Sweetbrier On The Schuylkill, Philadelphia


When Samuel Breck was fifty-eight years and six months old—on January 17, 1830—he wrote:

” My residence has been . . . for more than thirty years . . . on an estate belonging to me, situated on the right bank of the Schuylkill, in the township of Blockley, county of Philadelphia, and two miles from the western part of the city. The mansion on this estate I built in 1797. It is a fine stone house, rough cast, fifty-three feet long, thirty-eight broad, and three stories high, having out-buildings of every kind suitable for elegance and comfort. The prospect consists of the river, animated by its great trade, carried on in boats of about thirty tons, drawn by horses; of a beautiful sloping lawn, terminating at that river, now nearly four hundred yards wide opposite the portico; of side-screen woods; of gardens, green-house, etc. Sweetbrier is the name of my villa.”

Mr. Breck spent his boyhood in Boston, but his parents removed to Philadelphia in 1792 to escape what they felt was an unjust system of taxation. During the first years of their residence in the city of William Penn it had “a large society of elegant and fashion-able and stylish people,” Mr. Breck said in his diary. ” Congress held its sessions in Philadelphia until the year 1800, and gave to the city the style and tone of a capital. All the distinguished emigrants from France took up their abode there.”

Among the associates of the Brecks were some of the leaders of the new nation. Samuel Breck was frequently at the Robert Morris house, and later, during the four years’ imprisonment of Mr. Morris, he ” visited that great man in the Prune Street debtors’ apartment, and saw him in his ugly whitewashed vault.”

The diarist’s comment was bitter : ” In Rome or Greece a thousand statesmen would have honored his mighty services. In a monarchy . . . he would have been appropriately pensioned; in America, Republican America, not a single voice was raised in Congress or elsewhere in aid of him or his family.”

There is not a more striking passage in the diaries than that written on August 27, 1814, during the second war with England :

” I was in town today . . . at half past twelve o’clock I went with an immense crowd to the post-office to hear the news from the South. The postmaster read it to us from a chamber window. It imported that the navy-yard had been burnt (valued at from six to eight millions of dollars) including the new frigate Essex, sloop-of-war Argus, some old frigates, a vast quantity of timber, from five to eight hundred large guns, and many manufactories of cordage, etc., by our people; that the President’s House, Capitol, and other important buildings had been destroyed, and all this by a handful of men, say, six thousand!”

The diary told also of some interesting experiences at the mansion on the Schuylkill. In 1807 ” a newly invented iron grate calculated for coal ” was installed at Sweetbrier. After less than three weeks’ trial Mr. Breck wrote, ” By my experiment in coal fuel I find

that one fireplace will burn from three to three and a half bushels per week in hard weather and about two and a half in moderate weather. This averages three bushels for twenty-five weeks, the period of burning fire in parlors.” The coal cost forty-five cents a bushel, and Mr. Breck decided that wood was a cheaper fuel.

Even in those early days city families had their troubles with servants. ” This is a crying evil, which most families feel very sensibly at present,” was Mr. Breck’s sorrowful statement. Fifteen years after this entry was written, a bitter complaint was made :

” In my family, consisting of nine or ten persons, the greatest abundance is provided; commonly seventy pounds of fresh butcher’s meat, poultry and fish a week, and when I have company nearly twice as much; the best and kindest treatment is given to the servants; they are seldom visited by Mrs. Breck, and then always in a spirit of courtesy ; their wages are the highest going, and uniformly paid to them when asked for; yet during the last twelve months we have had seven different cooks and five different waiters. . . . I pay, for instance, to my cook one dollar and fifty cents, and chambermaid one dollar and twenty-five cents per week;

When he was an old man he paid a visit to America. In two widely separated places, attracted by the country, he bought land. One estate was on Perkiomen Creek, near Philadelphia; the other was in Louisiana. In Louisiana he spent much of his time; and there, on May 4, 1780,1 his son, John James Audubon, was born.

Commodore Audubon wanted his son to be a seaman, and he took him to France that he might be educated for the navy. But the boy’s tastes were in another direction altogether. One of the teachers provided for him was an artist, who gave him lessons in drawing that were intended as a part of his training for the profession the father had chosen for him. But the boy put it to a use of his own. On his holidays he used to take a lunch into the country, and would return loaded down with all kinds of natural history specimens. These he would preserve in a cabinet of his own devising, and drawings of many of them would be made and treasured.

Commodore Audubon was not pleased with his son’s habits, and he thought he would give him something to do that would distract his mind. The estate in Pennsylvania needed a superintendent. So he sent the would-be naturalist to America, with instructions to look after the estate.

