Residents of the Audubon Park Neighborhood have lots going for them, including one of the city’s hilliest parks and one of the city’s best known neighborhood namesakes. John James Audubon for whom the park and the neighborhood are named is a legend.
The roots of Audubon Park itself go back to 1910 when the Park Board arranged to close Pierce Street and purchased five acres of land for $5400 for the beginnings of today’s multi-purpose recreation area. Within a few years the Park Board drained a shallow pool, closed Buchanan Street between the park and the Thomas Lowry School, and began to create a playground site. The rest is history – some of the steepest hills were leveled a bit a shelter was built, and, by the end of the 1970’s, the current recreation center was dedicated.
The park is a fitting tribute to John James Audubon, 1785-1851, whose name is synonymous with ornithology and with his famed paintings of nature, more specifically, of his color-plate book entitled The Birds of America, 1827-1829. It is said that Audubon actually identified as many as 25 species of birds in North America.
Born in Saint Dominique (Haiti) Audubon grew up in France, his father’s homeland. His early interest in wildlife, birds in generally, seems to have been spurred by his French stepmother. In part to avoid the draft and in part as a result of his father’s prodding Audubon explored many options before left France to settle in Pennsylvania. Always a nature lover, he began his study and depiction of American birds in the region where he lived. A skilled taxidermist, Audubon conducted the first known bird-banding experiment in North America and created his own nature museum which some say was inspired by the museum of natural history created by Charles Willson Peale in Philadelphia. Audubon also married Lucy Bakewell with whom he had two sons, both of whom continued in the family “business.”
When his businesses came on hard times, Audubon and his family moved to the Midwest, first to Genevieve, Missouri, the first European settlement west of the Mississippi, where he was in the shopping business.
Next he moved to Kentucky where he found that fishing and hunting helped to feed his family when the shipping business was slow. It was there that he met and became friends with the Osage and Shawnee Indians. Audubon was much impressed with the Native Americans about whom he wrote “Whenever I meet Indians, I feel the greatness of our Creator in all tis splendor, for there I see the man naked from His hand the yet free from acquired sorry.”
For some time Audubon and his family moved from place to place as President Jefferson’s embargo of British trade put a damper on the shopping business. At one time Audubon worked as a naturalist and taxidermist in the Cincinnati museum, a position that must have fueled his passion or nature.
Times were so hard that at one time that in 1819 Audubon was actually jailed for bankruptcy. Giving up on the business life Audubon moved on to explore his true love, the effort to depict America’s birds. He traveled and lived off the land while Lucy supported the family as a tutor.
Everything changed in 1826 when Audubon’s influential friends convinced him to take his portfolio and sail to England to have his drawings engraved. Though he was never well received in this country, Audubon was welcomed by the Brits with open arms. He arrived in Liverpool in 1826 with his portfolio of 300 drawings in hand. The money raised in England and Scotland was enough for him to begin publishing is Birds of America – 435 hand-colored, life-size prints of nearly 500 bird species, made from engraved copper plates, printed on sheets measuring 39×20 inches. His dramatic bird portraits and descriptions of the American wilderness captured the spirit of the European Romantic Era.
His European success as a published artist allowed Audubon to settle with his family in New York City. He continued to depict the birds of America and in 1838 traveled to the Western U.S. where he captured the completed his final work of mammals, a work that was largely coplted b his sons.
Audubon died at age 65, suffering by this time with senility that thwarted his wish to return to the U.S. West to capture more images. He is buried in the Trinity Cemetery at 155th Street and Broadway in NYC.
There are numerous accounts of the life of Audubon. After hise return to America in 1828 he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science in 1830. He published Ornithological Biographies, a sequel to Birds of America. He traveled widely, from Key West to Labrador and Newfoundland. Many of his works depict what he saw and captured on these trips. Unfortunately, poor health prevented his travels to the West Coast of the U.S. where he had hoped to record more Western species.
Minnesota lovers of books and birds are aware that the Athenaeum is the proud owner of an Audubon original, hand-colored edition of Birds of America. The treasure is now housed at Minneapolis Central Library Special Collections where it is given the TLC becoming its heritage. Because the engraving and the paper itself is so fragile, the volume is not available for viewing by the public.
Audubon’s work has been honored in countless ways – in books, with a U.S. postal stamp in the Great Americans series, and best known perhaps by the 1905 establishment of the National Audubon Society, named in his honor “to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds.”
Still, for residents of Northeast Minneapolis who slide on the steep hills in winter, cool off under the shade tress in summer and enjoy the birds year found, John James Audubon is best known for the beautiful park that honors his name.