some Notes on the Summer Birds of Monongalia County, West Virginia in Gleanings No. IV. Moreover, his interest in the Purple Martin led Jacobs to publish his own American Bird-I louse Journal, of which he served as editor. I le published it to provide a network for the Purple Martin landlords of his day so they could share information or seek access to his vast knowledge.

In 1904, at the Saint Louis World's Fair, as part of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, he achieved what he always held as the most distinguished award of his career. Again packing his egg collection at the request of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for exhibition as

part of the Pennsylvania Hall, he nervously Sent the eggs halfway across the country by train to Missouri. By this time, the collection had grown enormously, making it one of the three or four finest collections in the country, with specimens of eggs from all over the United States, and parts of Mexico and Canada. Included was even an egg set from the now extinct Passenger Pigeon. Each set of eggs in the large collection was numbered and accompanied by a de-tailed record of the date, time of day, location, conditions of the nest and eggs, measurements, stage of incubation, and other comments and observations by Jacobs. Judges at the St. Louis Exposition were so impressed by the completeness of the collection that they awarded him a diploma and also the "Highest Award Gold Medal for Economic and Scientific Ornithological Studies." He now felt completely justified for the hours of patient work he spent in the field, much to the regret of his family who never quite understood his unusual passion.

His children recall an interesting story about the St. Louis World's Fair that helps shed light on another side of his character. It seems that Jacobs was concerned about the care that his collection would receive in the packing for the return trip home. Taking the train to St. Louis, he decided to personally supervise the packing and shipping of the eggs, to insure that none would be broken. When he arrived in St. Louis, he spent every dime he had purchasing a small merry-go-round for his kids and having it shipped to Waynesburg. Then, flat broke, he had to wait for money to be wired from his family before he could afford to make the return trip. The merry-go-round was set up in the yard and became an instant attraction for every child in the neighborhood.

He always took time for children, both his own and his neighbors.' Many children on Waynesburg's south side spent countless hours playing in the yard of the Jacobs house, running in and out of the Jacobs Bird-House Company. Jacobs would supply each child with pieces of scrap lumber, a hammer, and a generous portion of nails that could be freely used under his careful scrutiny. During the early 1920's, Jacobs erected a boat dock along Tenmile

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Creek and built several canoes that were used by many of Waynesburg's children and adults. In the winter, he built sleds for the children, hand-crafting each piece and decorating the finished product with gold-lettering and fancy scroll work. One of these sleds is among the collection of the Greene County Historical Museum in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. John O'Hara, a "Southside Kid" who later became a reporter for the Waynesburg Republican, recalled that "Mister Jacobs," as he was respectfully and affectionately addressed by everyone in town, was "an inspirational leader for everyone, and particularly the youth, to learn the joys of tramping a woodland trail, to be able to identify by sight or sound the birds and other living creatures which populated Greene County's hillsides and hollows, its fields and meadows."

A naturalist in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau, J. Warren Jacobs exercised many talents in his long, productive career. A superb artist, Jacobs spent hours of patient observation in order to produce a series of pen and ink drawings of a wide array of birds. Many of these drawings, some of them completed when he was only nineteen or twenty years old, still exist. A prolific essayist, he also wrote poetry, most of which, like the haunting Sequel to the Death of a Wandering Snowy Owl, an Ornithologist's Dream, is centered around themes involving nature. Much of this poetry was also published in the ornithological journals of his day, and he had a wide audience among his peers. On occasion, he also

used his talents for more prosaic purposes. For example, in 1916, as a staunch Democrat, he penned My Woodrow is Called by the Nation as a tribute to President Wilson for use at a Greene County election rally that year. In 1918, he also wrote a patriotic piece, When the Blue Star has Turned to Gold, as a tribute to Waynesburg's national guard unit, Company K of the 110th Infantry, which was set to music and sung at a welcome home ceremony held at the Waynesburg Presbyterian Church on November 24, 1918. He also wrote and scored the song, Memories, the Oologist Holds Dear.

A versatile man, he used his woodworking skills to fashion cabinets, display cases, and furniture for his library and the J. Warren Jacobs Museum of Applied Oology. Housed in two rooms on the second floor of the family residence at 404 South Washington Street in Waynesburg, the museum was advertised as "an institution for the study of behavior and relationship of birds." Although rarely appreciated by the local townspeople, it became a major attraction in ornithological and oological circles. Housing the award-winning egg collection, the museum was visited by countless prominent people from around the country. Scientists like Arthur Cleveland Bent and W. E. Clyde Todd were frequent visitors who came to study the collection. Other visitors to the museum included Gifford Pinchot, William Howard Taft, and William Jennings Bryan.

