Mill Grove would be just another historic building with land if it weren’t for a distinguished resident. And that resident started his life’s work and legacy there, at a farmhouse on the hills above the Perkiomen Creek.
In 1789 a French naval officer purchased the 284 acre farm as an investment. It was a gamble, as he was in France and his new property was in a country that had just established a new form of government two years before – the US Constitution was ratified in 1787. In 1803 when conscription threatened to draft his son into Napoleon’s army, the officer sent him to America to manage the land. The seventeen year old Anglicized his name when he disembarked, and henceforth called himself John James Audubon.
The young man had always had an interest in birds and painting, and not much of a head for business. And on the banks of the Perkiomen he continued this pattern. Here in a county with birds unknown in France, he found a lot to do instead of attend to the farm. He developed his methods of painting birds, introduced banding into America as he tried to determine if some species return to the same nesting area yearly, and courted a woman at a nearby estate. That woman, Lucy Blakewell, eventually married him.
Audubon later sold the estate, and went on to bigger things – exploration, ornithology, The Birds of America, and after his death becoming the founding father of the conservation movement. And it all started at Mill Grove.
After repeated changes of ownership Mill Grove eventually wound up a Historic Site of Montgomery County, and languished until the National Audubon Society took over management. Rebranded as the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, visitorship is up, there are many events taking place ranging from nature walks to art exhibitions to canoe trips on the Perkiomen, and plans are underway for a new Visitor’s Center. The Visitor’s Center will showcase the nature at Mill Grove and the life and work of Audubon, as well as the history of the National Audubon Society. The Society runs other nature centers, but the new building is going to be the only one with an emphasis on art.
My afternoon at Mill Grove started with the current museum, which is located in the 1762 house Audubon lived in. The three story structure holds period furniture, displays of Audubon relics, a glass cased copy of The Birds of America, and a small art gallery. The exhibition that ended this weekend was on the passenger pigeon, extinct for a century. Aside from one painting that was blatantly anti-hunter and thus anti-Audubon, I found the exhibition interesting. What John James might have thought about it I can’t imagine. Admission to the museum is five dollars for an adult, but there is no fee to hike or walk the grounds at Mill Grove.
After the museum, I went to see the Center’s two rescued owls. Both of them were in a good mood despite the fact their sleep was disturbed by visitors. I hope the new Visitor’s Center will include a better display for the owls. It was hard to photograph them through the wire cage.
For a small piece of land shoehorned between the development of Lower Providence Township and the Perkiomen Creek Mill Grove has a lot of trails. They range from the paved Audubon Loop Trail, which connects with the Schuylkill River Trail and Perkiomen Trail, to a gravel access road, to dirt and rock trails. Mill Grove is on a bluff over the Perkiomen, and most of the trails have some elevation change to them. The Audubon Loop Trail is typical, having a nine per cent grade as it rolls down to Egypt Road and the crossing of the Perkiomen. But Mill Grove is much less rocky than many places in Pennsylvania, and despite the steepness its not difficult hiking. This Saturday the light was gorgeous as it shone through the trees and onto the Perkiomen.
My two and a half miles of hiking ranged from the dam south of the house, to the ruins of the copper mine near the nine per cent grade on the Loop Trail. And just as the terrain varied, so did the views – up the creek shots from the dam, vistas, meadows and forests. Highlight of the hike was at the very end, when a herd of deer crossed onto the meadow near the house. I took photos and memories, and left them to their dinner.