A Study of My Great Grandfather: R.J.H. DeLoach
Another Brilliant Vagabond
John Stephen Swygert
Homecoming: A Personal Experience
By R.J.H. DeLoach
The station was crowded, as usual, and crisply cold with a stiff wind whipping in viciously off Lake
Michigan a few blocks away.
It was the forenoon of March 28, 1921, but spring had not yet arrived in Chicago.
The Santa Fe Limited had just pulled in from the West Coast, adding to the general confusion of the
station, the special clamor and tumult that always accompany such an arrival.
Passengers poured down the steps, joining the stream of people on the platforms—some into the arms of waiting loved ones glad to be home, some casually losing themselves in the crowds,and others hurrying away eagerly to their business appointments.
Ladened porters and Redcaps heaved baggage to and from the loading carts, unmindful of the settling coal dust, the jets of steam from beneath the cars, and the teeming people.
But there was a special bustle about one of the Pullman cars down the line, something unusual was
taking place, and the usual crowd of curious onlookers had gathered.
A man, an invalid, apparently, was being removed on a stretcher from the train.
A section had been taken from a window, and porters were carefully easing the [stretcher out]—some working from inside and some outside below.
A man, obviously a doctor, stood outside directing.
Beside him with anxious face stood a uniformed nurse.
In a moment or two, as stretcher-bearers moved into the station waiting room with the gaunt-faced [patient], word passed through the crowd.
The sick man was John Burroughs!
And in the curious, heterogeneous throng was a singular response of recognition of the country’s famous nature lover, nature writer, and nature philosopher.
Yes, John Burroughs, aged and ill, was going home, hopefully looking forward to his 84th birthday and to spring and summer in his beloved Catskills mountains of Upper New York state.
But it was a dark, cold day in Chicago, where he had to change trains.
About two hours before his arrival at the station, I had received a letter from Dr. Clara Barrus, his
secretary and personal physician, and later his literary executor, informing me that he had become suddenly ill aboard the train.
She asked that I make the arrangements to have him removed by stretcher for the changeover.
Her wire had told me that he was “helpless,” but it did not prepare [me] for the shock of my last meeting with my old friend.
Thin, gaunt, sallow, barely able to move on the pallet we had provided for him, he seemed already almost lifeless.
Worst of all, he was unable to speak to us, but his penetrating blue eyes, not yet dulled by his suffering, told us that he recognized us. His only other communication with us was his intermittent weeping.
It was a poignant experience for those of us who knew him well.
How out of character lying there helpless on a pallet in the old railway station was the great “Sage of Slabsides.”
How far away and alien from his native Empire State mountains and the Georgia upland fields we had roamed together.
Although he evidenced extreme discomfort, he lay patiently and uncomplainingly, with thin, blue veined hands folded across the blanket, and waited for his train.
“Serene I fold my hands and wait . . . ”
The words came to me unconsciously as I looked down at him.
The line from his poem, “Waiting,” made an even deeper impression on me than it had twenty-four
years earlier when I had first read the piece.
I added the poem in its entirety to better set the mood for each reader as to what the entire text herein actually means on a whole.
by: John Burroughs (1837-1921)
- ERENE, I fold my hands and wait,
- Nor care for wind, nor tide, nor sea;
- I rave no more 'gainst time or fate,
- For, lo! my own shall come to me.
- I stay my haste, I make delays,
- For what avails this eager pace?
- I stand amid the eternal ways,
- And what is mine shall know my face.
- Asleep, awake, by night or day,
- The friends I seek are seeking me;
- No wind can drive my bark astray,
- Nor change the tide of destiny.
- What matter if I stand alone?
- I wait with joy the coming years;
- My heart shall reap where it hath sown,
- And garner up its fruit of tears.
- The waters know their own and draw
- The brook that springs in yonder height;
- So flows the good with equal law
- Unto the soul of pure delight.
- The stars come nightly to the sky;
- The tidal wave unto the sea;
- Nor time, nor space, nor deep, nor high,
- Can keep my own away from me.
- I added this as well as it further substantiates the writing itself in none other then John Burrough's handwriting itself.
- This is now a treasured family heirloom, and I have copied it here for all the world to share so that they may see what a friendship of such depth means to men that are so dedicated to their professions, their passion, and their eternal friendship.
- This is a letter from John Burroughs himself to my Great Grandfather.
- I have made photos of the original and digitally enhanced them so they may be shared, as well as the knowledge they contain that is personal and eye opening, however brief.
- This goes into great detail in few words about this particular poem, as well as what a great poem entails.
