If Only I’d Worked at the Ohio Historical Society When Naturalist Edward Sinclair Thomas Did

Watching a live webcast of Dan Brown’s recent Lincoln Center appearance to promote Inferno, I slouched in my chair at the Westerville Public Library and took in his show-and-tell-style remarks about how his childhood influenced his love of puzzles and his views on religion and science. But when he shared a quote that expressed what he thought constituted good writing, I sat up straight, grabbed my handbag and jotted it down in my ever-present reporter’s notebook.

“Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade,” Malcolm Gladwell wrote in What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures. “It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else’s head.”

Lately, I’ve been engaged by the colorful, captivating prose used by two local naturalists to share their abundant knowledge.  Their writing has encouraged me not only to think much more about the natural world, but also to realize that science can be a great deal more interesting than it appeared while struggling through my CSG chemistry class. If you’ve been reading this blog recently, you know who one of those authors is. On his recommendation, I checked out the other author’s work and was equally engrossed. Let me tell you more about him.

Edward Sinclair Thomas was born in Woodsfield, Ohio on April 22, 1891. After growing up in Columbus, he graduated from The Ohio State University with an undergraduate degree in 1913, followed by a law degree in 1916. Thanks to a tip from my friend and fellow archivist, Kevlin, I found Thomas’s entry in the 1913 Makio, which I accessed through a new digital resource from University Archives called the Makio Digital Archives. Besides serving as editor of the Sun-Dial, Thomas was a member of the Glee Club; Student Council; Junior Social Committee; Commercial Club; Pan-Hellenic Council; Bucket and Dipper, the junior honorary; Sigma Delta Chi; Delta Tau Delta; and Phi Beta Kappa. His yearbook entry mysteriously concludes, “Bring forth the royal jester!”

After 15 years of practicing law, Thomas decided to take a different career path. From 1931 to 1962, he was curator of natural history at the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, now known as the Ohio Historical Society.

Thomas inherited his interest in natural history from his parents. His mother, Tempe Sinclair Thomas, was fond of wildflowers, while his father, Edward B. Thomas, loved birds.

At the Ohio Historical Society’s Archives/Library last Saturday, I paged through three handwritten journals that Thomas kept from 1908 to 1910. Reading them, I saw the young naturalist’s talent for describing his interest in natural history and ornithology. Here are some highlights. 

In his introductory journal entry for June 24, 1908, the 17-year-old Thomas comes across as a real Renaissance man. Besides collecting stamps, coins, insects, marbles and natural history relics, East High School’s junior clasEdward Sinclair Thomas's 1908 journal, MSS 751, Box 4, Folder 19, Ohio Historical Society Archives/Librarys president enjoyed playing football, baseball, tennis, hockey, handball and croquet. When the 6’ ½”, 160-pound, “rather wiry” and “not very graceful” fellow wasn’t scratching on the violin, he monkeyed around with his Brownie camera. 

On a trip to Platte Lake, Michigan in July 1908, Thomas saw many novel things. He took in Larkspur, birches, aspens, Moose Maples, ferns and all sorts of other strange plants. Catbirds, English sparrows and Kingbirds were some of the birds that were new to him. Penning about his visit to Bass Lake, Michigan on August 7, 1908, Thomas described seeing “a squealing nest of Chimney Swifts calling for their mommy.” Spotting a hawk in Honor, Michigan the following week, Thomas confessed in his August 14, 1908 journal entry, “I almost felt in sympathy with the ‘monarch of the air’ when its dignified flight changed to a wild dash for safety, as it was followed by a pair of chattering Kingbirds.”

A month after purchasing a guide to the wildflowers of America, Thomas received a pair of field glasses for Christmas. After he and his father went out to the woods to see if he could glass any birds with them, he wrote in his December 25, 1908 journal entry, “At first we didn’t see any, but after a while we scared up some shy birds that I thought surely were something rare, judging by the way they skulked through the brush. They proved to be song sparrows! What a change from the roadside bird we see in thEdward Sinclair Thomas's 1908 journal, MSS 751, Box 4, Folder 19, Ohio Historical Society Archives/Librarye summer! Later we saw some tree sparrows and juncos together in a company. I got the best view of a junco I ever had through the glasses. We then went into another piece of woods where we saw at least ten cardinals in a company, more than I ever saw together at one time. On the way back to the carriage we saw a flock of birds dash up with a chorus of twitters. They lit near us, but soon rose and dashed away again. I followed them and at last came where they were feeding. They were without doubt Horned Larks. It was almost wonderful the way in which their colors blended with the ground.”

On August 29, 1909, Thomas wrote about his plans to start a “crawlery” so that he could raise some caterpillars to moths in order to study their habits. He placed three eggs of a Cabbage Butterfly, a Wooly Bear and three other caterpillars under an inverted glass, gave them a leaf to feed on, and watched two Cabbages hatch. He reported they were “the funniest-looking things you ever saw.”

