Treasures in the Archives

Have you ever tried to clean out an attic, closet, or storage bin and gotten so sidetracked by all that you found—the old correspondence, photos, and other memorabilia—that you lost track of time? Hours go by as you read those letters, shuffle through the old photos, and gaze fondly at the other reminders of your past. You can’t bear to part with any of it.

Try visiting a university’s archives library sometime. It’s a treasure trove of manuscripts, letters, diaries, photographs, and other historical documents that represent the lives of other people. You can get just as lost in discovering the pasts of other people as you do in rediscovering your own.

Well, I’ve begun losing myself in university archives and other historical collections as I explore the lives of scientists who were affiliated with the Huyck Preserve long ago. Some were students or faculty members at various universities; others were affiliated with prestigious institutions such as the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Almost all of them went on to have distinguished careers.

So far I’ve visited the archives libraries at two of the universities that our researchers were affiliated with: the Harvard University Archives (“one of the oldest and largest institutional academic archives in the nation,” according to its Web site) and the Carl A. Kroch Library (where Cornell’s rare and manuscripts collections are kept).

Of course, archives libraries aren’t the only places where historical treasures are stored. You may also find such primary sources (letters, diaries, memoirs, and other original materials) in historical societies, government agencies, organizations such as the Huyck Preserve, and even with the families of the people you’re researching. I’ve been perusing the records at the Rensselaerville Historical Society and found a box with dozens of letters that Edmund Niles Huyck wrote to his family when he was a student at Williams College in the 1880s. When I get a chance, I’ll read through them and maybe find hints about how much he loved the Preserve back when the property belonged to his family. Of course, I’m going through the Huyck Preserve’s records, too, but some of the oldest ones are stored in the Mill House’s musty old basement and are heavily contaminated with mold spores. We’ll need an expert’s help to neutralize the mold before those documents can be properly examined. But that’s a story for another time.

I’m far from finished with my research. I’ll need to return to Harvard and Cornell, the Rensselaerville Historical Society, and the Huyck Preserve to continue my work. I’ll be visiting other libraries, too. Here’s a sampling of the treasures I’ve found so far.

Ed Raney (from Cornell’s collection)
I found Ed Raney’s old field notebook from 1939. Raney, who was on the faculty at Cornell, was an ichthyologist (fish biologist) and studied frogs, fish, and other creatures at the Preserve. (I wrote about him in a previous blog:

Ed Raney's field notebook that he used to jot down his observations at the Huyck Preserve in 1939.

Ed Raney’s field notebook that he used to jot down his observations at the Huyck Preserve in 1939.

Excerpts from Ed Raney’s field notebook:

June 15, 1939
Arrived at the Huyck Preserve near Rensselaerville, Albany Co., N.Y., at 8:45 p.m. Lincoln Pond is a delightful small lake with a background of woods, as viewed from the cottage porch. The water appeared brown and was clear, none going over the dam at this time. Several dead Lepomis gibbosus [pumpkinseed sunfish], Ameiurus nebulosus [brown catfish], and Perca flavescens [perch] were noted along shore near the cottage.
Rana catesbeiana [American bullfrog] and R. clamitans [green frog] calling now at 10 p.m. and are apparently fairly common. It rained considerably last night and there was a heavy wind.


June 16, 1939
Neither bullfrog nor green frog eggs were seen (nor any other frog eggs) in a trip about the pond. Occasionally one of the above called during the day and were calling tonight at Myosotis Pond as well as at Lincoln Pond. One Hyla crucifer [spring peeper frog] was also calling tonight at Lincoln Pond.
Jaw tag #49 put on side of lower jaw of a [male] Rana clamitans [frog] It was taken 1/5 of the distance to the Greene dock from our cottage (sitting on a board near shore). No measurements were taken.
One [male] Rana catesbeiana [American bullfrog] of medium size had in its stomach:
Vol. no.
5% 1 Ground beetle Carabidae
95% 3 Tent caterpillars
It was taken in the shallow water near shore—under the alders.

Eugene Odum’s letter to Ed Raney (from Cornell collection)
I also came across a letter from 1939 that Eugene Odum wrote to Raney. Odum, who was the Preserve’s first resident biologist, went on to found the field of ecosystems ecology. In the letter he mentions Donald Griffin, the bat researcher from Harvard who discovered that bats use echolocation to navigate. (For more on his work at the Preserve, read my blog post:

Eugene Odum's letter to Ed Raney (September 17, 1939)

Eugene Odum’s letter to Ed Raney (September 17, 1939)

September 17, [1939]
Dear Ed
I hope you found the “Icks and Herps” [Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists] worthwhile in Chicago. I have been getting a lot done, I think, and am also getting things organized. Griffin left Thursday and my fiancée came Friday so I have not been lonesome. We have settled on a place for the winter. Miss Gathen’s “apartment,” if you recall where that is. It is fixed up quite nice, is compact and can be kept warm, yet is roomy enough for workroom. We will probably be married Thanksgiving or Christmas.

