Bartram Trail Conference

Remembering Joel T. Fry

By William Cahill 2023

Some weeks after Joel died, with the spring full on, I visited Bartram’s Garden as a preparation for this paper, which I had been asked to write. It was early May and the Garden was lush and green and full of memory. Orioles bugled from the treetops, a hermit thrush contemplated shadows, a hummingbird tested flowers. The Schuylkill River sparkled through the foliage and the weed trees on its farther shore hid almost entirely the remnants of the oil refinery that had shut down just in the past few years. Its dismantling seemed to have happened overnight. The green selvage of mulberry and tree of heaven on its farther shore now almost suggested the older rustic fabric that was there in the Bartrams’ time. Cities change, gardens change, and Joel was very much a student of their metamorphoses. But now this scene would go on changing without his astute observation and I felt this as I walked down to the Schuylkill bank and stood there for a moment. I thought, too, of the negative: how the world changes because someone has left it. More precisely, I thought of how many things here in Bartram’s Garden would happen now without Joel Fry’s guiding insight, as he is no longer here to answer the gardeners’ questions or to advise the director and staff about what might work best in the public interpretation of this place, and about how it might be valued. 

The view behind me was all Garden. The narrow upsloping paths that trace almost exactly (Joel would tell you where the north walk had been reset somewhat askew) John Bartram’s mid-eighteenth-century layout disappeared into a green blur, hiding the terrace, the Bartram mansion, the seed house complex where Joel had his office, and the stone barn, structures Joel knew from within and below, in his work as the site’s archaeologist. It was full spring now. Joel had fallen sick near the start of the winter that ended on the day he died and he saw the Garden’s spring flourish only in the fresh-flowering cuttings of a dogwood Cornus mas and a few other flowering twigs Mandy Katz brought when she visited him in the hospital. I believe Joel knew every plant in Bartram’s Garden, when just about every kind had been planted. In the many years he worked at Bartram’s, Joel regularly walked the Garden when his day’s work was finished, even after dark. These walks must have been relaxing, but they weren’t his downtime (he spent that reading Victorian novels his mother loved or studying Japanese and reading manga). They were his time for curating the Garden. Alina Josan remembers seeing him on one of them hand-pollinating pawpaw flowers and I remember his curious habit of separating seeds from plants we found in the woods and putting them in his shirt pocket, to try out in the Garden. 

   Joel Fry knew much more about each of these things—the 20th century refinery, the 18th century city neighborhoods that were there once (where, he would point out, Thomas Jefferson had lived when he was in the government at Philadelphia), the ancient native landscape on both sides of the river, even the river’s and its terraced shores’ geology – than most of us ever will. Joel could discourse readily on any of them, his talk brimming with carefully researched facts – and now and then, too, with speculative asides on bits that seemed intuitively suggestive to him. Each had a bearing on his work, which was to curate this special place, one so full of memory that now includes him and will make him a topic in its research.          

   Though I saw changes in Joel over the years that I knew him, his remarkable rhetorical posture remained constant. It was something I could make out in my first Joel Fry sighting, which occurred before I met him. The occasion was a talk Joel gave at the 1999 Bartram 300 symposium in Philadelphia, when he addressed a nearly full auditorium at the Academy of Natural Sciences on the subject of John Bartram’s historic garden and its ancient past. Tall and lanky, with an energetic, high tenor voice, Joel leaned into the podium onstage and spoke almost breathlessly, stretching his lungs to get everything he had to say that day said. From my seat in the auditorium, I couldn’t see his features distinctly, but the brimming, mnemonic extravagance of his voice impressed me. As I remember it, Joel wore black jeans and a dark shirt that day. Perhaps I am imagining this, but I am sure his dress wasn’t much different from this, which was his working outfit (to which he sometimes added a corduroy sport coat) throughout the more than twenty years that I knew him, Joel’s hair was still dark in 1999, not yet the galvanized gray it would assume a decade or so later, and he wore it long and sported a bushy, by then somewhat anachronistic ’60’s mustache. (He would keep the mustache and long hair to the end.) Here, I thought, in May of 1999, was a youthful man making his own way in the world of research, and without an academic affiliation. 

