Two Naturalists of Oneida, New York

Written by Charles E. Page in the Year 2002

In the late 1930’s a not uncommon sight, was of two roughly dressed men nosing around in unexpected places, that is, you might notice them if you frequented such places as the back roads, fields, and swamps of Madison County and New York State. One was a rather gaunt, older man in his late sixties, the other being younger, stockier, and in his forties. They might be taken for a couple of tramps or hobos, except for the back packs and camera equipment they sometimes had with them.The first was Dr. Robert L. Crockett, a well-known Oneida doctor specializing in ailments of the eyes, ears, nose and throat. The second was my father, Clayton L. Page, Vice President of the bank known as the Madison County Trust and Deposit Company, located where the Chase Bank is now. [Corner of Main and Farrier].

Their mutual interest in nature and, especially, botany brought them together in a relationship that lasted through the 1930’s until the death of my father in 1940. They traveled all of Central New York, the Adirondacks, and other places around the state, studying, classifying and collecting specimens of a variety of plant species. Crockett specialized in photographing flowering plants while my father studied grasses, mosses, and lichens, but they both took great interest in all plant and animal life, as well as geological formations, rocks, etc.

My father did his collecting in the warmer months and worked on classifying in the winter. Specimens of the mosses as collected were put into small envelopes with detailed labels telling exactly where and under what conditions they had been found. He could delay the classification because mosses could be thus dried out and later "brought back to life" using hot water. They could then be dissected and classified using a microscope to examine the flowers and other parts.

A lot of the time they used the state’s contour maps to locate and pinpoint likely sites for exploration and to keep them from losing their way in wilderness areas. They had maps covering most of the state. I, and many times our whole family, accompanied them. They kept records of exactly where certain plants were found and shared this information with the State Botanist in Albany, Homer House. Often Mr. House would accompany them to see a particular plant’s location. Both men made donations of their collectionss to the College of Forestry at Syracuse University.

Each general site was named and the exact location where certain plants grew was recorded. Site names were like The Lily Swamp [near Pine Woods], The Burleson and Dennison Gorges [off Creek Road Town of Lincoln], Bergen Swamp [near Rochester], Fiddler’s Green [near Pecksport], the Trillium woods on Munnsville East hill, The Devil’s Oven [near Stockbridge Falls].

While they traveled together when their individual schedules permitted, much of the time they pursued the hobby individually, and compared notes later.

One evening I went with my father and mother [Erma] to explore the Lily Swamp. We were deep in the swamp when my mother tripped and sprained her ankle. She couldn’t walk on it, so my father and I "made a seat" by holding hands and carried her out.

One time my father, Dr. Crockett and I were hiking around in the "Sand Plains" [somewhere over in Blossvale-Rome area]. As usual, they each sort of went their own way when exploring a site. We lost track of Dr. Crockett and we went back to the car. We waited a long time for him to show. They both had always bragged they never got lost. Finally, the doctor came trudging out of the woods quite a long way from where we went in. When we asked, "Did you get lost?" He answered, " No, but there was a while I didn’t know just where I was". They always carried compass and map.

A story that was told around Oneida was that a man with a very serious eye problem contacted a well known hospital in New York City that had a reputation for outstanding work in the field of eye surgery. [Maybe cataracts?] The man made an appointment, went to NYC and had the operation. In the recovery room he asked the name of the surgeon. They told him they had called in the most qualified doctor they knew of. It was Dr. Robert L. Crockett of Oneida.

I was with them a lot and I really enjoyed it. Later when I had gotten my learner’s permit to drive a car, they would have me drive them slowly along back roads [about ten or fifteen miles per hour] while their eyes were glued to the roadsides watching for likely flowers or exploration sites. All of a sudden they might yell, "stop". They would get out, to check on some plant or maybe have me pick them up farther down the road or around "the other side of that hill".

One time in the mountains near Lake Placid my whole family went along. The doctor and my father planned to climb Mt. MacIntire [Algonquin], and spend the night near the top [at last water] in a makeshift tent made by draping a piece of Kraft paper over a pole. They stayed up there one night, and the doctor wanted to stay another. This showed one situation where those two had philosophical differences. My father put his family first, being reluctant to do things without including his family, while the doctor was so absorbed in his hobby, he would let everyone else take care of themselves. I with my mother and sisters had spent the one night in a lean-to called Avalanche Camp. [My sister slept very little from worrying about bears]. My father was nervous about leaving us alone that one night, and would not do it a second time. We met him at the lean-to at Indian Falls where we spent the next night before climbing the rest of the way up Mt. Marcy. Dr. Crockett went to Elk Lake and met us back at the Adirondack Lodge the following night.

