Tuesday, March 16, 2010

More from the Ward Family Archives

This September 1950 issue of Collier's magazine included a fascinating story about  Ward's Natural Science, the company founded by Andrew's ancestor, Henry Augustus Ward in 1862.

I've begun typing the text of this article. Due to its length, it will be posted in two installments. Here is part 1:

What Do You Collect
Butterflies or Hippo Skulls?

Or maybe just the hipbone of the extinct moa bird? Whatever it is, you're likely to find it among a million items in this scientists' "country store"

By James Poling

If you harbor a suppressed desire to own your own museum, you will be pleased to learn that $463.15 will do the trick for you. For that sum of money Ward’s Natural Science Establishment will send you 10 comprehensive and eye-catching collections of rock, animal, mineral, bird, fossil, sea-shell, insect, coral, soil and sponge specimens, all neatly packaged for display and labeled with tongue-torturing names. For an additional $205 you can obtain a human skeleton “unsurpassed in strength, durability and fine appearance.” And, if you have the bank account to provide the incentive, this curious mail-order establishment will unearth for you a duplicate of practically any item on display in any natural-history museum in the world.

Housed in the ramshackle buildings of an old winery on the shores of Lake Ontario, outside of Rochester, New York, Ward’s must be seen to be disbelieved. For 88 years this firm, the oldest scientific establishment of its kind, has been selling items ranging from a 600-pound sea shell to a fossilized insect that was, at the last count, 500,000,000 years old. No one in the firm knows, or seems to care particularly, just how many equally fabulous items are actually in inventory. As a matter of fact, the whole establishment—with its crowded, dusty rows of specimen cabinets, its cluttered aisles, its leisurely air and its proprietors who are not at all sure just what they have in stock—has about it the air of a friendly old country store.

It is a country store with an international reputation, although paradoxically it remains practically unknown in its own township. After attending an international conclave in Australia, two French geologists decided to return home by way of the United States to visit the only two spots of interest to them in this country—Ward’s and the Grand Canyon. They found the canyon easily enough, but, after querying two Rochester hotel clerks and ten policemen, they decided the establishment was harder to locate than a vein of pararammelsbergite in the Sahara. The University of Rochester had to come to their rescue.

The company’s president has been, since 1931, Dr. Dean L. Gamble, an ex-Cornell professor of zoology. He is a meticulously dressed, solidly built, gray-haired man in his mid-fifties, with a round, pink, serious face and decisive mannerisms. He could be the prototype of the average American businessman, except that he is not above collecting earthworms by flashlight in the public parks.

Behind Dr. Gamble’s hurried, worried, precise and businesslike exterior lurks a pleasantly vague man who probably dreams more of the laboratory than he does of invoices and bills of lading. He speaks with real assurance when he describes a complicated method for dry-embalming a biological specimen. He evolved the method. On questions of overhead he seems a little uncertain.

Dr. Gamble’s office walls were erected 125 years ago and originally they enclosed the parlor of a farmhouse. Today, incongruously enough, these walls bear the studied imprint of the interior decorator. The doctor presides behind a massive desk with an impressively tidy top but when he delves into its drawers—“I know it’s here somewhere”—it takes a lot of fumbling for him to come up with whatever he’s looking for, if he ever does. Like any good country-store proprietor, however, when a customer orders one of the million or so items he stocks he can go right to the shelf where it’s kept. His partner is F. Hawley Ward, a second cousin of the firm’s founder. Hawley is a small, slight, slyly humorous paleontologist with pure white hair and a mustache that lists sharply to port. He has a an dignity that surmounts a hat worn in the Buster Keaton tradition and a collar and tie that frequently go their separate ways. He is currently in love with a recently discovered “Mystriossaurus bollensis—“He’s really quite a young fellow, you know. Can’t be a day more than 150,000,000 years old”—that looks as if it were at least kissing kin to the dragon slain by Saint George.

He works at a cluttered, ash-strewn desk, surrounded by fossils, shells, stuffed birds and battered books and is, obviously, as at home in the Pre-Cambrian era as he is in the Atomic Age. He has a rather detached attitude toward the whole business and it is easy to picture him in the presence of a fat-bellied stove, a cracker barrel and a group of cronies who share his enthusiasm for trilobites and crinoids.

