Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Bird Man of Ross Street

As I collect Kerrville and Kerr County historical items, occasionally I receive booklets which are so obscure I'm afraid I might have one of the few remaining copies.
One item which fits this category is a little 6 inch by 9 inch booklet by Emerson Stringham with a very straightforward title: "Kerrville, Texas and its birds." It has 32 pages of text, and it has no illustrations. It was copyrighted in 1948, and published by "Pacot Publications, Box 986, Kerrville, Texas." It sold for 50 cents. The name of the printer, I notice, is missing.
A quick look online yields other books by Emerson Stringham, several with the same publisher. Those books cover quite different subjects. "Patent Claims, a drafter's manual," or "Outline of Patent Law," or even "Mesa Verde National Park."
Why then did this technical writer choose to write about birds, and to pinpoint the area around Kerrville?
I'm not sure, but I think he was here "seeking health." It's only a hunch, but he describes his hikes around Kerrville in a curious way: "Having no car, and a doctor's ukase to limit hikes to a few miles, I was restricted to what transport could be obtained from busses and cabs."
I looked up the word ukase, and learned it was "a proclamation by a Russian emperor or government having the force of law."
Stringham arrived here in January, 1947. "During a few days in January 1947 I lived at the hotel and then moved to a basement room at 417 Water Street," he wrote.
I remember the house that once stood at that address; it has been gone for a long time, and once stood where the parking lot for the River Terrace Steakhouse.
His basement room door "opening level with the ground, which sloped through more than 200 feet toward the river, then dropped perpendicularly nine feet to debris and talus, beyond which was a forty foot littoral strip. A great live oak had its roots beneath y floor and leaned away from the house, half of which it laterally canopied. In the yard were two more live oaks, two locusts, and masses of exotic shrubs and herbage. The precipice was a celestial refuge of tangle for my bird friends, and a row of cypress trees dipped into the water."
Why, then Kerrville?
Well, if my hunch about his health is correct, it was commonly thought, at least until the early 1950s, that our climate was particularly helpful in treating people with respiratory problems, particularly tuberculosis. It would explain the "ukase" limiting his hikes.
But there was another reason: Stringham writes about an observation he'd made. "Throughout the years I had been puzzled by the frequency with which bird books mentioned Kerrville and Kerr County, Texas, as marginal points for the distribution of this, that, or the other species."
He looked until found he solved the mystery. "The answer is Howard Lacey, born 1856, Wareham, Dorset, England, died 1929 March 5 in England. He owned and lived at a ranch on Turtle Creek, about seven miles southward from Kerrville, 1882 until 1919, and published his observations in the quarterly 'Auk' for 1911. Others have followed up his work."
So there's a chance Stringham came to Kerrville not only for his health, but also to observe birds. He notes "Lacey listed 202 species as occurring in Kerr County," a number which, to this layman, seems like a lot of different birds.
Stringham's own book lists 36 varieties, according to a 1949 issue of the Kerrville Mountain Sun, described in "odd notes on some species," written in an engaging and entertaining style.
For whatever reason he came to Kerrville, he remained here the rest of his life. He lived at the corner of Ross and North Streets, "and his place was a bird sanctuary."
The little booklet, which originally sold for 50 cents, must have found little demand. In September, 1960, the Kerrville Mountain Sun reported Stringham donated 500 copies to the Kerrville library, "which are for free distribution to anyone interested in the birds of this locality."
By a few months later, in early December, 1960, Stringham was dead. "He was such a quiet and reserved man that few people even knew that he was ill."
"In his home he had a complete record of birds in the area, [including] where and when he had seen certain species. He was a recluse, by choice, and knew few people of the area. Those who knew him well appreciated his wealth of information on law, nature, [and] history."
Reading the little booklet reveals a well-ordered mind, with a sense of humor, and a love of birds and birding.
Despite being a recluse, his obituary ran on the front page of the newspaper. He was buried at the Garden of Memories. He left behind a lively little booklet.
Until next week, all the best.
Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who should learn to identify more birds. This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times July 6, 2013.
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1 comment:

  1. I asked a retired patent attorney in Kerrville if he had ever heard of this guy, but we both drew blanks.


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