- West Park New YorkFebruary 26th 1904My dear sir:Replying to yours of the 22nd , "Waiting" was written in 1862 during a rather gloomy and doubtful period of my life. I was here, not in doubt as to my career, did not seem to be able to get hold of myself nor to bring myself to bear upon the problems before me. But underneath all was this abiding faith that I should get what belonged to me, that sooner or later I should find my own. The poem was first published in the old Knickerbocker magazine of New York in the fall of 1862 I received nothing for it. I built something illegible better than I knew. It has proved a true prophecy of my life.The "Midsummer" poem of which you inquire was written in August of the year previous to its publication, at my old home amid the Catskills. It's really an attempt to paint faithfully characteristic midsummer scenes of that beauty. I do not think it ranks high as perfect, but it is true. The genius of such a poem, is of any poem, is hidden in the matters subconsciously. I am pleased that my works have given you pleasure.Sincerely Yours,
It had occasioned our first correspondence.
I had written him to ask if he would tell me what had stimulated him to write the poem.
“I was young, and in doubt about my future,” he answered in a letter, “but underneath it all, I felt that what was mine would come to me.”
That was in 1903.
He had written the poem much earlier, before the death in 1892 of Walt Whitman, the great American poet, his friend, who had encouraged and inspired him.
Among other things, he was always one to cherish the memories of his youth, and it was perhaps in true sorrow that he learned, as all of us do at one time or another, that he could not return.
I thought of these things as I looked down at him in the station.
He was a great and famous man, and yet the things I remembered and cherished most about him were little things.
What Elbert Hubbard, a long-time friend, and one of the most distinguished Americans of his time,
said about John Burroughs, I think, is probably the most complete statement that could be made.
Following a series of visits with the naturalist, Hubbard published a small book, Old John Burroughs.
“John Burroughs is the most universal man I can name at the present moment,” Hubbard wrote.
“He is a piece of elemental nature.
He has no hate, no whim, no prejudice.
He has no airs, and he believes in the rich, the poor, the learned, and the ignorant.
He believes in the wrongdoer, the fallen, the sick, the weak, and the defenseless. He loves children, animals, birds, insects, trees, and flowers.
You would confess to this man—reveal your soul and tell the worst, and his only answer would be, ‘I know! I know!’ and tears of sympathy and love would dim those heaven-blue eyes.”
My correspondence with him about his poem began an association which lasted fifteen years. He was impressed with my interest in his work.
His first nature book, Wake Robin, which I discovered when I was very young, opened up to me the wonderful and satisfying world of nature. It made a bird-lover out of me and it has served as my bird-guide [ever] since.
Also it helped to introduce me to its author.
Although a young man then, he says in a personal autograph [that] he “lived over again the days spent with the birds amid the scenes of youth.”
Subsequent to our correspondence, he invited me to visit him at West Park, New York, and it was in December of 1906 that I met him.
“Well, you did come, didn't you,” he said as he welcomed me.
Some years before, he had built a stone mansion, a bark covered study, and an outdoor summer house at West Park, about seventy-five miles south of Roxbury, N.Y., his birthplace.
During this visit, he showed me about the place and introduced me to his hideaway, a study in the woods, over a steep hill to the west.
The rustic cabin he had named “ Slabsides ”, and it was there that he did much of his writing and where many famous people visited him year after year.
President Theodore Roosevelt called on him there and was treated to Mr. Burroughs’ famous brig and steaks, a process we would label shish kebab today.
Despite the old December weather, the ice and a little snow, we walked over the estate and grew acquainted in the woods.
I was happy to be accepted as a sort of protégé of such a man.
He did me many services, most of which he never dreamed of, and now I could only spread a pallet for him in an old railway station and he could acknowledge my efforts only by tears.
Early in the afternoon we placed him aboard the New York Central—the same precarious operation
of sliding the stretcher through the window of the Pullman car.
At 1:45 the train departed, and I had seen my old friend the last time alive.
He was going home.
He was perhaps looking for a comfortable place to die, as he had said once about a starving robin we found in a warm corner next to the chimney of my home in Georgia.
Spring was late in Athens that year.
The day had been windy and the warm sun had not been able to dispel the chill.
The bird had huddled in a corner next to the chimney, had found a cozy spot, and appeared to be half asleep.
I told [Burroughs] that [the bird] was drunk from China berries, but he said, “No, no, the bird is
perishing to death and seeking a comfortable place to die.”
To prove his point, he suggested that we dig some worms and feed him.
We found the worms easily, and went into the warmth of my library to do the feeding.
I held the bird while Burroughs fed him.
The robin swallowed the worm hungrily and begged for more.