During the 1920's and 1930's, however, although Jacobs continued to actively pursue his scientific research, he found it increasingly difficult to financially support his large family. Never having

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been trained in business, he experienced difficulty adapting to the new economic climate after the First World War. The war had brought a severe slowdown in the birdhouse business and, unfortunately, in the early 1920's the birdhouse company slipped into bankruptcy. Even as a sign painter, Jacobs found it difficult providing for his family's needs. His scientific work interfered, and his own convictions sometimes caused his business to suffer. For example, one of his daughters recalled that her father would never paint a sign for any restaurant that sold liquor, "even if it would keep the gas from being shut off in our house tomorrow." He and his sons made several attempts to restart the birdhouse business before his death, but the Great Depression and World War II cut the market out from under them.

Nevertheless, despite all of these problems, Jacobs remained active in his ornithological research. He spent the last twenty years of his life improving the quality of the displays in his museum. He refined his notes and continued to carry on correspondence with naturalists and scientists around the world. One of his sons, William Jacobs, became active with the State Forestry Department in Florida during the 1930's and 1940's. Jacobs made several trips to visit his son in Tallahassee and spent part of his time getting personally acquainted with cor

respondents from the South. On one

trip in 1939, Jacobs and another son, Harold, visited a Bald Eagle's nest located on a small island in the Gulf of Mexico. Jacobs was seventy years old at the time. The nest was located in the top of a slash pine, fifty feet above the ground. The nearest branch was twenty-five feet up. Jacobs and his son surveyed the situation along with their guide, an ornithologist acquaintance, R. C. Hallman. Jacobs had never been much for using climbing irons as a younger man,and he often did his climbing with just his hands, legs, and feet. That day was no exception, and his two companions looked on in disbelief as the elder Jacobs shinnied up the trunk of the tree to the first branch and then made his way to the nest: He found three eaglets in the nest, which he carefully examined before climbing back down.

An amateur botanist along with his many other pursuits, during the last few years of his life Jacobs devoted an increasing amount of his time to the establishment of a botanical garden and bird sanctuary along a thin strip of ground on the north bank of Tenmile Creek. "Pop's Garden," as the area became known to the family, was located on the creek bank above the boat landing that he had constructed in the 1920's. In addition, with the destruction of the old "Hook Dam" on Tenmile Creek, he became quite vocal in agitating for restoration of the dam, which had raised the level of the creek enough to make it suitable for canoeing and had provided a suitable habitat for many forms of waterfowl. Finally, becoming disgusted with the slowness with which the community responded to his pleas, he undertook to dam the creek himself, using his own labor and resources. Pennsylvania state road crews eventually dismantled his dam when a new bridge was installed over Tenmile

Creek, and little now remains of "Pop's Garden." Except for the picnic house, some stray mountain laurel, and the ruins of his brick-lined flower beds, the ground has reverted to a natural state. As such, however, it partially provides the bird sanctuary he dreamed of establishing all his life. Wood Thrush and a host of other bird species can be heard in the branches of the trees he planted there over fifty years ago.

On February 27th, 1947, Joseph Warren Jacobs died peacefully at his home, surrounded by his family. At his death, although he considered his egg collection his most valuable asset, he had no idea of its future significance. He never carried life insurance, insisting that he could not afford it. He always felt that his egg collection could be sold in lieu of it. Accordingly, he left the collection and his life's work in the care of his wife. She and her sons tried futilely to sell the collection for several years, but no buyer was forthcoming. For thirty years after Jacobs' death, his collection and notes lay in storage. Finally the family, sharing a great burden to see that the whole affair was properly disposed of where it could be studied as their father had wished, donated the entire egg collection and accompanying notes to the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology in Los Angeles, California. There it became part of

the largest research collection of bird

eggs in the United States. The foundation was very excited when

the collection was acquired in 1977. Dr. Lloyd Kiff, curator at the

foundation's museum, noted that the eggs in the Jacobs collection,

which were taken between the 1880's and 1920's, were quite valu-

able for modern ornithologists because "at that time, there was no

pollution in the air and the density of the egg shells now makes it possible,

by comparing the thinness of eggshells of birds of the same species today in

the present polluted air, to determine the amount of pollution which now

exists." J. Warren Jacobs would be very proud to know that his life's

work is still making a contribution to the advancement of science.

Although many of his fellow townsmen, who referred to him

as the "birdman," or a "robber of bird nests," and members of his own

family, never understood his passion for the study of bird life, his

whole being was spent in a feverish attempt to know and under-

stand the natural world. When asked to sum up her father's life, one

of Jacobs' daughters remarked that "he was many things to many

people and completely misunderstood by most." I believe it was best

summed up by the minister at his funeral who remarked, "Anyone

so close to nature must surely have been close to God."

 

About the author: D. Kent Fonner is the 35-year-old grandson of J. Warren Jacobs. His mother, Helen Jacobs Fonner is the 12th child of J. Warren Jacobs. Kent has a Bachelor of Arts degree (History and English) from Waynesburg College; a Master's of Arts degree (History) from Duquesne University; and a Juris Doctorate degree from the University of Pittsburgh. He is the regional manager for the First Commonwealth Trust Company in Somerset, PA.

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