Monday, May 6, 2013

Cyrus Pringle, born May 6, 1838

Cyrus Guernsey Pringle was born on May 6, 1838 in East Charlotte, Vermont.  His ancestry on his father's side was Scottish Presbyterian.  His maternal grandfather, Asa Harris, was of Puritan stock.

His first horticultural undertakings were on his mother's farm in 1857, when at the age of nineteen, he budded a small seedling apple tree, with a large, striped, sweet summer apple.  In 1858 he started his first nursery, containing a small pear orchard, fruit yards, gardens of currants, cherries, grapes, peaches and potatoes. He made a plan for each orchard or garden, giving the name and location of each plant. 

By crossing, he obtained a new variety of potato seedling "No. 6 (1870)," which was called "Snowflake." This potato was introduced to the public in New York. Robert Fenn, an Englishman much interested in crossing American and English varieties of potatoes, recognized Pringle's ability and the two of them worked together on other projects, such as the crossing of "Snowflake" with "Rector of Woodstock" .

Cyrus studied in Vermont, and later in Quebec, Canada, before entering the University of Vermont in the year 1859, enrolling in the classical course. The death of his older brother, during his first semester, made it necessary for him to aid his widowed mother in the management of the farm and to leave college.

University of Vermont
In the early part of his life he became interested in the Society of Friends (Quakers). Through attending the meetings that he met Almira L. Greene of  Starksboro, Vermont, a school teacher and a speaker of the Friends.

He was 23 years old when the Civil War began.

Starksboro Village Meeting House, Vermont
He sold seedlings of lilies, gladioli and wheat. He grew more than 100 varieties of iris and nearly all the species of lilies. His Hubbard squash seeds brought a dollar a pound at one time, and he ran a "hospital" for bulbs.

Pringle and Almira Green married on February 25, 1863.

During the Civil War, about five months after his marriage, he, along with two other Vermont Quakers, was drafted into the Union Army on July 13, 1863.  They shared the Quakers' disapproval of war,.  When Pringle's uncle offered to pay the $300 commutation fee which would release him from serving, he would not allow it, regarding it as a selfish compromise with principle. 
“Asking no military protection of our Government and grateful for none, [we] deny any obligation to support so unlawful a system, as we hold war to be, even when waged in opposition to an evil and oppressive power and ostensibly in defence of liberty, virtue and free institutions.”
~ Cyrus Pringle
They refused to perform military duty. The three Friends were sent under guard to a military camp in Boston Harbour, "feeling very much like convicts." They were taken before the major in charge, who first argued with them and then confined them to the guardhouse. There they were among men who had taken part in the New York Draft Riots, who showed “hatred to the blacks… and exhibit this in foul and profane jeers heaped upon these unoffending men.” That night, sleeping on the floor and sharing one blanket between three, they were kept awake by a man suffering from violent delirium tremens.

President Abraham Lincoln wrote saying that although he sympathised with those in their situation, he felt bound by the Conscription Act and could only "detail them from active service to hospital duty or to the charge of coloured refugees". Other Quakers wrote that they might enter the hospital without compromising their principles. "Oh, the cruellest blow of all comes from our friends," Pringle wrote.

Eventually they were sent into active service in Virginia, where each man was supplied with a gun. When they refused, the equipment was buckled about them and they were marched through country "made dreary with the war blight". The guns "slipped down and dragged painfully on our shoulders". At the camp, they refused to present arms and were tied up and left for several hours, before being released and left to sleep on the ground.

On October 3, 1863, at Culpepper, Virginia, Pringle was staked to the ground, with his arms outstretched and his legs racked; he was left in this position for hours, until "so weak he could hardly walk or perform any exertion". He was even threatened with death if he would not give up.  His reply was, "It can but give me pain to be asked or required to do anything I believe to be wrong." After a day of extreme pain he wrote in his diary, "This has been the happiest day of my life, to be privileged to fight the battle for universal peace."

Isaac Newton
When Secretary of War Edwin Stanton heard of this treatment, he ordered "the three incorrigibles" sent to Washington, D.C..  Isaac Newton, Commissioner of Agriculture, went to President Abraham Lincoln about their case, and the President asked Secretary Stanton to release them. Stanton refused, claiming that his oath of office stood in the way of giving them a discharge.  Finally, on the November 7, they were released on parole from service at the "urgent wish" of President Lincoln himself. 

