In Haddonfield, 'diving into history, and learning about nature'

Robin Walters (center), a science teacher and adviser, and Kim Custer (right), also an adviser, discuss the book project with the Nature Club at Haddonfield Middle School.
Robin Walters (center), a science teacher and adviser, and Kim Custer (right), also an adviser, discuss the book project with the Nature Club at Haddonfield Middle School. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 25, 2014

HADDONFIELD Samuel Nicholson Rhoads (1862-1952), the globe-trotting amateur naturalist from Haddonfield, shared his findings with his hometown and the world.

Several thousand birds, mammals, insects, and plant specimens he collected during the late 19th and early 20th centuries are housed in the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.

Rhoads penned accounts of his travels for Haddonfield's weekly Gazette, and had articles peer-reviewed and published in the scientific press. He donated his papers to the Haddonfield Historical Society, which he helped establish in 1914.

And this year, some of his words are being digitized with the help of borough students like Natalie Naticchia, 13, who's in seventh grade.

"We're diving into history and learning about nature at the same time," says Naticchia, whom I met, along with seven of her classmates, in the Haddonfield Middle School library on Tuesday.

"It feels kind of cool, connecting with the past," says eighth grader Helen Chung, 14.

Since January, the students have met weekly to transcribe Rhoads' handwritten field journals from a seven-month solo collecting trip to Ecuador - where he discovered three new bird species - in 1911.

Their work will be incorporated into an interactive children's textbook about Rhoads that the society plans to publish this year.

The 32-page hardbound volume will include the students' names and will be available for use in the borough schools. It will also be for sale, with proceeds benefiting the society's publishing fund.

"The students are absolutely loving working on it," says science teacher Robin Walters, who's the adviser to the Nature Club at Haddonfield Middle. "They're going to be part of history."

The idea for a Rhoads book arose four years ago, as the society's Kim Custer and other preservationists researched Boxwood Hall, a historic Haddon Avenue property where a youthful Rhoads often visited his grandfather and other members of his prominent family.

"There once rose a mighty specimen of the Red Maple which greatly endeared itself to the youthful heart," he writes in a typical passage from Boyhood Memories of Boxwood Hall, published posthumously by the society in 1967.

"He basically said the reason he became a naturalist was Boxwood Hall's natural setting," says Custer, whose daughter, Claire, 13, is one of the student researchers. The kids chose the new book's title: The Rhoads of Haddonfield: Birds, Books and the Big Adventure of Samuel.

"We didn't just want to do a book and have it sit on a shelf," Custer says, noting that the students are also devising classroom exercises that will end each chapter.

Rhoads "was a very, very important collector," says Nate Rice, ornithology collection manager at the Academy of Natural Sciences. "His specimens are still used by scientists for all sorts of biological inquiries. His notes are still studied today.

"His Ecuador stuff was really some of the first well-prepared and data-rich specimens to come out of South America," Rice continues, adding that Rhoads' detailed observations of flora, fauna, and climate are invaluable to contemporary researchers.

"It's a really powerful tool," he says. "There were lots of gentlemen naturalists, but they were at museums. Rhoads did his own stuff."

The book project is particularly welcome news for Rhoads' grandson, Evan Lawrie Rhoads Jr., 91.

"My father used to tell my brother and I about [Samuel's] background," the Haddonfield native and retired businessman tells me by phone from Medfield, Mass. "I remember reading some of the letters that my grandfather wrote to his own father when he was on expedition in Central America and needed $100."

Samuel Rhoads was ill for some time before his death in a Montgomery County hospital.

"I remember going to visit my grandfather as a little boy," Rhoads says. "He was dressed, and in a rocking chair, and speaking in a very soft voice. You had to really listen to hear him."

Thanks to the society's book project - and the Nature Club kids - Samuel Nicholson Rhoads' words soon will be freshly available to young people in Haddonfield. And the world.


kriordan@phillynews.com

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

www.inquirer.com/blinq

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