   Joel had by then a considerable resumé in archaeology and continued to work as a consultant in the field, but by now more and more of his work was at Bartram’s, where he had been hired as the site’s Curator of Historic Artifacts in 1992. Joel told me once, years later, that he had chosen this title himself, when the question of what he should be called came up in a discussion. Joel despised titles, at least ones that vaunted hierarchical privileges or submissions, but he felt at ease with this one, I suppose because it associated with no “department” or ranking at the John Bartram Association, which would be his employer. He was building a career then, quite on his own, and this would be his hallmark going forward, and just what this career consisted of is something I want to talk about here, shortly. But I want to give first a few more details about his performance back in May 1999, which made my first impression of him and proved itself true over the years. 

   I remember a slight nervousness in Joel’s talk that day, which I put down to a mild worry about running out of time. I do not remember the speakers’ time allotments for the session, but they were not brief. But Joel had much to tell, because by then he had defined the subject of Bartram’s Garden more widely and deeply than historians had done previously. Joel’s knowledge of his subject, even then, was copious enough to strain even a generous allotment of on-stage speaking time. His perspective was unique among the speakers at the conference, because it was based in archaeology, which he correlated deftly with published histories, many of them dated, obscure, local and incomplete, which he would consult and sometimes add to and correct. I remember distinctly a remark he made to the effect that Bartram’s Garden was probably the preeminent site for prehistoric archaeology in Philadelphia, as much of its ground hadn’t been deep plowed. 

   The remark occurs in a paper Joel published in the Bartram Broadside, the handsome, astute two- to six-page publication Director Martha Leigh Wolf launched in the early ’90’s with Joel Fry as its editor. By the time he gave his talk at the Bartram 300 Conference, Joel had worked and written papers on five important archaeological digs at Bartram’s Garden, which he summarized in a 4-page double-columned Broadside piece titled “Archaeological Research at Historic Bartram’s Garden,” issued in the summer of 1998. More archaeology would follow, but by now he could report on digs at the Bartram house, the pond site, common flower garden, seed house, John Bartram’s original study (a building separate from his house), his new flower garden, two glass greenhouses, the Bartram house well, the barnyard, and the south meadow. This last produced the most significant collection of Indian artifacts from the Bartram property, dated to the Woodland period of prehistoric human occupation. That was what Joel’s remark at the Bartram 300 conference, about the possible preeminence of Bartram’s Garden as a prehistoric field for study in Philadelphia, was based on. 

   While in most of the chatter at the Bartram 300 conference “the 18th century” was on everyone’s lips, and certainly on Joel’s, but Joel could hardly imagine talking about the landscape of Bartram’s Garden without including the site’s seventeenth century history, as well (when it was part of Swedish Plantation known as Aronameck, built on native peoples’ sites and in interaction with them, or about its prehistory. The entire documented and researchable span of the site’s measurable temporal existence interested Joel and he curated knowledge of the site within this wide compass. By the time of this talk, Joel had been thinking of Bartram’s Garden in this complex way for the better part of the decade. This complexity was to ground of his interest. Each aspect of it mattered to him, even in the shadow of the singular historical figure that day’s conference was about. But Joel made only slight reference to his own role in developing this knowledge. He spoke as a working archaeologist, but without giving himself specific credit for the discoveries he spoke about. 

   As I came to understand when I got to know Joel—we met in person about a year after the Bartram 300 conference – Joel had a special brand of modesty about these things. Joel cared intensely about the knowledge he worked on, but I wouldn’t say he was obsessed with its investigation. Joel’s concern was a genuine sort of interest, rather – interest in its root sense of being with or among. His abiding attitude toward his work was that it was intellectually challenging and thus promised satisfaction for his great intelligence, but also that it was interesting in this deep sense and thus important beyond any selfish purpose. In this sense, his character was bound up in his work. What I would call – clumsily – Joel’s “utopian” spirit showed in this characteristic attitude. But this is my surmise; I never heard Joel talk about this in such an abstract way. Instead, he showed it, in his seriousness, in his sincerity. 

   Joel’s first work at Bartram’s was archaeological excavations done in 1980, when he was a research and field assistant in the archaeological laboratory of the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum. This was his first year out of college (he received his B.A. magna cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania in 1979.) He followed this with work on the Seed House excavation at the Garden in 1989 and 1990; Phase I archaeological assessment & monitoring of reconstruction work at the outbuilding complex in 1990 and 1991; an historic structure survey of the 1775 Bartram barn in 1991 and 92; the archaeological survey of proposed a wetland restoration site at the Garden in 1996; archaeological excavations of the Bartram pond site and lower garden in 1996 and 97; an archaeological survey of the 1775 barn’s ground floor and test excavations adjacent to the Bartram house in 1998; excavations along the south fence of the botanic garden (working with the Wagner Free Institute) in 1999; and a dig around the perimeter of the Bartram house in spring 2001 and spring 2002. 