The doctor was always glad to have our family go along. He could get us to help carry his camera equipment, tripods, etc. But he also was a willing teacher to anyone who was interested. In the mountains he always carried morphine with him in case of an accident. He kept up well with us younger people. Being bent on getting to some specimen, he would absent-mindedly "stumble along" through wet areas or among the rocks on the mountain, and we expected he would "break his neck". Of course we kids considered him "old". At my age now, I know he "was just a kid".

Dr. Crockett had dry sense of humor, but my father had more of an active one, like a kid. One evening when were at our camp near Stockbridge Falls, somewhere on the way home from work he got hold of an old spark coil that came out of a Model T car. It was a wooden box about four inches wide and maybe ten inches long with several terminals sticking out of it. He told us how, when he was a kid, he had hooked one up to various things including an outhouse seat. When people went in and were comfortably seated, a little spark would enliven their day in a hurry. He showed us how to use it. It required a "dry cell" battery that at that time were used in rural telephones. The battery was round and about 2 or 3 inches in diameter and maybe 10 inches high. When hooked to the coil it would throw a big spark a half or three quarters of an inch long.We didn’t use it on any outhouses, but we did use it occasionally on the barbwire fence around the camp property. When the neighboring cows poked their heads through the fence to get the "grass that was greener" on our side, a quick little shot would make them jump back. One day Mr. Diable came along the fence making repairs. He came over to the house to visit for a few minutes and then went back over the fence. Holding down the top wire and stepping over [The "approved method" of crossing a barbwire fence], we helped him over with a little shot from the coil. He rose up and yelled, among other things, "BEES!". He never did find out that it wasn’t bees. We almost collapsed from laughing. My father didn’t tell us to do it, but he didn’t tell us not to.

Also my father liked to poke fun at "stuffed shirts" and snobbish overly dignified people who looked down on others. He liked to say that the stiff starched collars, that were "standard dress" for bankers at that time, "shut off their brains".

A story was told how he surreptitiously shot paper clips at a bank director’s meeting. At that time directors’ meetings were held in the evenings on the second floor which was a mezzanine or balcony overlooking the main floor of the bank. A rubber band, held out of sight below the level of the tabletop, would send a big paper clip flying down into the far corner of the darkened first floor, and make a loud echoing sound in the far end of the dark empty room below. It was a while before anyone discovered what was causing those noises. And all the time may father was snickering inside. It was nice change from the somewhat boring, dignified meeting.

Once when we kids were quite young we woke up one morning to find our clothes tied up in knots. It was April Fool’s day and my father was up early. You might say, as "Maxwell Smart" would say, "It’s the old tie up the clothes at the swimming hole trick". My mother also got into the act by filling the sugar bowl with salt and sewing the silverware to the tablecloth with a light-colored thread. Dr. Crockett’s sense of humor was different, but the two men got along well and had great respect for each other. This rather "odd couple" was a good subject for the local newspapers. We have several clippings and pictures of their exploits.

Page and Crocket in the Bergen Swamp

"Page[left] and Crocket in the Bergen Swamp in 1930's"


"Botanists Home with Rare Specimens [Crockett at left]"

The above picture came from an Oneida Daily Dispatch clipping I found in my older sister's scrap-book. There was a long article with it dateline July 9, but no notation of the year. It had to be in the 1930's however.The caption under the picture read as follows: "Inspecting specimens and photographs procured while on their recent expedition to the Adirondacks, Dr. Robert L. Crockett and Clayton L. Page, amateur botanists of Oneida are shown classifying and cataloguing a particularly good specimen of the Lapland Rose, which grows only a mile above sea level. Dr. Crockett is handing Mr. Page a color photograph of this specimen which he took on the expedition. The particular picture and plant were procured by the two atop Mount MacIntyre".

[C.P.'s note--Mt. MacIntyre is also known as Algonquin. Algonquin is the highest of the three peaks which comprise the "MacIntyre Range". My thanks to the Dispatch for permission to use this picture and story.

Charles E. Page July 2002