During a sojourn at Boston in July 1911, the Ohio State student wrote of his walk through Franklin Park, “I had hoped to see some birds not common in Ohio, but to my disappointment, all the birds, excepting the Common Purple Grackles, were species very common in Ohio, including the super-multitudinous English Sparrows, which take up every space.”

Eleven years later, Thomas began documenting experiences like these in a much more public way. In 1922, The Columbus Dispatch invited Thomas to write six short articles about songbirds to generate interest in a birdhouse contest sponsored by the newspaper and a downtown hardware store. The articles were so successful that the Dispatch asked him to continue writing stories related to natural history for a weekly column that was first titled “Our Birds” and then “In Woods and Fields.” Later, Thomas and artist John Hazlett created the “Professor Nature Bug” cartoon series for young Dispatch readers. When he handed his column over to Jim Fry in 1981, Thomas had contributed over 3,000 articles to the Dispatch.

In Ohio Woods & Fields, a book published by The Dispatch Printing Company in 1981, is a compilation of reprints of 100 of Thomas’s columns.

Your blogger at Bigelow Cemetery State Nature Preserve, soon after it was dedicated in 1979.

Your blogger at Bigelow Cemetery State Nature Preserve, soon after it was dedicated in 1979.

The columns were a perfect way for Thomas to share what he discovered while leading bird hikes to places like Buckeye Lake; conducting nature tours of favorite haunts like Cedar Bog State Memorial, Old Man’s Cave; and during the field excursions he made to destinations like Blacklick Woods, Black Hand Gorge, Kelley’s Island, and Lawrence County, where he found an abundance of prairie grasses and a rare large colony of the Compass Plant in October 1952.

He also used the column to report on important developments like the restoration of original prairie vegetation at Kildeer Plains in 1953 and the dedication of the Bigelow Cemetery State Nature Preserve in 1979. “Cinderella of the Trees,” his April 6, 1947 description of the Juneberry, or Serviceberry tree, made me take a closer look at the little tree in my yard whose delicate white flowers are a welcome sight to people hungry for spring.

The book includes a few photographs of Thomas. In one on the page opposite the publisher’s statement, he’s perched on the steps of his Neotoma cabin in 1933, nattily outfitted for the outdoors in a cap, a sweater and trousers, a white shirt and a tie, and one great pair of boots.

I also tracked down a few of Thomas’s other publications, such as Insect Friends and Foes (1932), Insect Life-Stories (1940), and The Orleton Farm Mastodon (1952), his account of the consultations that took place after workmen discovered a mastodon skeleton about 11 ½ miles northwest of West Jefferson in Madison County in November 1949.

Thomas's Neotoma cabin, at Clear Creek Metro Park

Thomas’s Neotoma cabin, at Clear Creek Metro Park.  In 1921, Thomas purchased 80 acres of land in the Neotoma Valley, in Clear Creek (Hocking County), Ohio. Staying in a refurbished cabin there, he and his friends explored the area, finding Ohio’s first specimen of the rare Allegheny wood rat in 1923.

Thomas was instrumental in the formation of the Metropolitan Park District of Columbus and Franklin County. In 1975, a 310-acre nature preserve in Sharon Woods Metro Park was named for him. He was a member of numerous professional and fraternal societies, including my favorite Kit-Kat Club, a social and literary club formed in 1911, in which membership is limited to 39 noted Columbus men.

In 1938, Thomas married Marian Washburn. The couple had one daughter, Elizabeth Zane Thomas Smith. Thomas lived to the age of 90; he died on February 16, 1982.

The Edward S. Thomas Papers (MSS 751) and the Edward S. Thomas Audiovisual Collection (AV 193) are part of the collections at the Ohio Historical Society’s Archives/Library. Besides those three journals, the manuscript collection includes typescript copies of Thomas’s Dispatch articles, his field observation notebooks that he kept from 1943 to 1980, extensive material on his bird banding activities, documentation of his travels from 1938 to 1978, and his unpublished book on Ohio orthoptera, among other things.

“Portrait of Professor Naturebug,” a seven-minute interview with Thomas from March 1980, is part of the audiovisual collection. It also includes 68 Dufay color transparencies that Thomas took of flowers, plants, natural landscapes, insects, birds and reptiles in the late 1930s.

A lapidary caddy that Thomas used as a camera field kit, together with the circa-1937 Kine Exakta I 35 mm camera from Dresden, Germany that Thomas used from 1931 to 1962, are part of the Ohio Historical Society’s museum collections.

This entry was posted in Birds, Books, Columbus, Nature/Outdoors, Ohio, Ohio History Connection (formerly the Ohio Historical Society), Ohio State University, Special Collections. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to If Only I’d Worked at the Ohio Historical Society When Naturalist Edward Sinclair Thomas Did

  1. Stephanie says:

    I was wondering if you know exactly where E. S. Thomas’s field notes are because when you look on the OHC’s archive they don’t show up. Were they in the natural history department or can they be found in the archives?

  2. Ken says:

    I just stumbled across while doing my own research on Thomas in Columbus. When you use their catalog, make sure you look in the section that says archives or manuscripts, below the books. If it helps, his collection is MSS 751.

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