   This work occasioned Joel’s first writing about the Bartram site – five papers (one a two-volume work) done in-house for the John Bartram Association; the six pieces written for the “Bartram Broadside”; a report written for the DER grant; several symposium papers; and the work Joel did as historian for the Historic American Landscapes Survey of the Bartram site (HALS No. PA-01, National Park Service, summer 2002). The immediate practical aim these projects was the preparation of new house, garden and landscape tours at Bartram’s Garden, which Joel was instrumental in producing. 

   Joel’s 134-page HALS report detailed the history of the Bartram site in its buildings, the historic botanic garden, and the landscape including geology, prehistory, and its historical ownership and its situation in the cultural and political life of the region over four centuries. It was the basis for new house and garden tours, but also for Joel’s innovative landscape tour at Bartram’s Garden. (The HALS report was a novel form at the time it was written, a new interpretive venture by the National Park Service going beyond its conventional historic buildings surveys). My understanding of Joel deepened when I first experienced his landscape tour. I was to meet him one day for research at the Garden and when I arrived he was in the midst of one of these tours, so I joined in. I remember his long strides as he walked the tour group across the Garden, from the north meadow area (recently a cement factory site) at right angles to its fence and the two long paths that connect the house portico with the river. His long strides were matched by his long sentences telling details the centuries had left as markers in the landscape and they continued up the rise where railroad magnate Andrew Eastwick had built his 19th century mansion (no longer standing above grade) and into the south meadow (site of the1996 excavations that had proved the Bartram property to have been a significant prehistoric site). 

   Joel would speak in this tour especially, too, of plantings in the Garden across its history from John Bartram’s original purchase in 1728 up to 1850 when Ann Bartram Carr, the last Bartram descendant to live there, and her husband Robert Carr sold the property and much of the contents (including two-thirds of the library) of the Bartram house. Joel’s intensive interest in garden plants showed keenly in his knowledge of the Carr period, in which Ann and Robert Carr (and their short-lived botanist son, John Bartram Carr, whom Joel researched and wrote about) vastly expanded the garden as a horticultural business with thousands of plants in glass greenhouses, including many exotics as well as the American plants cultivated there since the 1730’s by John Bartram and his sons, William Bartram and John Bartram, Jr. The recent planting of the new Carr garden at the west front of the Bartram house features many Carr-period plants and is a culmination of years-long research Joel Fry did on the work of the Carrs, a topic he touched on in his landscape tour even many years before the new garden was installed.      

In his landscape tour at Bartram’s, Joel also talked about the Eastwick and Meehan periods’ first efforts to preserve the Garden, which I think he saw his own work there as in an important way a continuation of and addition to. (Joel and his wife, Susan Quick, mounted an exhibition with text and historic photographs titled “The Eastwick Legacy at Bartram’s Garden” in June 1997, so by that time he knew quite about Andrew Eastwick’s ownership and preservation of the Garden.) Over the ensuing years Joel studied the life, horticultural work and preservation efforts of Irish gardener Thomas Meehan, who came to the Garden to work for Eastwick in the 1880’s, and later, as a Philadelphia councilman after Eastwick’s death, advocated toward the city converting the land to a public park. Joel might well have seen the restoration of the site’s botanic garden undertaken since the early 2000’s as a continuation of Meehan’s work.       

   Visitors with a long-enough experience of Bartram’s Garden will remember its unpruned, somewhat bare appearance before this latter project was undertaken, and the paucity of plant species important to the history of the Garden – and this brings me to another key phase of Joel’s work at Bartram’s, the replanting of the historic botanic garden. This project, too, went hand in hand with a piece of research and writing Joel did in the late ’90’s, his encyclopedic text on the Bartrams’ 1783 plant catalogue, an exceedingly rare broadside printing done in Philadelphia and in a French version published in Paris.  

