Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Traces of Charles Deam

One of the most extraordinary people ever to have lived was Charles Clemon Deam, a self-taught botanist from Indiana. His fascinating life story has been told very nicely by Robert Kriebel in a book entitled “Plain Ol’ Charlie Deam, Pioneer Hoosier Botanist.” I won’t repeat it here, but I strongly recommend the book to anyone with an interest in botany and perhaps Indiana history.

Just outside his hometown of Bluffton, Indiana is the “Deam Oak,” a preserved living tree northwest of town. It’s a hybrid of Chinquapin Oak and White Oak (Quercus X deamii) that was discovered by Deam’s good friend E. Bruce Williamson, and named in honor of Deam by William Trelease. This hybrid occurs here and there – the preserved tree at Bluffton is not the only one.

This is the detritus that was under the tree in February, 2012.

North of the town square in Bluffton there is a street named “Charles Deam Court,” and near his home and arboretum there is a historical marker, tastefully displayed in a very nice town park along the Wabash River. Obviously someone in Bluffton knows about this great man, and for this we should be grateful.

In addition to being a phenomenal botanist, state forester, and manager of his own herbarium and arboretum, Deam was a drugstore owner. His store was located at 103 South Main Street, right next to the Wells County Bank on the corner.

Sadly, renovation has hidden all traces of his store, with the bank on the corner and his drugstore now both included in the Wells-Fargo Bank that occupies most of the block

Deam’s prosperous and productive life spanned nearly a century: he lived from 1865 to 1953. His influence on Indiana botany lives on, and his remarkable legacy includes four of the finest floras ever written (Flora of Indiana, Trees of Indiana, Shrubs of Indiana, and Grasses of Indiana). These are not mere traces of Mr Deam’s life; they are important parts of his very solid legacy, and they continue to provide us with excellent scientific data, gathered by a man who spent his days in natural areas, studying, documenting, and sharing his discoveries and observations.

The legendary Floyd Swink of Chicago once mentioned to someone from the Shirley Heinze Land Trust that he had a file of letters between himself and Mr. Deam, and this correspondence was published by the Heinze Trust in the year 2000. I strongly recommend this book and all others mentioned above.

On a recent visit to my local library (sometime in the fall of 2010), I was walking past the magazine racks and there was Charles Deam on the cover of the "Traces," a magazine published by the Indiana Historical Society. The article inside was very nicely written, and there were a few more pictures of Mr. Deam that I had not seen before.

When I was in college at Ball State in the 1970’s, I met a student from Bluffton and asked if she had heard of Charles Deam. I don’t remember her answer, but it’s remarkable that I had heard of him by the time I was a teenager, and even knew that he was from Bluffton. I grew up far from Bluffton, had never seen his books, wasn’t majoring in a science-related field, and personal computers and the Internet had not been invented yet. Did I hear of him in school? I don’t remember.

At the end of my recent Bluffton visit, I stopped for a sandwich as I was heading out of town. Three young people (maybe mid-20’s) were working, and I asked if they knew who Charles Deam was. One of them replied, “Charles Deam Court?” and I said, no, not the street – the actual person. Sadly, all shook their heads, they had no idea who he was. Alas!

In conclusion, here are a few of my favorite Charlie Deam quotes, in no particular order:

“It is the little things we can do for others that makes life worth while.”

“I do hate a lazy person. A lazy person ordinarily is a liar and a thief, too.”

“I shall never forget my toughest day. I started down a newly graded road (all roads unknown to me at that early date) of 4 miles. In the 4 miles I had to change tires three times. Inner tubes in those days were very poor quality. It was in the fall of the year with a strong wind and drizzling rain. I was from about 9:00 A.M. until dark making the 4 miles and I doubt if a single vehicle passed me that day…. I wanted to get off this road and when I did I drove into a woods and the car scarcely got over the side ditch when I was “in” to the hubs. So I just camped there that night but I did get out my stove and make some coffee to help me get down my bread and peanut butter.”

“…I got well in spite of the M.D’s.”

“…I have spent all my time on something I consider worthwhile. In so doing you meet a lot of opposition.“

“We have too many dishonest and ignorant men in political places.”

“The Lake Michigan area is a critical area but it has been so badly treated the past 75 years that it no longer represents its former self.”

“Old General Debility will give the commands, and believe me, you will obey.”

“I understand they are strongly recommending now that all the old cemeteries be planted with multiflora rose. When Gabriel sounds his horn, I am afraid some will be stranded and not be able to get thru the roses. Please do not recommend the multiflora rose except for the bonfire.”

“Friesner, you collect grasses like a cow.”

“…I did my darnedest, and in it you have my measure.”

