How We Came To Be

The History of the Bergen Swamp Preservation Society

By Dr. Ronald Dilcher - May 1987

This is an abbreviation of an oral presentation prepared from a fuller history of the Society written for the 50th Anniversary of the Society (1986) by Dr. Ronald Dilcher, who was then Professor, Department of Biology, SUNY at Brockport and BSPS Trustee and Former President of the Board.

In 1935 William P. Alexander, of the Buffalo Museum of Sciences, wrote in the Courier-Express "Swamp Drainage Is Seen As A Scientific Calamity." He was concerned about Bergen Swamp; he feared that the Swamp was going the way of the Great Tonawanda Swamp in nearby Elba that, again, onions would replace orchids there in Genesee County. But, there was little he could do about his indignation, except write it out.

Over in Rochester, Mary Slifer read Alexander's article. Mary was Director of the Seventh District Federated Garden Clubs of New York. She needed a conservation project to focus her organization. Mary had visited Bergen Swamp with botanist Milton Baxter, possibly as part of a Burroughs-Audubon Nature Club program. They both belonged to BANC, Mary and Milton. In any event, Professor Alexander's article struck a responsive chord, and Mary had a project for her garden clubs. "Save a Swamp". "Save Bergen Swamp". Now, how do you do it? She called in her friends.

Twenty-three people met in Mary Slifer's home later that year to talk about "The Project." They came from garden clubs; from BANC; from the University of Rochester, from the Botany Section of the Rochester Academy of Science; and from the New York State Forestry Association. One, Walter Swan, was an attorney.

It was not a new idea, this "Save Bergen Swamp" thing. At the turn of the century, George T. Fish and Florence E. Beckwith, both botanists in the Rochester Academy of Science, had tried to persuade Bergen farmers to make "The Swamp" a bird sanctuary. They knew no one would make it a plant sanctuary nor would it become a bird sanctuary. The whole idea quieted during the Great War, and during the roaring twenties that followed.

But there were some powerful conservation movements loose in America at the turn of the century. John Burroughs not only spawned Rochester's Burroughs-Audubon Nature Club; he also stimulated Teddy Roosevelt's conservationist conscience, and the National Parks system was born. Bull Moose Roosevelt, himself, was a fetching role model for the likes of Rochester's Walter Swan and Pittsford's Franc Pugsley. Burroughs and Roosevelt's conservationism made Mary Slifer's Project respectable to influential people in Rochester.

There were other forces at work. Ellwanger and Barry, and George Vick had made Rochester a thriving nursery center. That nursery industry sparked a sensitivity to plants and landscaping. The public parks system included treasures designed by Frederick Law Olmstead himself. And there was a blooming national garden club movement, perhaps in part seeded during the Edwardian era.

Buffalo, Rochester and Byron garden clubs sustained BSPS during its first 25 years. Statewide, the New York State Federated Garden Clubs made "Save Bergen Swamp" their conservation project from 1949 through 1951. In 1947, as the result of Ann Angle's efforts, the Garden Club of America gave BSPS its Founders Award of $1200.

Scientists in the area's great universities and in the Rochester Academy of Science knew the richness and fragility of Bergen Swamp. And so, certain people and certain organizations and certain social forces came to focus in Mary Slifer's living room that evening in 1935. The people decided that a new organization was needed a private organization, one chartered by New York State, but not controlled by New York State, with a well defined objective namely, "to preserve inviolate for all time Bergen Swamp" and other property. They called themselves the "Bergen Swamp Preservation Society, Inc. Awkward, and different

Think about it, it is a Society, not a club. The focus is to buy a swamp, not to build programs for its members. It is chartered to "preserve inviolate for all times" those lands which it owns; it has no legal obligation to manage its lands to produce a crop of game or timber. In fact, it is forbidden to do so. And it is incorporated to use private funds rather than State funds. We still await the State's meaningful decision to preserve land, and non-game fauna and plant life in our region, rather than to manage for harvest.

This private, preservationist society has five sanctuaries in four counties in the Greater Genesee County. Unlike Bergen Swamp, the other four sanctuaries each started with an outright gift of land. Each sanctuary has its unique features. The Bergen Swamp is a wet woods, with a complex of alkaline and acid soils, that favors a richness of plants uncommon in the area. It's a plant preserve. Zurich Bog, north of Newark in Wayne County, was given to BSPS on 10 December 1957 by Lyman Stuart and the Newark School District. It is essentially an advanced sphagnum bog surrounded by spectacular geomorphic features that we think should be added to the preserve. Taylor Memorial Marsh, north of Honeoye in Ontario County, was given to BSPS in 1957 by Mrs. George Taylor, in memory of her husband. It is a marsh-swamp complex that Mrs. Taylor required be preserved as a non-hunting refuge. Hotchkiss Woodland Preserve, north of Lyons in Wayne County, is an alluvial, second growth woodland. It was given to BSPS on 5 December 1961 by Miss Anne Hotchkiss in memory of her family. Formerly a farm to raise peppermint for the Hotchkiss Essential Oils Company, and subsequently a source of basket willows for an infant basket industry, it is now a maturing woods. Slater Memorial Preserve, near Dansville in Steuben County, is part of an old hillside farm given jointly to the Burroughs-Audubon Nature Club and BSPS by Floyd and Elizabeth Slater, on 26 January 1983. Their interest, and its value, lies in the diversity of plants and birds that flow with the successional stages there.

Of these, two of them, Bergen Swamp and Zurich Bog are National Natural Landmarks. In fact, Bergen Swamp was the first site ever given that recognition. The glacial boulder on Torpy Hill (now across from caretaker's residence) that holds the Landmark plaque was found on the Starowitz farm.

So what's new? What has the organization done since the days of the founding gentry? Perpetuate itself, and that's a major accomplishment not to be taken for granted. "The Project" had a certain early life of its own, rooted as it was in the aspirations and ideals of Walter Swan, Mary Slifer, Franc Pugsley and Sherman Bishop. The outstanding people they attracted to "The Project" carried the Society through its expansionist years. Those new comers included Dr. Richard Goodwin, Dr. Walter Muenscher, Edwin Foster, Dr. Babette Brown Coleman, Dr. Ted Boardman and Mrs. Vera Boardman, Dr. and Mrs. R. Eliot Stauffer, Ann Angle, Bob McKinney, Mr. Ezra Hale, Jeanette Klute, David Mynott, Clair Smith, Jerry Durand, George Lookup - the others will have to wait for the 75th Year Celebration coming in 2011.