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My Father; Ernest Jesse Palmer (April 8, 1875 to February 25, 1962)

April 20, 2012

[[To the reader: This is the first of several blogs I will write about my father. I have chosen to start it at his 40th birthday and then go back about a dozen years. I will refer to him as “Palmer” for your benefit although I still call him “Daddy”, myself. His story is far from finished.]]

Although born in Leicester, England, Palmer had lived in Missouri since he was 3 years old and in the lead and zinc mining town of Webb City in south west Missouri since 1891 when he was 16.

In 1957, my father told me that on the evening of his fortieth birthday (April 8, 1915) he thought to himself, “If this is all there is to life, I wonder if it is worth it.”

This melancholy reflection was due to two main causes. First, since age 11 he had been the main support of his parents and older sister. Since his family put a high value on education he had attended as much school as possible, but much less than he wanted. Through initiative and hard work he had progressed from delivering heavy loads with his father’s team and wagon in his teenage years to being chief bookkeeper for a local oil company (which was destined to become a leading national company a few years later). But these jobs were in no way related to his real interests.

1895  Ernest Jesse Palmer standing behind his father's team of horses ready to deliver groceries in Webb City, Missouri

1895 Ernest Jesse Palmer standing behind his father's team of horses ready to deliver groceries in Webb City, Missouri

The proximate cause of his depression in 1915 was the First Word War. Palmer was an idealist all his life although deeply grounded in a detailed understanding of current social and political forces. Like many midwestern people of the period he had grown up in a Socialist family. He deeply believed in the Second (Socialist) International’s repeated prewar pledges (1891, 1896, 1900, 1907), that none of its members would engage in another “rich man’s war”. Instead, almost all the European Socialist parties decided to support this completely unnecessary war within weeks of its beginning in August, 1914. Palmer found theses decisions a source of great anguish and a fundamental blow to his idealism. The terrible destruction of the war was only beginning that evening in 1915, but he probably could foresee it.

In fact, in the light of day, Palmer’s life in 1915 was already well started on the road that would lead to a satisfying conclusion. From his earliest childhood he had been fascinated by all aspects of natural history. His parents encouraged this interest and were even able to buy him books on the subject, despite their borderline poverty.

In his rare free time, particularly on Sundays (at that time the six day work-week was still standard), he spent as much time as possible collecting minerals, fossils, modern shells, bird eggs, Indian artifacts, etc. In those days (long before radio or television) many people collected such things. There were several national magazines where he could post a three line advertisement for a few pennies saying that he had these kinds of specimens for sale. He soon had a following of satisfied customers. At the time, his main interest was the abundant Mississippian era marine fossils in the mine tailing piles. He began to know quite a bit about these fossils and to write to experts with questions. The experts depended on knowledgeable people like him to send them interesting specimens from out-of-the-way places. In return they sent him reference books and copies of their publications.

In 1900 his broad interest in natural history took on a new focus after he read the paper, A list of the trees, shrubs and vines of Missouri, by Benjamin Franklin Bush (December 21, 1858 to February 14, 1937). In the introduction, Bush requested “teachers, farmers and horticulturists to do all they can to further this [work] by corresponding with the undersigned, and sending twigs, leaves, flowers and fruit of every woody plant that they desire to learn the name of…” Palmer sent Bush his unknown plants and was urged to send more. Palmer’s lifelong warm friendship with Bush was cemented the following spring when Palmer began accompanying Bush “Whenever possible…as his eager assistant, guide and pupil.”

Through Bush, Palmer made his life-changing connection to the Arnold Arboretum and its founding Director Charles Sprague Sargent (April 24, 1841 to March 22, 1927) and, a bit later, to the Missouri Botanical Garden and its director William Trelease (February 22, 1857 to January 1, 1945). Bush was already sending specimens to both. Sargent had a particular interest in the genus Crataegus (hawthorns). There were many forms of this genus around Webb City which were generally considered new species at this time. Soon Sergeant discovered that Palmer was an even better collector than Bush, who was very good. This resulted in two remarkable visits to Webb City.

Hugo de Vries (February 16, 1848 to May 21, 1935) is the Dutch botanist who discovered mutations and re-discovered the fundamental laws of genetics (originally found by Mendel but unknown to Professor de Vries and the rest of the world at first). When de Vries visited the United States in 1904, he asked Sargent and Trelease for recommendations of where he could go to get the best introduction to the American flora. One of their suggestions was to visit Palmer when he was free to botanize. Professor de Vries did so, staying at the house Palmer and his father, Amos, had designed and built with their own hands in Webb City. And in 1907, Sargent, a man of great inherited wealth and accustomed to being waited on by a staff of liveried servants, also stayed at the house.

Eventually, Palmer was invited to publish on his natural history collections. December, 1910 marks the appearance in the Transactions of the Academy of Science of St. Louis (Vol. 19, No. 7) of Palmer’s first botanical work, Flora of the Grand Falls Chert Barrens.

This early work on botanical ecology records Palmer’s collection of plants in an area of bare rock near a stream. This peculiar area yielded a number of species not found elsewhere in the area—species which could survive in rigorous conditions of alternate very moist and very dry soil where the common local flora could not. Palmer describes the location, the geology, geological history and ecology of the area in great detail. He appends a list of 117 plants collected in the approximately two square mile area, collected as he modestly says, in “several hasty collecting trips at various times of the year, although scarcely covering the entire season.”

June 15, 1926:  Ernest Jesse Palmer botanizing at Camp McGuire in the Davis Mountains of Texas.  (He undoubtedly named the camp for the ranch foreman who gave him permission to camp there.  The bundles are herbarium specimens of dried plants.)

June 15, 1926: Ernest Jesse Palmer botanizing at Camp McGuire in the Davis Mountains of Texas. (He undoubtedly named the camp for the ranch foreman who gave him permission to camp there. The bundles are herbarium specimens of dried plants.)

Sources: Beginning quotation from EJP recounted to TWP when EJP was ready for an operation which the doctors said he might not survive. In fact, he lived five more years. Quotations about B. F. Bush are from Palmer’s beautiful obituary: Benjamin Franklin Bush, The American Midland Naturalist, Vol. 18, No. 3, pp. i – vi, May, 1937.


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