Edwin Stanton

By this time, Pringle was quite ill and the journey home led to a "delirium from which I only recovered after many weeks, through the mercy and favour of Him, who in all this trial had been our guide and strength and comfort."

After recovering his health, Pringle again turned his energies to plant breeding, attempting to hybridize new varieties of fruit and corn, tomatoes, and grains such as wheat and oats.  

He studied Spanish and French by himself.

In the 1870s, Pringle began to collect plants throughout Vermont.  In December 1874, he was appointed to the Vermont Board of Agriculture, which meant an itinerant agricultural professorship.  Charles James Sprague, of the Boston Natural History Society, asked Pringle to collect lichens, and Doctor Peck desired him to obtain fungi.  During three successive years he took boat trips up the lower St. Lawrence, to the Saguenay, a river in Canada, and the St. Francis and St. John Rivers of northern Maine.

In 1872 Pringle's wife separated from her husband to pursue evangelistic work.  She wanted her husband to join with her, going from place to place. He refused, believing he had neither taste nor talent for this work. She, being in ill health, was persuaded that it would be easier to live with her own mother than with her husband's.  

They divorced on October 16, 1877.  By settlement Mrs. Pringle received $2,000 and custody of their only child, Annie.

In 1878, he displayed many of the Vermont specimens which he had been collecting, at the Paris Exposition.  In 1880, he was named as botanical collector for the American Museum of Natural History.   He was also an agent for the United States Census Department,  to explore the forests and to collect data for a final report.

American Museum of Natural History
In 1884, he made a botanical survey of the north and northwestern portions of Arizona, under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution.  This later branched into a 26-year survey  of Mexico. He was able to make these sojourns in Mexico through an appointment as botanical collector for the Gray Herbarium with a maximum salary of $800 from the Herbarium, and $200 from the Harvard Botanical Museum.

After his eleventh trip to Mexico, he had botanized more or less thoroughly in twenty-one out of the twenty-seven states of the Mexican Union, having covered particularly Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, San Luis Potosi, Jalisco, Michoacan and Oaxaca.  About 1888 the Mexican Medical Institute engaged him for work in northern Mexico, in connection with his regular profession. 

Pringle collecting specimens in the field
He was a correspondent with some fifty or sixty museums. His plants went, outside of North America, to the British Museum, Kew Gardens, Edinburgh; to German, Swiss, South African and Austrian museums and universities; and to distant Melbourne, Calcutta,and museums in South America.

During his thirty-five years of field work in the United States, Canada and Mexico, he distributed to herbaria over 500,000 specimens, embracing some 20,000 species, about 12 per cent of which were new to science.

His memory for plant names and their visual specific characters was the key factor to his very low amount of "number duplication"; he remembered the "where and when" of practically every one of his many thousands of species, and gave a new number
to a plant only to register a variation or a new habitat. He liked to boast that he could call over 10,000 plant acquaintances, and a few botanical friends, by their proper names—though he was not certain as to who the president in Washington might happen to be.

In 1894, Pringle's mother died, and Mr. and Mrs. Frank Estey lived with him, keeping house while he was away on the Mexican trips.

In April, 1896, he was elected a member of the New England Botanical Club, within the first year of its existence. He became vice-president and charter member of the Vermont Botanical Club.  At a meeting of the Botanical Club in the later years of his life, Pringle closed a report he made with the following words: 
"But year by year I have learned with joy and pride of the achievements since made in this field of my youthful love by you, my associates, who began better prepared than I did (for I was only the first available man). Yet share the secret of success of an old collector, quit the broad plains of dull sameness, seek out every possible situation of exceptional character, and look to find amidst peculiar conditions rare and localized plants."
In 1902, through the efforts of Dr. L. R. Jones, then professor of botany, Pringle's herbarium was removed to Williams Science Hall at the University of Vermont, where the entire top floor was given over to him, and arrangements were made whereby it became the property of this University, under his charge and control during the remainder of his life. 

Pringle at the University of Vermont
Ten thousand dollars was subscribed for the Pringle Herbarium by cash gifts or promissory pledges. He received $600 a year salary from the University, in quarterly payments, beginning July 1, 1902, and continuing until his death.

In the last year of his life he talked of planning a trip to South America, but was unable to realize that dream.

He died on May 25, 1911 at the age of 73. He was buried in Morningside Cemetery, Charlotte, Vermont.

Morningside Cemetery, Charlotte, Vermont

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