   The Garden restoration began in the late ’90’s with plans made under then Director Martha Leigh Wolf and one of Joel’s early publications provided its basis. This was Joel’s extensive 1996 piece for the Journal of Garden History,titled “Bartram’s Garden Catalogue of North American Plants, 1783” (Volume 16, Number 1, Spring 1996), which was also reissued as an offprint. In this piece, Joel gives the history of the Catalogue, of which only three extant copies are known (two in English, printed in Philadelphia, and one in French, printed in France) and a chart identifying its 218 species (216 in the French version). The work gives the background of the Bartrams’ plant collecting with Joel’s carful interpretation and contextualization, and it prepared the way for an authoritative replanting of the Garden. The publication also reproduced 32 of William Bartram’s plant drawings (not part of the “Catalogue”) in black and white, at a time when these images were not easily available to most readers. But the Garden replanting, it must be remembered, depended, too, on the archaeology Joel worked on and documented that found out just where the historic plant beds and walks were, so that they could be recreated. (Another important document made use of in the Garden’s restoration was the “Draught of John Bartram’s House and Garden, 1758,” believed to have been done by William Bartram. In his 1998 Bartram Broadside “Archaeological Research at Historic Bartram’s Garden,” Joel noted that “serious efforts to restore and replant the historic garden can be traced to [its] rediscovery at the library of the Earl of Derby in 1955” and to its first publication by Dorothy T. Povey in 1956. The plan to restore the Garden was launched in 1975, stimulated by the United States Bicentennial.)

   Joel’s work on the 1783 Garden Catalogue filled in the necessary botanical detail for this replanting project. It remains an important resource in garden history, as does his unpublished work on the several later printed Bartram catalogues and handwritten plant lists from Bartram’s Garden in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which Joel also studied and made extensive notes on. Joel’s research for his 1996 Journal of Garden History piece served as a pivotal reference in the restoration of the Bartram botanic garden, as his 1998 Bartram Broadside piece on archaeology at the Garden was for the interpretation of the house, outbuildings and landscape at the site. But they also gathered a knowledge base for his future studies of the site and of the Bartram family’s botanical legacy. 

   I want to say a few more things here about Joel’s writing, particularly about how he wrote and what he expected for his writing, but also about certain structures he used that evinced his character, I think in ways that might be missed or mistaken by readers who have not known him. Joel wasn’t one to tell his own story; his usual way of speaking on a topic might include knowledge he had developed, but he would treat it just as knowledge, amenable to new contexts. He liked seeing this knowledge develop. It was personal for him, but never in an egotistical way.

   Joel rarely spoke about his writing. Yet his story, I believe, is very much a story of writing, as much as it is one of shovel tests, excavations, site planning, tours, reading and research and so I want to say a few things here about Joel’s written rhetoric, about how he wrote and about certain particular structures he used that evinced his character, I think in ways that might be missed or mistaken by readers who have not known him. It is above all, I think, an interesting story of rhetoric, particularly of the classical rhetorical concept of ethos

   Ethos, in manuals of rhetoric, is the character of the speaker, which a speech might feature as a means to win conviction: If the speaker is believable, redoubtable, famous, trusted – or at least gives the appearance of being so – the audience might be more inclined to side with him or her. I believe Joel’s many admirers found him interesting and listened to him because they found his character persuasive, and for good reason. Ethos as a rhetorical concept is an idea of a speaker’s appeal as it is built into the character of his or her speech and its performance, by various rhetorical ploys—or, some rhetors would have it, by the speaker’s sincerity, an elusive quality, a feature of a moment, an identity of character and speech. I believe Joel Fry was a sincere writer and speaker in this sense, but also that some of his sincerity—which so many people can attest to and have valued in him – might be missed if his writing (now that his speaking voice has been silenced by a fatal lung cancer) is read glibly, merely for its information. Joel never said much directly about this to me, though we talked a good bit about writing, so this is my take on him. 

    Joel’s career was remarkably independent. It was in many ways self-made, an American original (there have been other public historians who worked this way at legacy sites around the country, but I suspect they have been rare). It was a career undertaken with his own impressive abilities and with a stubborn avoidance of privilege, hierarchical honors or advancement. His ethos evinced an idealistic, even Utopian interest in communicating knowledge as a public historian, and this is something that could likely be lost on his readers in the future, when those who knew him and experienced this public work that he did with such commitment are not around to tell of it. It is there in his writings, but in ways that could prove ephemeral, I fear. 

Joel was much appreciated as a speaker at conferences and meetings, I think because people recognized his originality, knowledge, and honesty – not earnestness, but the sincerity of the serious personality. This was Joel’s ethos, I would say.   

