A Love Affair with Birds
The Life of Thomas Sadler Roberts
Publication Year: 2013
Imagine a Minneapolis so small that, on calm days, the roar of St. Anthony Falls could be heard in town, a time when passenger pigeons roosted in neighborhood oak trees. Now picture a dapper professor conducting his ornithology class (the university’s first) by streetcar to Lake Harriet for a morning of bird-watching. The students were mostly young women—in sunhats, sailor tops, and long skirts, with binoculars strung around their necks. The professor was Thomas Sadler Roberts (1858–1946), a doctor for three decades, a bird lover virtually from birth, the father of Minnesota ornithology, and the man who, perhaps more than any other, promoted the study of the state’s natural history. A Love Affair with Birds is the first full biography of this key figure in Minnesota’s past.
Roberts came to Minnesota as a boy and began keeping detailed accounts of Minneapolis’s birds. These journals, which became the basis for his landmark work The Birds of Minnesota, also inform this book, affording a view of the state’s rich avian life in its early days—and of a young man whose passion for birds and practice of medicine among Minneapolis’s elite eventually dovetailed in his launching of the beloved Bell Museum of Natural History.
Bird enthusiast, doctor, author, curator, educator, conservationist: every chapter in Roberts’s life is also a chapter in the state’s history, and in his story acclaimed author Sue Leaf—an avid bird enthusiast and nature lover herself—captures a true Minnesota character and his time.
Published by: University of Minnesota Press
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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication
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A book like this, drawn almost entirely from letters and journals, does not get written without tremendous support from librarians and ar-chivists. I owe much to the late Penelope Krosch, head archivist at the Uni-versity of Minnesota Archives, who labored for years transcribing Thomas Sadler Roberts’s journals and published her efforts in Shotgun and Stetho-scope in 1991. Penny also cataloged the voluminous collection of letters and ...
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Thirty-five years ago, when I was a zoology graduate student, I was quar-tered on the third f_loor of the Bell Museum of Natural History on the University of Minnesota campus. My desk and those of my fellow graduate students were nestled among the cabinets containing the “scientific collec-tion”: study skins of birds and mammals that had accumulated over the years. This was the working museum. Hidden from the public eye, directly over the ...
Chapter 1: A Fledgling Start
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The Key City slowly wound its way past the banks of the Mississippi River after a night of torrential rain. The river’s water levels were already high and would rise higher with the night’s deluge. The month of June 1867 It was a fine morning, clear and blue, as if the world had been reborn after the tempestuous lashing. The steamboat’s travelers, having weathered the storm, breakfasted in the dining room. Among those on board enjoy-...
Chapter 2: Acquiring an Eagle Eye
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Thomas Roberts burst through the doors of Minneapolis High School and into the watery sunshine. The first of April! Spring at last! The sixteen-year-old had been taking note of the early signs of the changing weather for a month, not in anticipation of the baseball season like most boys—he took scant interest in organized sports—but because they her-He surveyed the activity on Third Avenue and saw that his father waited ...
Chapter 3: The Young Naturalists' Society
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On a Friday evening in March 1875, seven earnest teens gathered in a home on the outskirts of Minneapolis. A bitterly cold winter was los-ing its grip after months of subzero temperatures, and tufts of prairie grass could be seen protruding from the crusted snow. Most of the boys lived in this neighborhood of two-storied frame houses that lay just west of the busi-ness district of First Avenue North, Hennepin Avenue, and Nicollet Avenue. ...
Chapter 4: College Boy
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A light breeze tossed the nearly opened lilacs as Thomas Roberts stepped outside to greet the day. It was May Day 1878, and a chorus of White-throated Sparrows whistled a clear, melodious song from the trees in the yard. The bubbling chant of a House Wren mingled with the sparrows’ offer-ing. Thomas thought this was the same wren that had nested in a makeshift birdhouse in their yard last year. A few days before, he had watched as the ...
Chapter 5: A Gypsy Life
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The fall of 1879 was quiet for Thomas Roberts. At twenty-one, he was un-fettered by the structure of the school year for the first time. He could freely pursue natural history as he had done in the happy summers of his While at the university, Thomas had lamented the lack of time to write up bird notes for East Coast publications such as Forest and Stream and The Country, magazines that would gain him national exposure. He now took ...
Chapter 6: The Medical Student
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Three days after Christmas in 1881, Thomas Roberts, slim and fair at age twenty-three, boarded the twelve o’clock train of the Chicago, Milwau-kee and St. Paul Railroad to Philadelphia. Under the solstice sun hanging low in a bright blue sky, a small delegation consisting of his father and brother, Frank Benner, John Cobb, and high school chum Harry Robinson gathered on the platform of the elegant Italianate depot on Washington Avenue to ...
