14 May 2014

Saved by Wild Pigeons

With the Help of a Big Beech Nut Year and a Delaware River Freshet

Morsston [Morristown], N.Y., April 19. — A flock of wild pigeons, flying very high in a northwesterly direction, attracted the attention of this village's population yesterday, and the flock was watched with intense interest until it disappeared in the distance.

Now, that's what I call a genuine curiosity," said an old resident. "That's the first flock of pigeons I've seen in ten years in these parts, and yet I can remember when they came here by the thousands every spring and fall. They used to nest in our woods in the spring, and came back again every other fall to feed on the beech nuts. They came every two years because they knew that the beech trees were barren every other year, and they never made a mistake in the year, either.

"If it hadn't been for wild pigeons some of the richest men in this county and in neighboring counties would have been poor to-day—that is, if they had stayed were they were. We used to have some big pigeon years, but the season of 1837 beat any two we ever had. Lumbering was the only business in this part of the county then, as that and tanning are now. The lumber was rafted down to the Delaware, and then to Philadelphia and other markets. In 1837 times were bad. That was the year of the great panic. Lumber couldn't be sold for what it cost to get it to market, and for what was sold it was hard to get pay. To make matters worse, all crops failed in this region that season. The fall opened with prospects of starvation for the hundreds of people that depended for support on the lumber business. Employers had no money to pay workmen, and there was no way to obtain the necessaries of life.

"It happened that 1837 was the beech-nut year, and nobody remembered when the nuts had been so plenty for many years. That was the salvation of the region. People were beginning to talk in earnest of making raids upon the surrounding towns and villages to obtain supplies, the news of the bread riots in New York having reached here, and given them the cue. But before any act of this kind was committed the wild pigeons began to arrive in the beeches, and in a very few days the woods were alive with them. To say that there were millions of them does not approach the number. Every tree seemed to be loaded, and the ground was littered with the branches broken off by their weight as they thronged in the trees at night to roost. The noise made by their wings and throats was so great that the report of a gun could not be heard 100 feet away. A person could go anywhere in the beeches, shut his eyes and shoot, and never fail to bring down pigeons. The whole region turned out to kill pigeons. They were shot, stabbed, netted and killed and captured in every known manner by men, women, and children, and carried away by the boatload and about the country.

"There was a splendid rafting freshet in the Delaware at the time, but, although there were many rafts ready to run, it isn't likely one would have been started down the river if it hadn't been for the wild pigeons. Old raftsmen and others agreed to run these rafts to Philadelphia free of charge to the owners if they would grant them the privilege of loading the lumber with pigeons. The offer was gladly accepted, and every raft was run heavily freighted with pigeons. Some of the rafts were stopped at different points along the river, where, hard as the times were, profitable markets were found for the birds. Others ran through to Philadelphia direct, where the pigeons were quickly sold at good prices. The freshet kept up so well that some speculators made several trips, clearing as high as $1,000 a trip. Before the pigeons left the beeches, which was not for weeks, more money was brought back to the region from their sale than was received for all the lumber that went to market. Men who, with their families had been on the verge of starvation, were made comparatively rich almost in a day, and the foundations of big fortunes were laid. One of the biggest grocery establishments, and one of the wealthiest leather firms in New York city to-day, owe their existence to the big pigeon year of 1837, for the men who own them were started in business by their fathers, who made the money by rafting wild pigeons down the river in that memorable fall.

"Speaking of beech nuts and speculation, another big year for nuts was 1820 and that year a man named Conroy went into a speculation that had quite a different result from the one in wild pigeons that followed. In those days people were in the habit of letting their pigs run in the woods and fatten on the nuts. Conroy conceived the idea of fattening hogs in this way by wholesale, and then gathering them up and driving them to market. He calculated that he could easily make a profit of at least $5 on every hog thus fattened. He scoured the country and brought up at least a thousand pigs and turned them into the beeches. They got along finely; but in a week or so before he intended to collect his hogs and drive them to market the weather turned terribly cold and a foot of snow fell. When he went into the woods to get his hogs he found them scattered about dead, in groups of a dozen or so, where they had huddled together to keep warm. A few only survived the cold, and they ran wild. Descendants of their lived in the woods for years, and were so wild that they afforded many exciting hunts for the sportsmen of that day.

April 27, 1884. New York Sun 51(240): 8. Also: December 10, 1884 in the Columbus Journal.