Dr. Smith and the Alabama Croton

Dr. Eugene Allen Smith was born in 1841 in Autauga County, Alabama. An astute observer, admirer, and collector of the various flora and fauna around him, he was also an avid recorder of these observations. This keen curiosity and meticulous note-keeping that began in boyhood and continued throughout his life were to eventually lead him down a path of purpose, one that crossed with a great many others and has greatly benefited his war-ravaged and impoverished homeland.

The son of a physician, education was very important to Dr. Smith and his family. He graduated from the University of Alabama in 1862, after which he enlisted in the Confederate Army, where he earned the rank of second lieutenant.  After the war, he studied in Germany for three years and obtained his Phd. Following this, he returned to the United States and became a Chemistry instructor at the University of Mississippi. In 1871, he left Oxford and became a professor of geology and mineralogy at his alma mater in Tuscaloosa. In 1873, he convinced the state legislature, still in the throes of Reconstruction, to appoint him as state geologist. He spent the next 54 years in this endeavor. He took it very seriously, embarking on summer travels around the various counties in Alabama, surveying and identifying the many different raw resources that had survived the recent tumultuous past. He also kept copious field notes and letters (and carbon copies of his replies) pertaining to his discoveries and wrote exhaustive reports. He also publicized his findings of valuable natural resources, bringing industry to the primarily agricultural state of Alabama. These actions did more than just industrialize this state. They left behind a record of Alabama itself.

Jacob Hansberger was a farmer, merchant, postmaster, and occasional politician in the community of Tionus in Bibb County, Alabama. Like Dr. Smith, he was also a writer, collector, and generally curious man. Born in Indiana to pioneers from the Shenandoah, Jacob had spent his childhood just outside of Springfield, Illinois. He was reared there by his uncle-by-marriage, Reuben Harrison. Uncle Reuben happened to be the cousin of a local resident, then a lanky local attorney named Abraham Lincoln. We know the future president was at least an occasional visitor to the home, although it is unclear how well acquainted he was with his cousin’s nephew.

Sometime after attending a few semesters at McKendree College in 1849, Jacob visited his cousin, Leonard Cassell Harrison, in Summerville, Dallas County, Alabama. Jacob must have liked what he saw because he stayed in Alabama for the remainder of his life. In 18 he married the daughter of a local Methodist minister, Sarah M. Starr. The Hansberger family moved to Bibb County in 1861, acquiring a farm near Six Mile Creek close to Sarah’s parents and several siblings. When the war began, Jacob enlisted in the Confederate Cavalry, eventually earning the rank of Captain. After the war, he operated a mercantile inside the Brierfield Ironworks in the charge of former General Josiah Gorgas. In 1876, he was elected to the state legislature for only a single term, deciding not to run again as he did not have the taste for “such chicanery.”

When Dr. Smith first visited Jacob in 1877 on one of his summer geological expeditions, Jacob was farming and operating a mercantile store which contained the post office for Tionus. He was appointed the postmaster there in 1874 and continued in this capacity for several years. The two formed a friendship based on their mutual interest in botany and Jacob’s knowledge of the area’s land formations and people. On July 31, 1879, Jacob took Dr. Smith to a local place known as the “Six Mile Sink” where the creek disappears under limestone and reappears ¾ of a mile downstream. A few days prior, Dr. Smith had visited Pratt’s Ferry on the Cahaba River in Bibb County where he took a skiff to a limestone bank. There he explored an “almost impenetrable” thicket made up of a shrub he’d never seen before. He noted in his journal it’s interesting aroma and that the locals called it “privy plant.”

Dr. Smith wrote of it in his journal. Later, Dr. Smith and Jacob exchange letters about this shrub that only grows along the Cahaba and Black Warrior Rivers. The correspondence between the two men show that they worked together getting specimens that Dr. Smith gave to Dr. Charles Mohr, a botanist in Mobile who would later write the important book Plant Life in Alabama. He also suggested that Dr. Mohr visit Pratt’s Ferry and that Mr. Hansberger would “assist him in any way he needed.”

Thankfully, Jacob kept many papers and letters throughout his life and his descendants were (and still are) as averse to disposing of them as he was. Because of this, we have one original letter from Dr. Smith to Jacob informing him of the new name the privy plant had been given. The following is a transcription of that letter.

“July 17 1881

Mr. J. S. Hansberger

     Dear Sir   I have lately received the dried specimens & the living ones of our new plant which has been named Croton Alabamense in honor of our state. It is considered a splendid addition to our state flora and specimens of it are much in demand. I have troubled you already a great deal with this matter but should like to get pressed a very large number of branches with flowers & fruit- labeled as to date. If possible, I shall come over there within the next 4 weeks & bring Dr. Mohr a botanist from Mobile.

  Have you been at any expense in getting together the specimens? If so, let me know and I will refund you the money.

     I can hardly express my great obligations to you. Can you find out if the male & female flowers are on the same or upon separate bushes?

     The male flowers contain only anthers & look like this somewhat. (Drawing)

     The female flowers bear the seed pods & look more like this. (Drawing).

I think these sketches may enable you to make out what I mean. The seed pod as you have probably noticed, is something like that of the castor oil plant. If you can tell me this it will complete the description of the plant.

Yours very truly,

Eugene A Smith

You can easily in comparing the flowers observe marked differences between them. Now you have only to see whether these evidently different flowers are borne upon the same plant- or whether they occur on separate plants: i.e. whether a plant bears flowers of one kind only or of both sorts.

Yours truly- E.A S.”

 

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