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November 12th, 2011


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  1. Rick Wolfe Says:

    Jim,
    I’m doing some research on Dr Van Fleet for this year’s Christmas ornament. I know his father taught at the Watsontown Academy around 1860. Do you have any information about his days in Watsontown?

    Comment by James Robison: Here is what I have on Dr. Van Fleet ~ not too much about Watsontown though.

    Dr. Walter Van Fleet was born at Piermont on the Hudson on June 18, 1857 to Solomon and Elvira Van Fleet. Dr. Van Fleet’s forebears came from Utrecht, Holland in 1662 to New Amsterdam, the direct ancestor of the immediate family settling in the Mohawk Valley, from whence, in course of time, the family moved to Williamsport, PA, eventually settling on a farm outside of Watsontown, PA prior to 1870. Walter attended school in Williamsport and then at Watsontown, and with his brother and two sisters grew up in a real home, in which were books and music, and in which all joined in the love of the open as well as of dogs and horses and birds. An omnivorous reader, it was natural for him to develop the interest which later ruled his life. Walter became interested in ornithology, devoting much time to this study, and in time going to South America where he made a collection of butterfly and bird specimens for Harvard. Coming home, he studied medicine and graduated from Hahnemann Medical College of Philadelphia in 1880 receiving his license in PA in 1881. Walter was in homeopathy and went into active practice, both at Watsontown and later at Renovo. In 1882 Walter married Sarah C. Heilman of Watsontown. Sarah’s two sisters: Emma R. married Thomas K. Smith in 1884; and Mary Clementine married Edgar L. Housel in 1889 lived their lives in Watsontown.
    Dr. Walter Van Fleet received the Robert White Medal in 1918 for recognition of the splendid service he had rendered. Trained as a physician and surgeon, Dr. Van Fleet was drawn irresistibly into experimental horticulture, having found his first stimulus when reading about plant hybridization while still a boy. As soon as opportunity occurred he experimented largely with Gladioulus and was closely associated with the famous European hybridizer of Gladiolus, Max Leichtlin. Out of many thousands of crosses, hundreds of thousands indeed, Dr. Van Fleet selected only five as being worthy of introduction in commerce because he set a rigid standard on himself. That a variety should be merely “different” from others already known was not in his eyes sufficient justification for introduction. It has to possess some distinctive qualification. Many of the modern strains now generally in cultivation are the byproduct of Dr. Van Fleet’s work. His climbers are the best in the world.
    In 1892 the practice of medicine was abandoned and the business of experimental horticulture taken up, and for several years subsequently Dr. Van Fleet was the horticultural editor of the Rural New Yorker until in 1909 he was appointed Physiologist in the Department of Agriculture, Washington, DC, a position which he continued until his death on January 26, 1922 in Miami, FL at the age of 64 following an operation. He and his wife are buried at Watsontown Cemetery. His contributions to gardening covered a wide range of plants, but the three most successful are the Roses American Pillar, Silver Moon, and W. Van Fleet.

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