I never heard Joel say anything about his writings’ formal organization or problems they posed to his sense of what writing could be. But he once said to me, I thought strangely, that he just wrote his pieces the way he wrote them and thought that they should stand as such. He didn’t think much of the idea of editing them. When I pressed him about this, he acknowledged the editor’s role and the value of editing, but said he thought that had little to do with himself. He just wrote his pieces the way he wrote them when he wrote them, he insisted, and thought it fine to leave them that way – though he wouldn’t allow factual mistakes. I think he meant that they should be valued for their datedness, and that revisions would come, if they did, in new pieces that reprised prior knowledge. His writings, in this sense, were parts of or moments in his experience. He was interested in communicating his knowledge to the world, but not much in literary style or rhetorical polish, meant to “sell” them. 

    When I think of how to characterize Joel’s writing, I am reminded of how much it sounded, content-wise, like his conversation: Both were copious with carefully researched knowledge, full of memory but spare on theory. I know that Joel made notes from his studies and suppose he consulted these in writing. (A few years ago, when I had asked him about something we had talked or written about that I remembered only vaguely, Joel turned to his computer and brought up our emails about the subject, in seconds. His computer files were well organized and he told me he saved the emails in screen shots that he then stored them in topical files, ready for his constant revisiting and reevaluating.) But I can’t help wondering if Joel wasn’t capable of writing much of his work from memory. 

    The abundant ready memory apparent in Joel’s conversation must have served him as a writer much of the time, even without consulting his notes. His factual memory was copious, and of Aristotelian dimensions. But it would be a mistake to think of this as encyclopedic, though the comparison has some justification. Joel’s research and memory were ever at the service of his work as a site curator, one who cared for the past as it could be told from a special site, and it was always for the future, which included projects such as the replanting of Bartram’s Garden. 

    I would make one more point here about remembering in Joel’s work, which is that it was for him always provisional; it provided what it could at the time he reported on it and made this available to thought and experience, but with a humble sense of incompleteness. Joel’s insistent use of speculation can be explained by this and it is a point that might easily be misunderstood. 

    Again I think of archaeology here, now as the basis for Joel’s thought. Archaeologists begin by making shovel tests of an area they suppose could be revealing, to prove whether it does or does not have a human structure of the past hidden within it, and if it does, to map out an extent for excavation, to bring this structure to light. The shovel tests and the excavation, if they find things, suggest narratives of the past, but always incompletely. The archaeologist must guess at possible connections the ground might still conceal or that have deteriorated in it beyond recognition – and an historical archaeologist can search documents to help determine the validity of this guessing, though this will not answer all questions. The method requires an etiquette of frankness: Points of speculation, or guesses, are to be labeled as such, so to speak, not in despair of the truth but as markers for further study, based in a belief that someday the full truth of the matter could be known. I believe this is what Joel was up to in his use of guessing, which was characteristic of his speech and showed up often in his writing. I believe that in speaking and writing this way Joel was setting down markers for questions he might research one day. Like an archaeologist making an inference, the form of the statement has always to be speculative, precisely because the one making it believes further evidence might be found to elaborate, debunk, corroborate or provide unexpected insight. I believe Joel’s mind worked this way, from his archaeological training and experience. 

Here are two examples:

    Between 1830 and 1850 a new cold cellar was dug to the north of the ice pit. Room # 4 above was constructed with wide, chest high openings on the east, west, and north sides. Room # 4 and the cold cellar may have provided space for the sale and storage of cold beverages and ice cream late in the history of Bartram’s Garden, or could have been a sale space for plants and horticultural materials. (“Archaeological Research at Bartram’s Garden,” Bartram Broadside, summer 1998, p. 8)

    While the garden plots are clearly defined, there is little detail of the actual plantings. Stylized trees line the alleys along the south edge of the lower garden, and trees are also indicated along the north fence – possibly espaliers? (America’s Curious Botanist, ed. Nancy E. Hofmann and John C. Van Horne, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia 2004, p. 168)

I am sure that if I had asked Joel at some point after these publications about the “ice cream and cold beverages” of the first one or the “espaliers” of the second, he would have had things to tell me about each of them, as the basis for his speculation. Knowing him, I would say they could not have been idle guesses, and he had intended to pursue them further. And, knowing him, I expect he might have been able to provide, at the time I asked the question, knowledge of the matter that he hadn’t yet known when he made it. Joel’s research was continuous, insistent, on-going. Who knows how many “markers” he mentally placed in the landscape of his curiosity that he didn’t get time to investigate completely. 

