Elon Howard Eaton: Part I


(This 913th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on September 21, 2008.)



Elon Howard Eaton
Photo Courtesy of Hobart and William Smith Colleges Archives


For many years I had been after my friend Steve Eaton to talk about his famous father and finally Steve did so at the 2007 meeting of the New York State Ornithological Association. He has also given me permission to quote from his biographical talk and I will devote two columns to this life of one of the state's foremost ornithologists.


Elon Howard Eaton was born October 8, 1866, in a farmhouse on the Zoar Valley Road about a mile west of the village of Springville. He began school there but he fainted in school one day and his father and mother decided to home‑school their son. After his lessons he was allowed to roam the fields and woods and he soon taught himself most of the native birds. He also enrolled in a Buffalo taxidermy course.


Eaton graduated from Griffith Institute in 1885 and entered the University of Rochester. After his junior year there he left to teach at Canandaigua Union School, probably to help support his mother and father on the farm and to raise money for himself, but he returned in 1889 to complete his classical education.  He also played tackle on the first Rochester football team.


In 1890 Eaton graduated with a Phi Beta Kappa key and returned to Canandaigua Union School where he was appointed vice principle and science instructor. He established at this time The Eaton and Wilber Taxidermy Studio, which mounted birds and mammals. They even mounted the skeleton of a mastodon for Vassar College. In 1895 he left Canandaigua Union School to teach at the Bradstreet School in Rochester. There he taught chemistry, physics and natural science, including ornithology and botany.


In 1899 he took a leave of absence from Bradstreet School to attend Columbia University, taking courses in paleontology from Henry Fairfield Osborn, who also did much to establish the acceptance of Darwinian evolution; Bashford Dean, the famous ichthyologist; and E. L. Thorndike, who helped to establish modern animal psychology.


He returned to Bradstreet School in the fall of 1900 and the next year his Birds of Western New York was published by the Rochester Academy of Science. In 1901 Eaton and Howard Bradstreet, the school founder, built a slab-sided cabin on the west shore of Canandaigua Lake just north of the present Bristol Harbor. This was where much of the Birds of New York was written.


On September 13, 1902, Eaton saw his last passenger pigeon flying over the village of Canandaigua. As a teenager and later he had shot them around Springville. One immature he shot was used as the model for the immature illustrated in the famous bird artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes' passenger pigeon plate. Fuertes returned the specimen to the Eaton home in Geneva in 1926. Steve remembers the incident well. His brother - four years older and bolder - asked Fuertes if he would draw him a ring‑necked pheasant. Paper was provided and in five minutes a beautiful sketch materialized.


In 1904, John Clark, Director of the New York State Museum, authorized Eaton to edit a new Birds of New York to replace the earlier version written by James E. Dekay in 1844. After accepting the task one of Eaton's first acts was to invite Fuertes to supply the book's plates.


By March 5, 1908 Eaton had finished text for Birds of New York Volume 1 and had written the preface. It was published by the State Museum in 1910. A circular sent out by the museum announced Volume 1 Water Birds with 42 colored plates, $3.00. Volume 2 Land Birds with 60 colored plates was later sold for $4.00. Today on the internet they sell for up to $100 a volume.


That fall Eaton was hired to develop the Biology Department at the newly established Hobart and William Smith College. He was also given the title of Curator of the Museum of Natural History. He became a very charismatic teacher of biology at Hobart where he was famous for one-liners. A student asked one day in class if it is possible to contract a venereal disease from a toilet seat. Eaton responded, "That's a hell of a place to take a lady.-- Gerry Rising"