Reclaiming the legacy of an underappreciated ecologist and educator on the St. Lawrence River
By Robin Catalano
On sparsely populated Wellesley Island—part of the Thousand Islands archipelago, on the New York side of the St. Lawrence River—you can drive for miles without seeing a home or a business. If you’re like most visitors, you might point your car down the long, tree-lined path on the southeastern tip, into Wellesley Island State Park, stop at the Minna Anthony Common (MAC) Nature Center, check the trail map, and head out for a scenic hike. As you step onto River Trail, which winds along the water, you might give only a passing thought to the facility, which sounds like it could have been named for a wealthy benefactor.
But the MAC Nature Center isn’t a philanthropist’s vanity project. It was named for, and contains most of what we know about, an accomplished ecologist and educator whose name is unfamiliar only because she happened to live in a time when career ambition was considered unnecessary, if not unseemly, for a woman. Her influence, however, is profound, especially here on the islands of New York’s North Country.
Minna Anthony was born in 1882. Her mother died five weeks later from diphtheria, and Minna’s grief-stricken father took her to live with his mother, Amelia Brown Anthony, in nearby Watertown, New York. The family spent every summer in the Thousand Islands Park, where Minna immersed herself in nature. “From [these early explorations] she developed a pretty deep connection to the place and nature, which sort of fueled everything else,” said Molly Farrell, a Watertown-based ecologist and the former director of the MAC Nature Center.
That the “everything else” happened at all is nothing short of astonishing. Amelia Anthony, a strict Quaker who believed that women didn’t need an education, refused to allow her granddaughter to enroll at St. Lawrence University, where she’d been awarded a full-tuition scholarship. Instead, Minna participated in a post-high-school program—the early-twentieth-century equivalent of teacher certification—to become a public school teacher. She maintained this career for several years, until she married James Common, a traveling salesman.
Not content to vanish into domestic life, Minna took summer classes on plants and nature with Cornell Cooperative Extension. One of her teachers was Anna Botsford Comstock, a naturalist and scientific illustrator, the first female professor at Cornell University, and one of the founders of the environmental education movement—then known as “nature study.” The seeds were planted for merging Minna’s two main interests: nature and education.
Recognizing the need for additional knowledge, Minna called on the resources of those around her. She learned botany from a friend who had studied the subject in college. She took pen-and-ink drawing lessons from a local art teacher. She convinced her elder sister, Hattie, who had been whisked off to the Midwest by their father when Minna was still in diapers, to teach her oil painting during one of Hattie’s rare visits to the Thousand Islands.
These new skills began to inform her daily rambles over Wellesley’s inimitable landscape of whispering forests, glacial potholes, and overlooks that open onto dramatic sweeps of coastline and hushed bays. Minna was in near-constant motion, spending most of her days outdoors, a sketchbook at the ready. (Her husband, by all accounts, wasn’t around enough to object to her work. But neither, said Farrell, was he especially supportive of it.) She was such an active presence around the island that, many years later, the late Vera Common Parmiter, Minna’s youngest child, vociferously objected to the MAC Nature Center’s initial exhibit rendering of her mother as a serene senior gazing out at the world from a porch rocking chair.
Minna became a prolific artist and writer. Between 1922 and 1950, she was widely published in the New York Times, New York Herald-Tribune, Bird Lore, Auk, and the Christian Science Monitor, penning lyrically-leaning articles such as “Planting Ferns in the Garden; Best in Masses, There Are Varieties That Thrive in Sun or Shade,” “The Month for Baby Birds as They First Try Their Wings,” and “Tempting Birds to Stop Over; Food and Protection Are What They Seek in Their Flight.” Two per week—one on plants and one on birds—went to her own column in the Watertown Daily Times, right up until she died. (The MAC Nature Center reprints an article in each edition of its newsletter.)
Wellesley Island’s location along the Atlantic Flyway gave Minna access to a rich diversity of birds. For the twenty-four years before her death in 1950, she conducted the annual local bird census for the Audubon Society and the North Country Bird Club, the latter of which she founded. She also served as the official Federal Bird Observer for Jefferson County, New York, and a local bird-migration expert for the National Fish and Wildlife Service.