He came to life immediately and elected to stay with us for the several days of Mr. Burroughs’ visit,
often lighting on his shoulder as he read in the library or study of my house.
As he turned it loose, Burroughs said he hoped to see it on his estate in New York that summer.
His friendliness with the birds, of course, is a thing well-fabled, but his innate understanding of
them and his human feeling for them never failed to impress me.
On my first visit to “Woodchuck Lodge,” his home at his birthplace a mile out into the hills and fields from Roxbury, he was involved in the writing of some of his philosophical papers, later recorded in his book, Ways of Nature, and had set up a workshop in an old hay barn.
Within three feet of his impromptu desk, an old dry goods box, a slate colored Junco had built a nest and was raising its young, oblivious to [Burroughs’] comings and goings or somehow understanding that this man, too, was involved in nature’s miraculous cycle.
He loved the fields and hills of Georgia and I always felt that our association, at least, gave me the
opportunity of offering an introduction to this state to [Burroughs].
Although he had passed through Georgia many times on visits to friends in Florida, he had never stopped over, until his first visit with me.
It was in 1908.
At that time, I was a botanist and plant pathologist at the Georgia Experiment Station, in the flat lands
of middle Georgia.
He was greatly impressed with our work, especially the experiments I was involved in at the time in my laboratory, and he made my lab his vacation resort—except for the time he spent roaming the nearby fields.
He was delighted with the climate, and often remarked, on his numerous visits in the early spring,
of the contrast to his native ice-covered New York state.
It was on his first visit that I encountered my most embarrassing moment with him.
As I look back now, I know that I was trying to impress him by what I said, and my face turn[s] red.
We were walking the short distance from the railway station to my home, and hearing a bird singing away in the twilight, I asked, “Do you hear that mockingbird?”
“That is not a mockingbird,” he said with his typical objectivity, “but a Brown Thrasher, a much superior singer than the mockingbird.”
I never hear a mockingbird, or a Brown Thrasher today that I do not think of that late afternoon fifty-odd
He went on to explain to me a thing that I was later able to discern with my own ear.
The Brown Thrasher, although perhaps a trifle more nervous, and certainly a “busier” bird, is more accomplished and has a better repertoire than the mockingbird.
[Burroughs’] visits to us were always a pleasure—at the Experiment Station, and later at Athens,
where I was a member of the University faculty.
His wife accompanied him on the visits, and it was a pleasure for my wife and me to entertain them.
He loved the south, as he loved all nature, and all things, but there was one southern tradition that he could not get used to—the feather bed.
My wife and I, as most of our neighbors, were proud of the deep feather-filled ticks with which we supplemented the comfort of the mattresses on our beds. It was a thing we were used to, but not so the Burroughs.
When I entered their room to awaken them, on the occasion of their first visit with us, I was shocked to see the feather tick pushed aside to the floor and my guests blissfully asleep on the single mattress.
Often he would be on the way to Florida to meet his friends, Thomas A. Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, or others.
It was in connection with one of his Florida vacations that I received an unexpected and pleasant surprise.
In March 1914, he and his wife had spent a few days with us in Georgia on their way to meet Henry Ford in Fort Myers, Florida.
A few days later, I received a highly complimentary letter from Mr. Ford, whom I had met only once previously, directing me to a nearby auto agency where I was to be presented with a brand new Model T Ford with his compliments.
I was sure that my good friend Burroughs had had a hand in this.
He was a man who always looked back to youth, not with the unhealthy nostalgia that is common with many of us, but with the wholesome appreciation of having lived days to the very fullest.
His age never dulled his enthusiasm for the outdoors, the open spaces, and the opportunity to participate in nature.
In 1916, in his late seventies, we were on a camping trip with Ford, Firestone, and Edison through the Adirondacks.
The letter also makes direct references about the specific trip listed herin with even greater detail from such a bygone era.
These men, and a few others well known today are now historically called or referred to as, " The Vagabonds", as they enjoyed these long explorations by motor car and all the while camping along the way, where they could spend time with one another sharing their respective professional crafts, music often playing the guitar, an S.S. Stewart to be exact, as well as sharing friendship, art, and other mulit-faceted topics of conversation.