    Joel’s public talks, conference papers, and publications, I believe, were all markers in his landscape of study, which was focused in the extant acres of Bartram’s Garden in Kingsessing, on the Schuylkill River in southwest Philadelphia. Each one updated topics Joel had written or talked about in previous studies, though his audience might not know that, and so in his mind it required a reprise of certain facts he had written or spoken about before, for other audiences. As Joel saw it, I think, each paper or talk that he did was a one-off recitation of what he had learned to date about a topic his audience had invited him to speak about, or if his hosts had left the topic open, it would be about what parts of his knowledge he judged they had potential interest in.  Either way, he would also fill his audience in on Bartram history, again, as he judged it was relevant to their interest—and because he saw these talks as continuous with his on-site work as an interpreter and public historian of Bartram’s Garden. In other words, Joel Fry was an obliging public speaker and writer, always at the disposal of one public group or another, and of Bartram’s Garden. Joel took care to give his audiences enough background to understand what he was saying, to let them in on his original findings, but without showcasing his knowledge independently of this context of public historical interpretation. This is very different from academic writing, which assumes a common background and often does nothing to provide it for readers who might not have it. That makes academic writing esoteric and demanding, in contrast to Joel’s obliging approach. 

    If Joel overdid this providing sometimes, it was because he wanted to be sure people had the chance to avail themselves of the knowledge his talk offered them, whether they cared for it at the time or not. I think, too, that Joel enjoyed rehearsing what he knew in his public talks. He could seem diffident about this, I think, rather in the way a teacher must: People will make what they will of teaching, sometimes making something very good of it without the teacher ever knowing that they did, sometimes even years later. In the hospital, Joel mentioned to me an experience he had had recently on the trolley that he considered odd. It wasn’t the trolley that was odd; Joel liked the Philadelphia trolleys well enough and made them his usual means of travel in the city, to places too far to walk to. What seemed odd, rather, was that a person sitting across from him seemed to stare at him and eventually said, “You were my tour guide, recently at Bartram’s.” The fellow smiled when he said this, Joel told me, and that the fellow seemed pleased pleased Joel, though he thought it unaccountable. “That’s the way it is with teachers and their students,” I said. He accepted my explanation, but still seemed bemused. There must be a thousand people in the world now who have been pleased and interested by Joel Fry. 

    Like an archaeologist, Joel was always wondering about what lay hidden and how it might be brought to light, but also about what was missing, or only hinted at in all but insubstantial soil stains and other traces. (A garden, especially, leaves such traces—something he talked about with respect.) Joel saw his writing and its speculations as part of his work, perhaps even as a duty. But Joel was always motivated, too, by a Utopian conviction that knowledge should be free (though there were times when he needed the stipend that came with a talk, he was quite willing to speak for free). Alina Josan, who worked with Joel on the development of the library at Bartram’s, and on other projects, has put it this way. She told me that she admired Joel’s readiness to make his “endless well of knowledge” available “to every comer with the same quality of information.” This was part of Joel’s mission, I believe, but it must also reflect his upbringing and I suppose especially the influence of his mother, who had trained as a teacher and took close interest in his schooling. (Joel shared with her a love of music and took up the clarinet, her instrument, earning a place in the high school marching band.) Alina Josan saw Joel as “in constant pursuit of knowledge without concern for outcomes,” and she noted that he usually worked “outside the world of fellowships or any formal hierarchy.” I believe these views fit with Joel’s remarks about writing and editing, noted above. 

    Anent Joel’s constant quality of information given to every comer, I would mention another anecdote: One afternoon, after a research session, Joel and I sat next to John Bartram’s 1760 greenhouse eating pawpaw fruits from a tree in the Garden when a man came up and asked if we knew “the history of this place.” He said he believed certain of his ancestors had lived there, and that their name was “Souplis,” which he spelled out for us and said was French. He added that this was his surname, but the family had long ago respelled it “Supplee.” I deferred to Joel and he gave a ready answer. Before John Bartram acquired his Kingsessing property, a French family named Souplis had owned and farmed a small tract just to the south of what would become John Bartram’s botanic garden plot, acreage now known as the site’s “South Meadow.” Joel answered this query with his usual aplomb, taking the question and the one who asked it at face value. Ever the public historical interpreter, he spoke succinctly and to the visitor’s point, without any expression of surprise, as if a piece of 17th century land ownership were a familiar matter for him, not at all an esoteric one. (The facts are documented in Joel’s work on the HALS Survey, p. 16.)

