Photo by Loy Elliott
Joseph Rothrock and the History of the Michaux Lectures
Joseph Trimble Rothrock is remembered today as the “Father of Pennsylvania Forestry.” Born in 1839 in Mifflin County, Rothrock was plagued by poor health as a child and he turned to outdoor walks for exercise. Trained as botanist at Harvard University in the early 1860s, Rothrock served in the Union Army during the Civil War. He later received a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
Though trained as a medical doctor, Rothrock dedicated much of his adult life to botany and efforts to conserve and steward Pennsylvania’s forests.
During Rothrock’s time, Pennsylvania’s forests had been pillaged: timber companies harvested only the best trees and left behind unwanted and downed trees, broken logs and branches, and other debris on the forest floor – perfect tinder that often led to massive forest fires.
In 1877, Rothrock was named “Michaux Lecturer” and was tasked with developing a public understanding of forestry within Pennsylvania. Rothrock compiled a series of slides that depicted the devastation of poor harvesting practices and the smoke and flames of the forest fires. Travelling by horse and wagon, Rothrock toured the state giving his “Michaux Lectures” to convince the public that the future of Pennsylvania forests was endangered.
These lectures were financed by the bequest of a French botanist. In the late 1700s, F. Andre Michaux and his father – likewise Andre – had spent 20 years classifying trees and plants across America. The son returned to America and Pennsylvania in 1817 and was alarmed by the widespread devastation – caused by unchecked logging and uncontrolled forest fires – he observed in the forests that he and his father had explored decades earlier. The damage so alarmed Michaux that he willed Pennsylvania $12,000 at his death in 1855 to promote improved management of the state’s forests.
Funded by Michaux’s bequest, for two decades Rothrock traversed the state. His lectures became quite popular and eventually spurred a grassroots movement for the protection of Pennsylvania’s forests. In 1886, Rothrock’s Michaux Lectures were a driving force behind the creation of the Pennsylvania Forestry Association, the first forestry organization in the nation. Rothrock in fact became the Association’s first president. In 1895, Pennsylvania created a Department of Agriculture and once again Rothrock was tapped, becoming the state’s first Commissioner of Forestry within the Department of Agriculture.
As Commissioner, Rothrock spearheaded the establishment of the Mont Alto State Forestry School in 1903, one of America’s very first professional forestry schools. Further, Rothrock used his position to advocate for the creation of publically owned forest reserves throughout Pennsylvania; by 1904 when Rothrock stepped down as Commissioner of Forestry, the state had acquired more than 443,000 acres of forest. Indeed the first forest lands purchased under the Department of Agriculture were in the Chambersburg-Gettysburg area – what we now know as Michaux State Forest.
Such is the legacy of Rothrock and Michaux, and it continues into the present. Michaux State Forest, in the heart of the South Mountain landscape, is now 85,000 acres in size. It is one of 20 state forests within Pennsylvania, a system of public lands that today contains more than 2.2 million acres of land sustainably managed for the benefit of current and future citizens. Out of the South Mountain landscape and the efforts of visionaries like Michaux and Rothrock, a modern forestry and conservation movement has emerged within Pennsylvania and America more broadly.
It is in honor of this legacy that the Partnership has created the South Mountain Speakers Series. This revival of the Michaux Lectures is intended to bring increased attention to the contemporary conservation challenges that we face in Pennsylvania, with the hope of building a groundswell of support for efforts to overcome the challenges.