“I am just plain ol' Charlie Deam and I never want anyone to think anything else.”


Steve said...

Wonderful. Thanks Keith.

Steve said...

It's also worth mentioning that Indiana has a manufactured lake and corresponding state rec. area named after him.


Keith Board said...

Thanks Steve! Lots of plants are named after him too.

Justin R. Thomas said...

Thanks for the well written and researched glimpse at such a remarkable man. Deam had a kind of field sense that is sorely lacking in today's practitioners. I only hope that 50 years from now some young buck of a botanist tracks down the haunts and hideaways of one Keith Board. The wealth of photographic and botanical recording you have amassed is no small contribution to society, sir.

Scott Namestnik said...

Agreed... excellent post, Keith. It is a shame that it seems Charlie Deam is remembered by the Bluffton youth only as a road; hopefully those three young people will remember what you told them and pass on to their friends that Charles Deam Court was named in honor of such an amazing person.

To add a couple of notes about Deam that are amongst my favorites:

"Up at dawn with a full day in the field and on the road writing his notes at night by the light of a kerosene lantern, Charlie often squeezed two days of work into twenty-four hours without ever noticing Saturday, Sunday, or holiday." - from Plain Ol' Charlie Deam

"'I was trying to live on four to six hours of sleep,' Charlie said. 'This can be done, but few people can take it, and then only for a limited time. Man, how I did work - like an idiot. Well, by the second year my health broke and I spent a vacation of seven weeks in Florida. I learned that one must vacation to put in as many hours as I did.'
In his months as a fledgling druggist, wilting from tension, he did figure out a way to nap for short periods during the work day. He considered the most beneficial part of a nap to be the process of relaxing and falling asleep; the rest a waste of time. So stretching out on a cot in a back room of the store, he would hold in his hand, over the side of the cot, a laundry iron, close his eyes, and count sheep. When he fell asleep, his limp hand would drop the iron. The loud clank was his alarm clock, and he would spring up, puffy eyed, ready for work again." - from Plain Ol' Charlie Deam

"Doubtless sometimes you wish to call someone a mean name. Well I have found it. Just call him a sunflower. That combines all that is needed. The brutes have no principles, guided by no laws, and seem to be free for alls." - Charlie Deam to Paul Weatherwax, as printed in Ed Voss' Michigan Flora

"[Floyd Swink] recalls taking Charles Deam to 17th & Whitcomb streets in Gary, Lake County, Indiana, in the late 1940's. When he was shown the Indian Paintbrush stretching for blocks into the distance, he said: 'I have collected in every township in the state of Indiana; I am now in my eighties; this is the finest Indiana natural area I have ever seen in my life.'" - from Plants of the Chicago Region, entry on Castilleja coccinea

And now to touch on Justin's comment. When Keith responds to these comments that he is not worthy of such praise, don't believe him. All one needs to do is to flip through the pages of Plants of the Chicago Region to see the incredible contribution to understanding our flora that Keith has provided. No one has an eye for "rare weeds" like Keith. And his wealth of knowledge of the location of natural areas in northwest Indiana is unmatched... it really is a shame that we live in such close proximity to one another but that our schedules are so difficult to coordinate to get into the field together. I still remember the first slide show that Keith came to, and how cool I thought it was to have someone of Keith's caliber attending our insignificant event; and his photos are among the best. Thanks, Keith, for your contributions to understanding the Great Lakes flora... and thanks, Charlie, for giving us all something to strive for.

Nick said...

Prescient advice about multiflora rose.

Keith Board said...

Thanks Justin and Scott (two of the best in the business) for the many kind words, none of which I deserve. Now stop it, I'm getting verklempt!

Allen Coombes said...

The detritus under the tree clearly shows leaves with the influence of Q. macrocarpa. The parentage is now believed to be Q. macrocarpa x Q. muehlenbergii. Do you have a digital version of this photo and maybe one of the original tree with a close up of foliage and acorns if possible that I can use for Trees and Shrubs Online?

Scott Namestnik said...

Allen, the author of this post, Keith Board, passed away in 2019. His wife has also since passed. I can try to contact his son to see if he would have any digital images that his father took on his visit to Bluffton, IN. Please let us know where to send the images if we're able to get them.

Scott Namestnik

Allen Coombes said...


any images you can find would be useful. They need to be of good resolution, at least 1600 pixels on one side, and I need to know the name of the photographer for the credit and the date taken.

Scott Elzey has offered to take some photos for me but we can use several. Any images can be sent to allen.coombes@hotmail.com or the gmail address.


Scott Namestnik said...

Thanks Allen. I'll see what I can do.