Chapter 7: A Family Man
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Thomas Roberts studied the creamy, high-quality stationery as he read the letters from his high school friends Joe Kingman and Harry Robin-son. The missives had been mailed from Minneapolis on the same day, June 10, 1885. Once more in Philadelphia’s steamy, summer warmth after a visit home, Thomas took in the exuberant, almost chortling joy of his friends. The news of his engagement to dark-haired Jennie Cleveland had made its ...
Chapter 8: The Busy Physician
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Dr. Roberts stepped briskly from his buggy to the massive oak door of his patient’s imposing residence, black bag in hand. He was dressed in a single-breasted, knee-length, dark wool coat over a starched white shirt with a high collar and a checkered tie anchored by a stickpin. A bowler sat atop his head. The mustachioed doctor paused at the front entrance before ringing the bell, checking his gold pocket watch, always mindful of the min-...
Chapter 9: The Empty Day
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In 1889, Thomas Roberts received a letter from a man in Jackson County, in southwestern Minnesota, whom he had not met. The man, Thomas Miller, was a market hunter, one who made a living shooting large numbers of waterfowl—one hundred ducks, easily, in a single morning—and send-ing them to the East Coast to hang in butcher shops or grace the linen-clad tables of fancy restaurants. Miller lived on the edge of a vast shallow lake ...
Chapter 10: A Florida Interlude
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Dr. Roberts leaned on the gunwale of the Hildebret and watched with delight as a large flock of Magnificent Frigatebirds dipped and rose over the silvery waters of Barnes Sound at the very tip of Florida. The enor-mous birds sailed above the mangroves, descended to the water’s surface to pluck out unsuspecting fish, then lofted to ride the gentle breezes brush-ing the coastal expanse. The day before, he had admired a stunning flock of ...
Chapter 11: The Associate Curator
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Thomas Roberts was ready to tear his hair out. In the August heat of 1915, he stood in a storage room in Pillsbury Hall on the University of Minnesota campus. The air was heavy with dust and humidity, and in-sect pests fluttered all around, signifying disaster. The Dall sheep skins col-lected by Jim Bell were infested with bugs feasting on their skin and hair, and someone had left open the box containing them. Winged creatures had ...
Chapter 12: Gains and Losses
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The April morning in 1926 was chill and dreary as Dr. Roberts passed under the arching stone entrance of the Great Northern Depot situ-ated high above the rushing Mississippi. Spring was advancing in Minne-apolis, and the grass had greened. Lake Calhoun was open. Ice-out had been April 17, a little later than usual, and now the waterfowl were coming through in great waves. The Saturday before, he and Will Kilgore had seen three to ...
Chapter 13: Writing the Book
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Thomas Roberts threaded his way through the household at 2303 Pleas-ant Avenue South en route to his study, the little room in the big duplex where he could sit and think. The children long gone, the flat itself was a quiet space, but in his study he had a desk, some books (though the bulk of his library was at the museum), and his father’s chair, an antiquated, straight-backed piece brought from Philadelphia so long ago that reminded ...
Chapter 14: Building Mr. Bell’s Museum
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The harried Thomas Roberts rif_f_led through the papers on his desk. It was, as usual, a mess, strewn with journal articles, books, class lists, unanswered mail. He claimed that the disorganization was a holdover habit from his years as a physician, when he never had the luxury of a spare minute in which to straighten a desk, and it appeared that he had not become any less busy in these later years. It might have seemed odd that such an orderly ...
Chapter 15: The Cardinal Hour
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The letter from his old friend Frank Chapman must have stung, rubbing salt into a wound still fresh from the blow that Roberts had been dealt before Christmas. Lee Jaques would not be coming to do any work at the new museum. “I can only hope that . . . you will find another Jaques in Min-nesota and give him the opportunity for development that Jaques has found here,” Chapman had written.1 Had he meant to be kind? The line could be ...
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Thomas Sadler Roberts rests in the Roberts family plot in Lakewood Cemetery, Minneapolis, next to his wife, Jennie. Many in the close-knit family that surrounded him soon followed him to the grave. Agnes Wil-liams Roberts died in July 1946 at Franklin Hospital and was returned to the Williams family plot in New Hope, Pennsylvania, for burial. Son Carroll Roberts passed away less than two years later in February 1948; sister Emma ...
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About the Author, Back Matter
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Sue Leaf is the author of Potato City: Nature, History, and Community in the Age of Sprawl and The Bullhead Queen: A Year on Pioneer Lake (Minne-sota, 2009), a finalist for the Minnesota Book Awards. Trained as a zoologist, she now writes on environmental topics. She is president of the Wild River ...
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Minneapolis in 1867, as the newly arrived Roberts family saw it. The photograph looks south down Second Street from Nicollet Avenue. Courtesy of the Hennepin County Library, Minneapolis Collection, BR0137.Old Main, University of Minnesota, circa 1878. Courtesy of the University of Jane Cleveland Roberts with children Carroll (on lap), Thomas (“Tom”), ...
Page Count: 296
Publication Year: 2013