But the wild woods about Philadelphia offered so many opportunities for tramping and nature investigation that the estate was neglected. The house on the estate, Mill Grove, which is still standing, is near the mouth of the Perkiomen. Along this pleasing stream he could ramble for hours, with his gun or his fishing rod or his collecting instruments. Before long the attic room which he occupied was a treasure house of birds and animals and natural-history specimens. He was his own taxidermist. He would do his work seated at a window that looks toward the Valley Forge country, where Washington spent the winter of 1777-78 with his faithful soldiers. The marks of his work are still to be seen on the old boards beneath the window. These boards came from the sawmill on the estate which gave the house its name.

Here in this attic room the young naturalist dreamed of making careful, accurate drawings of all the birds of America. He knew that this would be a difficult matter, but he was not deterred by thought of hardship and poverty.

While he was dreaming of what he would do for the world, something was happening in London that was to have an effect on his life. An official named Bakewell refused to be silent about a matter that the king felt should be forgotten. Bakewell was a conscientious man, and he did not feel that silence would be proper. The king rebuked him, and he resigned his office. At once he made up his mind to leave England and make a home in America, taking with him his wife and daughter.

After many investigations, he found an estate near Philadelphia that pleased him—Fatlands, on the Schuylkill, near the Perkiomen, so named because every year the latter stream overflows and deposits rich sediment on the surrounding lands. The mansion house at Fatlands was built in 1774, and there Washington as well as the British commander had been entertained by the Quaker owner who felt that he could not show partiality. Here the English immigrant made his home.

Of course Audubon heard of the coming of the strangers to the house across the road, not half a mile from his own quarters. But he did not go to call on them. He was French and they were English; he felt sure they would be undesirable acquaintances, and that he had better keep to the woods and follow his own pursuits, without reference to others.

Then came a day when he was having a delightful stroll through the woods. He was carrying specimens of many kinds. A stranger, also a hunter, encountered him and made a remark about his burden that touched a responsive chord. Soon the two were on good terms. ” You must come and see me,” the stranger said. The invitation was accepted with alacrity. Then came the question, ” Where do you live? ” To his surprise, Audubon heard that this pleasing man was his new neighbor at Fatlands.

Deciding that an Englishman was not so bad, after all, he made it convenient to call very soon. Then when he saw Mary Bakewell, the daughter of the house, he was sure he liked the English. She showed great sympathy for his pursuits, and he liked to talk with her about them. Before long she decided to help him in his great life work, the American ornithology.

The marriage was postponed because of the death of Mrs. Bakewell, who pined away, homesick for her native England. But the time came when, on April 8, 1808, the two nature lovers became husband and wife. Then they began the long wanderings in the West and the South, the fruit of which was what has been called one of the most wonderful ornithological treatises ever made, Audubon’s ” Birds of America.”

Mr. and Mrs. Audubon floated down the Ohio River, spent a season in Kentucky and Missouri, had narrow escapes from the Indians, and finally found their way to Louisiana. There for a time the wife supported herself by teaching at the home of a planter. Friends and acquaintances thought the husband was a madman to continue his quest of birds when his family was in straitened circumstances. But Mrs. Audubon believed in him, urged him to go to Europe and study painting in oils, that he might be better equipped for the preparation of his bird plates. She secured a good situation as teacher at Bayou Sara, and was soon enjoying an income of three thousand dollars a year.

Finally, with some of his own savings, as well as some of his wife’s funds, he went to England, where he was well received. Plans were made to publish the bird plates, with descriptive matter, at one thousand dollars per set. He had to have one hundred advance subscribers. These he secured by personal solicitation.

At last the work was issued. Cuvier called it ” the most magnificent work that art ever raised to ornithology.”

Many years later, Audubon, after the death of his wife, returned to the scenes of his early life as a naturalist. ” Here is where I met my dear Mary,” he said, with glistening eyes, as he looked into one of the rooms of the old mansion.

Mill Grove was built in 1762. Five years after Audubon’s marriage the estate was bought by Samuel Wetherill, the grandfather of the present owner, W. H. Wetherill.

Fatlands, which is one of the most beautiful old houses in the vicinity of Philadelphia, was built in 1774. During the Revolution it was occupied by a Quaker named Vaux, who entertained many officers of both armies. It is related that one day General Howe, the British commander, was entertained at breakfast, while Washington was in the house for tea the same evening.

The house was rebuilt in 1843, on the old foundations, according to the original plan.