Hawley Ward is above being perturbed when a three-month-old order from a university is inadvertently discovered at the bottom of a pile of his papers. After carefully replacing it back on the bottom of the pile, he says, “Dear me, we really should do something about that,” dismissed the whole matter from his mind with a wave of his tobacco-stained fingers, and continues his lament over having had to sell a museum the firm’s last mounted tarsier monkey.

Between them, Dr. Gamble and Ward are guilty of ruining an outstanding business record. It is doubtful if any other incorporated American firm ever survived so long without paying a dividend; for 84 years the firm’s purchasing requirements exhausted every dollar that wasn’t consumed in operating expenses.

In 1946, Ward’s paid its first dividend, and it has continued to show an ever-increasing profit. Last year, the firm grossed over half a million dollars.

The establishment is spread over a magnificent 67-acre tract on a high bluff overlooking Irondequoit Bay. It moved to this site in 1942 when the Rochester building was taken over for defense purposes. It is a happy natural setting for an organization trafficking in nature’s products and, although this is a scientific institution, there is nothing here that resembles an enamel and glass laboratory. The various departments of the business—biology, mineralogy, entomology (insects), osteology (skeletons), ornithology (birds), oology (birds’ eggs), conchology (marine life), paleontology (fossils), and the departments of microscopy, equipment and models—are located in a group of tree-shaded houses and barns, surrounded by abandoned vineyards that still bear purple-clustered grapes.

It is a sprawling community of unmatched structures; skeletons are assembled in a farmhouse old enough to have known spinning wheels and warming pans; an ancient stone brandy-aging shed serves the microphotographic department; and the business offices are located in a conventional frame house. The old homestead that houses Dr. Gamble’s office also shelters the insect department’s collection of over half a million species of bugs.

Treasures in the Red Barn
The scientific equipment department, which sells items ranging from  insect pins to 20-ton rock crushers, occupies the ground floor of a huge old red barn. What may well be the weirdest rubbish heap ever assembled is housed in the barn’s hayloft. The hipbone of an extinct New Zealand moa bird supports a musty, stuffed horned grebe. Elephant skulls lie buried under a collection of moth-eaten bird skins. Boxes of dust-encrusted shells rest on a pile of assorted rocks and mastodon bones. Some plaster casts of the skull of Pithecanthropus erectus and the skeleton of a cat make a jumbled heap that almost conceals a fossilized fish. Huge crates are everywhere and no one knows or is much concerned about their contents.

The establishment’s sources of revenue are as strange and assorted as the contents of its hayloft. In a reasonable typical week last fall, Ward’s shipped out a bison’s head to a well-known artist, mineralogy exhibits to Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Wayne University, a selection of bird feathers to a collector in New Zealand, and biological supplies to three high schools and seven colleges. The company also acted on a telegram from a laboratory worker at Washington State College which read, “Tragedy befell our cockroach colony. Could you send us four dozen hatchable cockroach eggs by air mail as soon as possible?”

A refractometer was shipped to a mineralogist in Sarawak, Borneo. Bed sheets were sent to an Italian hotel owner in exchange for ore specimens; nylon hose to a man in Germany in exchange for fossils; a revolver to a collector in New Guinea who sends in spectacular butterflies; and an order of 55 types of skulls was shipped to a zoological supply house in Bombay. The Bombay shipment included hippopotamus, rhinoceros, mole, gorilla, peccary, harbor seal, bear and wombat skulls.

The purchasing department was also active during the same week. It bought a selection of snow fleas from Louisiana, butterflies from Japan and Brazil, assorted mineral specimens from Canada and Australia, sea horses from Florida, starfish and squid from Italy, bats from the Philippines, and winged walking sticks from Papua. The weeks’ biggest thrill came when a Czechoslovakian sent in four trilobites, some graptolites, two curious crinoids and a few cephalopods. Fossil-loving Hawley Ward couldn’t have been more pleased.

Part 2 coming soon...


  1. Incredible article! So well written and researched! And so funny! I am in awe of this James Poling. Mr. Hawley Ward, "slyly humorous paleontologist," sounds wonderful. I hope things at Ward's haven't changed much, what a great place.

  2. What about Mystriossaurus bollensis? Andrew caught that one.

  3. Thanks for comment Gnome! That helps motivate me to type the rest.

  4. My grandfather is Dean Gamble,so that meant a lot to be able to read. I never got to know him, but now I feel like I have a little more insight to who he was. Great article.

  5. We're so excited that you found this post Whitney. Thank you for leaving a comment.

    In great admiration of your grandfather,
    Andrew and Dori