    Joel’s career at Bartram’s is reflected in the occasions of his writings. He wrote in various forms (archaeological reports, narrative summaries of research, etc.), and these were, as I have said, obliging pieces, written to meet specific requests (the early ones are in-house reports written for the John Bartram Association) or to engage a nature club, historical society, a university audience, or scholars in a specialized field of research, in what he knew about Bartram’s Garden. He showed again and again in these different venues that he was able to see his research from others’ perspectives and thus to edit the content of his writing to engage their needs or desires, often in sophisticated ways. This sophisticated adaptability to occasional, invited circumstances accounts for Joel’s astuteness as a public historian and for much of his popularity. I would insist that Joel Fry was a sincere person, but it is curious, too, I think, that he had this sophistication. He could present himself equally well and equally comfortably at a nature club or a university symposium or to rich donors for Bartram’s Garden or the ordinary anonymous Southwest Philadelphia people he walked among in the neighborhood of Bartram’s Garden. Many of them knew who he was, as they would see him again and again getting on or off the trolley on Lindbergh Avenue for his walk to work at Bartram’s Garden. 

    Like many who knew him, I was impressed by Joel Fry’s factual memory, his enthusiasm, and his ability to continually develop knowledge from research, but also his continuous efforts at establishing connections the historic site he worked on for more than three decades had with the world beyond it. The notion of landscape as an organization of knowledge became essential to Joel Fry’s thought and investigations. Landscape was the basis of Joel’s rhetoric, too. He could link many more things to a single landscape feature (a rhetorician would say, a topic) than most of his listeners could have anticipated. This became a habit with him and a kind of game, a challenge to see how many connections with historical figures or research could be documented. For example, Joel wrote to me once that he had just found in a book of the poet William Carlos Williams’ letters one in which Williams told his brother, Edgar, about a desultory day he spent at Bartram’s Garden when he was a student at the University of Pennsylvania. He wanted very much to find that Edgar Allan Poe had visited the Garden, though I do not think he ever found any. Joel had a list in his head of people well known elsewhere who had happened to visit Bartram’s Garden and left records on paper or in photos. 

    What distinguishes Joel Fry’s work as essentially archaeological, I think, is its abiding, centering interest in the past over an interest in narrative. Though he enjoyed the word curiosity, a shibboleth of the 17th and 18th century naturalists, he didn’t take his narrative lead from the term. That came, I believe, from the recent practice of historical archaeology he learned in his graduate program at Penn (he earned his M.A. in American civilization there in 1984) and his work at the University Museum. Joel wasn’t, I would venture to say, a curioso in the way that the Bartrams and others in their society of natural historians were. True, there was a resemblance. He seemed at times to have lived in their past a long while and become quite capable in using their terms of reference and evaluation. But that appearance disguised this deeper interest, which showed, I think, especially in the outdoor tours he gave at Bartram’s, on the model he devised as his landscape tour. Joel’s landscape tour showed equal regard for the past and present, for archaeology and history, for finished and unfinished learning.

    Joel Fry was a man with many opinions, but his complaints were never vicious. They were all about the foolishness of the world, which could have made him a satirist but never a cynic. I believe Joel had deep principles, from his family and their religious morality, on which he based his general respect for people. But this never meant that he didn’t have preferences and antipathies, or that he had more patience with foolish characters than they deserved. He made efforts to understand people and to take them on their own terms, but he was selective in this. He did sometimes express dislikes for certain public figures, calling them “idiots,” but rarely said disparaging things about the people he met or knew. He expressed his dislike, I think, by avoidance. He could be critical without disparaging people. He was always rather crude in his dress, wearing cheap clothes and keeping a very spare wardrobe (though when he represented Bartram’s Garden at Mill Hill School in London, on an estate that was once the property of John Bartram’s longtime correspondent Peter Collinson, he appeared in a photo in a stylish new blazer, bought for the occasion). Joel would listen patiently and always politely when the talk shifted away from his interests, but these were so extensive and varied that more often than not he found something to pick up on and talk about, a family name, a place, a cultural memory. I could never predict what the common denominator would be, but he often found one. It was my experience that people found him a wonder to talk with about things they had in common, because he was interested. He was that interesting. That people cared about him showed in the many written tributes sent to him in the hospital on the electronic “Kudoboard” Aseel Rashid launched on the Internet. 