We are leaving tomorrow for Chapel Hill and I will be back the 25th or 26th. If you come here to check on your frogs while I am away, you can get the key to the cottage from Mrs. Huyck. The electricity will be turned off, but you can turn it back on in the basement. I hope I will be back when you come. I have been so busy with other things and getting living quarter[s] straightened out that I have not attempted to look for your frogs.

Please give Charlotte my best regards. I am sure she will be pleased to know that we have made very satisfactory arrangements for the winter. Griffin and I got along well with our cooking; I cooked one week and he the next. I don’t know which was the poorest cook.

Eugene Odum

Ernst Mayr and Bill Hamilton correspondence (from Harvard collection)
Ernst Mayr, a renowned evolutionary biologist based at Harvard, was on the Huyck Preserve’s Scientific Advisory Committee in the 1940s and 1950s. As I was searching through Harvard’s “Ernst Mayr collection,” I found a 1947 letter from Cornell mammalogist William Hamilton inviting Mayr to serve on that committee. Mayr accepted (a carbon copy of that letter was in the file). Hamilton had assessed the Preserve’s scientific value in 1937, recommended that a research station be established, and chaired the Scientific Advisory Committee for many years afterward. Mayr, often referred to as “the Darwin of the 20th century,” is best known for clarifying how a new species forms and adapts to changes in its environment. (You can read more about Hamilton and Mayr in my blog post:

Bill Hamilton invited Harvard evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr to serve on the Huyck Preserve Scientific Advisory Committee. (March 14, 1947)

Bill Hamilton invited Harvard evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr to serve on the Huyck Preserve Scientific Advisory Committee. (March 14, 1947)

Hamilton to Mayr (3/14/47)

Dear Dr. Mayr,
I think you know something of the Huyck Preserve, and what the Board of Directors are attempting. After an initial survey of the flora and fauna in 1937 and 1938, the directors organized a Biological Research Division, offering fellowships of $750 each for a three-month period in the summer. The Fellows chose their own problem in the field of zoology or botany, living on the Preserve during the investigation. Among ornithologists, [Charles] Kendeigh and [Eugene] Odum have studied at the Preserve. More than thirty papers have appeared in various fields since the inception of the Biological Station.

Members of the Advisory Committee pass on applicants for summer fellowships and advise the Board of Directors in any way they are called upon to help. The present members of this committee are Professor Ralph Kind, Director of the Roosevelt Wildlife Station, Syracuse, New York; Dr. John R. Greeley, ichthyologist, New York State Conservation Department; Dr. Lewis A. Eldridge of Great Neck; Dr. Thomas Ordway of Albany; and myself as chairman.

We should like very much to add your name to the Scientific Advisory Committee. The work is not onerous, perhaps one meeting a year in New York or Albany and little correspondence is involved. Any travel expenses are defrayed by the Board of Directors of the Preserve.

W. J. Hamilton.

Mayr to Hamilton (3/17/47)

Dear Dr. Hamilton,
I shall be very glad to serve the Edmund Niles Huyck Preserve as [a] member of the Scientific Advisory Committee. Through my friendship with Bill Vogt, I have been interested in the Preserve since its very beginning and have been in contact with a number of the investigators who have worked there. I also once visited the Preserve together with the late Dr. [Kingsley] Noble.

As far as field work and research are concerned, I am particularly interested in studies of individual species, as well as in specific ecological problems. On the other hand, I feel that the description and census taking of habitats have reached a point where the law of diminishing returns is beginning to make itself felt.

Among specific investigators that come to my mind, I am particularly interested in Professor Pontus Palmgren, the outstanding Finnish ecologist. He has expressed an interest to come to the United States, and the University of Wisconsin, as well as the Cranbury Institute of Science, [are] interested in inviting him to the United States. I think it would be a great thing not only for Professor Palmgren, but also for the Preserve if we could bring him here for a study period. No doubt it will be too late to do it this season, but I wish we could consider it for 1948.

Yours sincerely,
Ernst Mayr

mayr-to-hamiton-Pages from Carter copy order 5-23-14-2

• Edward Raney’s field notebook and correspondence: Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library: Edward Raney Papers, 1937-1969; Call number 53-2-2391; (Box 14: field notebook; Box 3: folder “O”)
• William Hamilton’s correspondence with Ernst Mayr: Harvard University Archives; Request HUG(FP) 14.7, Box 4, Filed in folder 188

About L. Stephenson Carter

L. Stephenson Carter is a science writer/editor and was also on the board of directors of the E.N. Huyck Preserve in Rensselaerville, NY.
This entry was posted in historic research, Huyck Preserve, Natural History, researchers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Treasures in the Archives

  1. Sue Beatty says:

    Wow! Such an incredible collection of outstanding biologists who were part of the early Huyck Preserve. It truly emphasizes how important a field research station can be to giving young scientists a start in research, and the opportunity to meet other scientists who will remain colleagues for decades to come. Thank you for continuing to uncover these incredible relationships.

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