Minna, whom Farrell describes as a “pretty well-rounded general ecologist,” took a surprisingly forward-thinking approach to ecosystem interdependence. She became incensed when local residents began killing hawks, which they believed were picking off domesticated chickens. Citing a series of scientific studies that analyzed the contents of hawks’ stomachs and their musculature, Minna penned an article demonstrating that the hawks weren’t responsible for the chicken-snatching. And she urged readers to look at the bigger picture of an animal’s place in the food chain and its function within its ecosystem. “That’s not the way people thought in 1930,” Farrell said. “That, to me, is a profoundly different way of looking at the world.”
As other leaders of her time pushed for industrial progress, Minna focused on preservation and education. In 1934, when the Thousand Island Park Commission planned to harvest lumber on the hillside near her home, Minna countered not with a protest, but with a proposal: she’d create and maintain a nature trail on the land instead, and use it for public education. Environmental educator Gabriela Padewska, who now directs the MAC Nature Center, said, “She saw that nature was something important to preserve for its own sake.”
The Park Commission agreed. So, with the budget ($10) and muscle provided by the commission, Minna and her daughters—including Catherine Common Johnson, a journalist—helped blaze the 1.6-mile Rock Ridges Trail. In a detailed journal, the ecologist documented the work, her observations of flora and fauna along the trail, and the creation of two gardens. She also kept head counts of visitors who came through the trail each year, including hundreds of local college students who lined up to take outdoor classes with her.
After Minna’s passing in 1950, and with most of her children having moved away, the trail fell into disrepair. In the 1980s, when the first whisperings began about opening the Thousand Islands Park to development, Catherine led the effort to block development. She and her friends reblazed Rock Ridges and applied for—and won—Forever Wild status for the park. To this day, the trail and the Wellesley Island State Park are kept close to their natural state, with as little human interference as possible.
Minna Anthony Common appears to have been a respected scientific figure of her day. So why, with her formerly high profile and rich back catalog of work, is our knowledge of her confined mostly to the personal recollections of family members—oral histories Farrell collected during her time at the MAC Nature Center?
For one, you won’t find many of her articles by Googling Minna’s name; most of her work was published under her married name, Mrs. James Common. Which leads to a second point. “So many things that women have done throughout history get lost…because they’re looked at differently than what men do,” says Farrell. “It’s often true of women in history that they’re forgotten.”
To honor Minna’s contributions, Catherine spearheaded the building of the MAC Nature Center in 1969. These days, about thirty-eight thousand people from ten countries come through the Nature Center each year, many of them schoolchildren, to take part in programming like nature journaling, flora and fauna identification, or viewing plein air paintings inspired by the natural landscape. Others participate in birding programs, such as bald eagle spotting and the annual Christmas bird count. Still, few visitors realize the extent of Minna’s impact on the study of the region’s ecology or on early environmental education.
Leslie Johnson, Minna’s great-granddaughter and a member of the MAC Nature Center board of trustees, said this is partly because Minna’s focus was local, and the North Country generally doesn’t garner the attention of, say, the Hudson Valley. The best way to continue Minna’s legacy, said Johnson, is to “build out educational programs and shed light on the importance of environmental education.”
She continued: “Minna’s concern wasn’t around being well-known. Her dedication was to sharing nature and preserving it, and educating others about conservation. So maybe we need to look on a larger scale, get the word out to a new world of people who don’t know about her influence and legacy.” ■
*Correction: an earlier version of this story said that Catherine Common Johnson was a scientist. She was a journalist. We regret the error.
Robin Catalano is a travel writer based in the upper Hudson Valley. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, Travel + Leisure, Fodor’s, ROVA, Boston Globe, Albany Times Union, AAA, and a variety of other national and regional publications. Visit her at oncemoretotheshore.com.
Cover image of Wellesley Island by Doug Kerr (creative commons).
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