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A Love Affair with Birds

The Life of Thomas Sadler Roberts

Sue Leaf

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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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-9


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiv

A book like this, drawn almost entirely from letters and journals, does not get written without tremendous support from librarians and archivists. I owe much to the late Penelope Krosch, head archivist at the University of Minnesota Archives, who labored for years transcribing Thomas Sadler Roberts’s journals ...

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pp. xv-xviii

Thirty-five years ago, when I was a zoology graduate student, I was quartered on the third floor 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 collection”: ...

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Chapter 1: A Fledgling Start

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pp. 1-10

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 had been uncommonly wet. ...

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Chapter 2: Acquiring an Eagle Eye

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pp. 11-26

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— ...

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Chapter 3: The Young Naturalists' Society

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pp. 27-40

On a Friday evening in March 1875, seven earnest teens gathered in a home on the outskirts of Minneapolis. A bitterly cold winter was losing its grip after months of subzero temperatures, and tufts of prairie grass could be seen protruding from the crusted snow. ...

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Chapter 4: College Boy

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pp. 41-54

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 Whitethroated Sparrows whistled a clear, melodious song from the trees in the yard. The bubbling chant of a House Wren mingled with the sparrows’ offering. ...

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Chapter 5: A Gypsy Life

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pp. 55-67

The fall of 1879 was quiet for Thomas Roberts. At twenty-one, he was unfettered 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 teens, if his health allowed it. ...

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Chapter 6: The Medical Student

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pp. 68-85

Three days after Christmas in 1881, Thomas Roberts, slim and fair at age twenty-three, boarded the twelve o’clock train of the Chicago, Milwaukee 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, ...

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Chapter 7: A Family Man

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pp. 86-99

Thomas Roberts studied the creamy, high-quality stationery as he read the letters from his high school friends Joe Kingman and Harry Robinson. 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. ...

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Chapter 8: The Busy Physician

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pp. 100-115

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. ...

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Chapter 9: The Empty Day

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pp. 116-132

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 sending them to the East Coast ...

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Chapter 10: A Florida Interlude

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pp. 133-139

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 enormous birds sailed above the mangroves, descended to the water’s surface to pluck out unsuspecting fish, ...

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Chapter 11: The Associate Curator

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pp. 140-157

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 insect pests fluttered all around, signifying disaster. ...

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Chapter 12: Gains and Losses

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pp. 158-174

The April morning in 1926 was chill and dreary as Dr. Roberts passed under the arching stone entrance of the Great Northern Depot situated high above the rushing Mississippi. Spring was advancing in Minneapolis, and the grass had greened. Lake Calhoun was open. ...

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Chapter 13: Writing the Book

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pp. 175-191

Thomas Roberts threaded his way through the household at 2303 Pleasant 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), ...

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Chapter 14: Building Mr. Bell’s Museum

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pp. 192-210

The harried Thomas Roberts riffled 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, ....

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Chapter 15: The Cardinal Hour

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pp. 211-227

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 Minnesota ...

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pp. 228-232

Thomas Sadler Roberts rests in the Roberts family plot in Lakewood Cemetery, Minneapolis, next to his wife, Jennie. Many in the closeknit family that surrounded him soon followed him to the grave. Agnes Williams Roberts died in July 1946 at Franklin Hospital and was returned to the Williams family plot in New Hope, Pennsylvania, for burial. ...


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pp. 233-256


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pp. 257-272

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About the Author, Back Matter

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pp. 292-293

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 (Minnesota, 2009), a finalist for the Minnesota Book Awards. Trained as a zoologist, she now writes on environmental topics. ...

Image Plates

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pp. 294-309

E-ISBN-13: 9780816688807
E-ISBN-10: 081668880X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816675647

Page Count: 296
Publication Year: 2013