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Webster Groves Nature Study Society Marks 100 Years

Alfred Satterthwait working on his insect collection at his home 118 Waverly Ave., Webster Groves, ~1930. WGNSS Archives.

by Don Corrigan

The Webster Groves Nature Study Society (WGNSS) was set to mark an entire century of existence this April. A coronavirus pandemic has crushed all the organization’s “best laid plans” to celebrate its past, present and future.

“Our 100th Anniversary Banquet for May 12 is canceled. Our ‘Night to Remember’ on  April 1 is canceled. Our ceremony with the Mayor of Webster Groves on city hall’s front lawn for April 3 is canceled,” lamented Richard Thoma, the past president and first vice president of WGNSS.

“Obviously, the pandemic is hurting a lot more people and canceling more important things than what we are all about – but this hurts,” said Thoma. “It has also canceled three nature outings and set back the publication of our memorial book, “One Hundred Years of the Webster Groves Nature Study Society.”

The book will be published later this year, and all the events for a century of service will be rescheduled. In some sense, the book is designed to be a guide to celebrating 100 years of WGNSS’s commitment to nature appreciation and exploration through its many study groups committed to:

• Astronomy

• Botany

• Conservation

• Entymology

• Geology

• Herpetology 

• Ichthypology

• Microscopy

•Nature Music & Melodies

•Nature Photography

•Ornithology

A detailed volume, the book also segments the history of WGNSS from its early years, to decades when its activities involved an Entomological Lab on Ivanhoe Avenue, a Birding Club in Forest Park and a Ranken Property Nature Lodge.

WGNSS Nature Lodge circa 1939 on the Ranken property (present day Beaumont Scout Reservation)

“I am drawn to the chapter on  World War II now because it seems to have special relevance in this time of  the pandemic,” said Thoma. “That war almost shut us down. A lot of our leaders had to go off to fight.

“Marshall Magner became part of the Military Conservation Corps and one of his duties was to fight malaria,” noted Thoma. “He also issued advisories on the need for troop movements to avoid swamp areas and locales full of mosquitoes and malaria.”

Thoma said it was “amazing” that none of the WGNSS members were lost in combat in World War II. With so many older members now, Thoma worries whether there will be any losses in the 2020 war against coronavirus.

          Distinguished Leaders 

 The 100th anniversary book lists   notable members of the WGNSS. They have to start with Alfred and Elizabeth Satterthwait, who were involved in the society’s founding in 1920.  Dr. Alfred Satterthwait was an expert on insects and first WGNSS President. Alfred and Elizabeth Satterthwait encouraged youngsters to join the organization and sponsored insect collecting contests.

Both were writers and Elizabeth Satterthwait published in magazines such as  McCall’s. She once described “bits of nature” that occupied her kitchen every day, from flora to fauna. She enjoyed field trips and nature expeditions, which she described as “the best movies I have ever seen.”

Other distinguished members of the nature study society include:

• Jim Ruschill, who could claim to be a naturalist, caver, hiker and geological sightseer. He knew the Meramec River wetlands and fought to keep a giant dioxin incinerator out of Times Beach.

• Richard W. Coles, a director of Tyson Research Center, who made the site a favorite of field biologists for experiments. Under his leadership, the Endangered Wolf Center and World Bird Sanctuary found homes at Tyson.

• Carl Darigo, who authored the “Checklist Of Missouri Mosses,” that became a publication of Missouri Botanical Garden. Darigo received numerous awards, including the John E. Wylie Service Award in 2001 by the Missouri Native Plant Society.

• Edgar Denison, who married Ruth Israel and moved to Kirkwood, where they grew the most extensive and beautiful wildflower garden in St. Louis. He assisted with Botany classes at Washington University and supplied drawings and photographs for the book, “Missouri Wildflowers.”

•Pat Brock Diener, who became a presence in the world of science education. She had many hobbies and her enthusiasm for nature photography led her to become a charter member of Missouri Nature and Environmental Photography (MONEP) in 1995.

•Karen Haller, who worked on the nature society’s conservation committee to save the “Irish Wilderness.” An active member of the Missouri Native Plant Society, she led a survey in 1987 to identify all plants at MDC’s new Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center.

Other accomplished members of WGNSS include: Arthur Christ, Jim Comfort, Pat and Jack Harris, Nels Holmberg, Marshall Magner, Fr. James Sullivan, James Summers, Phoebe Snetsinger, Fr. James Sullivan, George Winkler, George Yatskievych and more.

The entomological lab at 527 Ivanhoe, Webster Groves in 1925. In the photo are Alfred Satterthwait (left) founder of WGNSS and R. C. Lange (right), one of the first to join WGNSS on April 3, 1920.

    Future of Nature Society

In the  book’s conclusion, President Lisa Nansteel describes an ambitious future for the next 100 years. It includes more study groups, more field trips, new scholarships and outreach to youth, and, of course, better stewardship of our natural Missouri and Planet Earth.

“My hope is that we can digitalize our last 100 years of  our monthly Nature Notes and turn it into more of a magazine for

the next 100,” said Thoma. “We also will continue to be activists on conservation, endangered species protection, climate issues, clean air and water.”

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