Sanctuary favored by nature lovers
Close to 7,000 people visited the Sassafras Bird Sanctuary in Amsterdam in 1934. The private park opened in 1931, spearheaded by two formidable city institutions — the Century Club, composed of prominent women, and naturalist Walter Elwood.
“Sassafras” is a kind of tree with aromatic leaves and bark used to make tea. The area called Sassafras Hollow is in west Amsterdam, along Dove Creek. The land was the 19th century estate of the Carmichael family.
Henrietta Carmichael offered the city 20 acres in Sassafras Hollow for use as a park in 1912. Carmichael wanted the land named Stewart Park, in memory of her father. Although Mayor Jacob Dealy was interested, the city did not acquire the land at that time.
Walter Elwood wrote an essay in January 1931 extolling the beauties of Sassafras Hollow, including its 50 varieties of birds.
“Wooded ravines are always attractive,” he wrote, “but here is one so specially favored by nature that we would have to go far and look hard to find another holding out so much for us.”
The Sassafras Bird Sanctuary opened as a private park that May on land owned by Elizabeth Carmichael, Francis Morris and Helen Sugden. Elwood had expressed concern over hunters endangering bird watchers, so firearms were banned. The Century Club managed the sanctuary, and a warden was hired to enforce the rules.
The Sassafras Bird Club was created, and its activities were chronicled in the newspapers. Elwood, a teacher who later founded the museum that bears his name, was the club’s first president. In the 1930s, trees were planted and trails, bridges and fireplaces were built. An outdoor amphitheater and trailside museum were constructed. The children of New East Main Street School prepared a Christmas tree with food for the birds every year.
Grace Kyle led an evening stroll at Sassafras in June 1934, according to a newspaper account.
“The first thing to greet the club members was a pair of lovely bluebirds busily engaged in preparing supper for their young in a nearby bluebird house,” the article reported.
A garden had been planted to demonstrate the crops grown by local Indians.
A spring walk through Sassafras in April 1935 drew 20 people.
“The advance of the season was shown in the green leaves of the arbutus and the first blossoms of spring beauties and coltsfoot,” it was reported. “On a trail through the open spaces twenty different kinds of birds were observed.”
The walk was followed by a campfire breakfast.
Walter Elwood died in 1955, and neglect of the Sassafras became an issue during the 1950s. The trailside museum went up in smoke.
“The neighborhood residents turned out in numbers to look over the ruins,” Amsterdam native Bruce Northrup recalled.
There were ups and downs. Boy Scouts placed 100 birdhouses in the park. When the now-closed Clara Bacon Elementary School was built on Henrietta Boulevard in 1966 at the entrance to the Sassafras, wiring was put in for the sanctuary’s outdoor amphitheater and programs were put on for a while. However, by 1970, the birdhouses had disappeared and the electrical box for the amphitheater wiring was ruined by a shotgun blast.
Bacon school students once again began working on improving the bird sanctuary in 1971. Later, an elaborate playground, still in use, was built near the school.
“Preservation programs were begun and abandoned in sequence and discouragement before onslaughts by destructionists operating beyond pale of official protection,” historian Hugh Donlon wrote in 1980.
Outdoor enthusiast John Naple said of his last visit to the Sassafras: “It is a great place, but needs some love.” There were wildflowers in the woods. Trails were passable, but there was litter and blow-down along the trails.
Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily those of the newspaper. Reach him at 346-6657 or email@example.com.