We leave for your place Monday the 28th and hope you can go with us we intend going through the Catskills slowly Vince up to the Adirondacks, then over into Vermont back to New York on the other side of
Hudson River, keeping on the dirt road and avoiding the automobile roads, camping out every night, I have a tent for each of us and a cot plus bed clothes, plus all of her convenience is 17 passenger auto and an extra
Auto with truck body for the outfit. We shell travel slow speed 15 to 20 miles an hour, will have electric lights fed from battery on car plus a fan if hot, you could leave camp anytime and get home by railroad in a 5
or 6 hours, we have room for your friends the professor if you want him to come, we would not arrive at Roxbury before the 30th or 31st please Telegraph on receipt of this if the prospects look favorable for your
Thomas A. Edison
Much younger than my distinguished fellows, I was almost exhausted by the trip, but Mr. Burroughs was with them unfailingly through camping escapades through Albany, Ausable, across Lake Champlain, and on into Burlington, Vermont.
His distaste for the aroma surrounding his cigar-smoking colleagues encouraged him to withdraw aside into the woods after campfire dinner in the evenings [which] occasioned the nickname of “Tenderfoot Burroughs”
from his lifelong friend, Thomas A. Edison.
But the fellowship, the fireside jokes, and the observations of the different sections of the country we visited were always interesting to him.
In the late autumn of 1916, I moved to Chicago to direct an education bureau for the Armour Corporation.
It was here that [Burroughs] visited me regularly on stopovers from train trips to the west coast in the
latter years of his life.
The newspapers always gave considerable publicity to his visits.
On occasion, special groups would call by my house to see the great naturalist.
Once a pretty 15-year-old girl from a group of visiting teachers and students presented him with a
bouquet of red roses.
“I’m glad someone loves me,” he said to the audience on my lawn.
Then the crowd shouted, “We all do, we all love you!”
He was visibly moved by this demonstration.
Most people who knew him felt that way.
It was hard not to love John Burroughs—simple, plain, unpretentious, gentle, kind to all of God’s living things.
I remembered him and those things as I left the railway station in Chicago that day, somehow knowing that he was truly going home, that what was his had come to him, and that I wouldn’t see him in life again.
Three days later, I got the telegram from Clara Barrus.
He had died a few hours after leaving Chicago, on the fast-moving train in the eastern edge of Ohio, at 3 A.M. on March 29, . Somehow, in the miracle of death, he had managed to speak and his last words were, characteristically,
“How far are we from home?”
The telegram also asked me to act as pall bearer, among such others as Hamlin Garland, Harvey Firestone,
and Henry Ford.
Funeral services in West Park were simple, although many distinguished persons were present.
[There were a] few words by the Episcopal minister [and] two of his favorite selections from
The funeral procession went from West Park the seventy-five miles upstate to Roxbury, his birthplace.
He was buried, out in the open, at the foot of his beloved mountain, “Old Clump,” beside his boyhood thinking rock, where he often suggested that he be laid to rest.
His special friends were asked to read a short, appropriate poem relating in some way to the man.
I read a few lines from May Morgan, a friend of Burroughs, who in anticipation of his death, had written:
". . . That year unheralded the spring
Will weeping come,
With halting footsteps wondering
Why thou art dumb.
I think the very streams will know
That thou art gone,
And full of heavy sorrow, flow
More slowly on . . ."
John Burroughs had at last come home.
...and so to has my Great Grandfather, back into nature with his dear friend.
R.J.H. DeLoach's Headstone
A picture from his forever resting place, now back at home with his friends, perhaps all together now at slabsides.
If you are reading this today and have something to contribute please do touch base with me and I will happily make any additions to further compile such nearly lost history, which has been so long out of place, but may now finally come back together to better illustrate exactly what friendship shall always mean for eras to come and why great men shoulld share great thoughts, further education and literacy, and make this world an even better place for everyone to live and share while we are alive, and even long after, still ...waiting.
My Great GrandFather, R.J.H. Deloach , Robert John Henderson DeLoach
Carol Haines Wellington, the great-granddaughter of Robert John Henderson DeLoach (1873-1964), provided this text, which she typed up from the original typed document in her family’s possession.
R.J.H. DeLoach wrote “Homecoming” as a remembrance of his longtime friend John Burroughs.
They had first met in 1906, after DeLoach wrote to Burroughs about the poem Waiting, and Burroughs invited him to West Park.
They had many visits together after that, some of which are recalled here. Their last encounter was on March
28, 1921, when DeLoach lived in Chicago and Burroughs was traveling home from the West.
Burroughs had become suddenly ill aboard the train, and Clara Barrus asked DeLoach to make the arrangements to have Burroughs removed by stretcher for the changeover to the train going to the East Coast.
Burroughs died just hours later, on March 29.
The text mentions a memory with Burroughs some “fifty-odd years ago,” so this was probably written in the 1950s.
Wake-Robin Volume 41, Number 1, Summer 2008
John Stephen Swygert ~ MobiusTripz ~ rokkinroll