    Joel was asked many times whether he thought of writing a book about the Bartrams, as certainly he had enough knowledge and interesting stories of them to fill at least one. But his collected writings wouldn’t make a proper book without the rewriting necessary to join them as such, and this would neglect his obliging, always ad hoc or occasionalpurpose, and so it would miss an important aspect of his spirit. But he did tell me once that if he were to write a Bartram book it would be about certain plants whose stories he could tell in detail. I wish he had done it and I am sure many would have loved the result. He didn’t say much about what those plants would be, though the set would certainly include Franklinia alatamaha, the unique American plant William Bartram rescued from near extinction that now thrives in cultivation. Joel did write about Franklinia in several publications, most recently in Kathryn H. Braund’s edited volume, The Attention of a Traveller (2022), which gave his most complete published account of the species and its natural history. Joel’s research on Franklinia was entirely original, enough to have been the basis for a Ph.D. in a university prepared to recognize its significance. But that is a point he didn’t care much about, at least not as it turned out. (Joel published an earlier summary account: “Franklinia alatamaha, s History of that ‘Very Curious Shrub’” as a winter 2000 Bartram Broadside, in 21 double-column pages.

    Joel did write particularly about some other plants in his published work – for example, his passages on Turkey Beard, Xerophyllum asphodeloides, in his chapter in Knowing Nature… This was a plant we visited in the late spring of many years in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, where Joel and I often went to study plants known to John and William Bartram in their little-known local botanizing. The pursuit was something we became keen about in the early 2000’s when we recognized how many plants in the Sutro Herbarium of John Bartram specimens were native species in New Jersey, within 50 miles or less of Kingsessing, Pennsylvania. All the Sutro specimens were plants Bartram had collected in the 1730’s and 40’s, before his trip to the southeast in the ’60’s. Among the many plants we found, Joel liked particularly to see and talk about turkeybeard, John Bartram’s “grassy plant,” which Bartram had succeeded in growing at the Garden only after 20 years of trial and error. Joel liked, too, to note that there were naturally occurring patches of coastal plain soils in John Bartram’s Garden and that he must have taken advantage of these to grow some of New Jersey’s coastal plain, pine barren plants. In our searches, we were able to vouch for the Bartrams’ knowledge of many southern New Jersey plants and to understand how this knowledge must have been a basis for their understanding of coastal plain and Florida plants in subsequent years. 

    Joel felt personally connected with Philadelphia, where he was born, though he was raised and went to school in its outer suburbs – in fact, a walk from the hospital where his mother delivered him to Bartram’s Garden would take barely half an hour, if that. It was just a few minutes by car, through the crowded blocks of Kingsessing and West Philadelphia and whenever we went that way Joel would point out the block where his family lived when he was born. Often when we drove through the city Joel would point out places that had been important to his family when he was growing up and before. Once, for instance, on a rainy winter day when I picked him up, with Nancy Hoffmann and Alina Josan, for a trip to a library that had a copy of Bartram’s Travels 1791 we wanted to look at for our census, Joel pointed out the west Philadelphia building his father had reported to when he left home to join the Army during World War II. Joel could locate much of his personal history in the city landscape he studied with such feeling. More than once, driving through West Philadelphia, he pointed out the neighborhood his parents lived in when they were first married and the hospital there where he was born, an easy enough walk from the edges of the historic Bartram property he studied for so many years. 

    The last time I saw Joel at Bartram’s, he had seemed well. This was in early December, a few weeks before he fell ill – near the beginning of the winter that would end for him in Pennsylvania Hospital. That day Joel had showed me the 18th century Pennsylvania desk Bartram’s Garden had just acquired and that came with convincing proof that it had belonged to John Bartram. The desk, much worn and rickety, had now come back to John Bartram’s house after an absence of nearly two centuries. Joel detailed the desk’s restoration, then underway, for me. Opening every drawer and tipping it away from the wall, he named its different woods, the joinery techniques and fashion details that allowed dating it to the 1740’s. He knew its provenance history and something about its former owners and how it had come up for auction. After we examined the desk and its secretary cabinet (which had been removed from it and laid out on wooden trestles so the restorer could work on it), we went into the “New Study,” the room John Bartram built in the early 1770’s as part of his final expansion of his house, completed a few years before his death. It was fairly warm in the house that day, but the Garden was winter-bare, allowing a view from the New Study through the winter-ready trees to the sparkling river and what was left of the oil refineries on its farther shore. The trompe l’oeiul painted trees on the study’s interior walls had their faint, centuries old hint of spring color. This was my last experience with Joel in his usual form, dressed in jeans, a flannel shirt and a winter overshirt, his speech full of remarkable facts and mnemonic adroitness. If Joel had a Muse, it must have been Mnemosyne, the Greek spirit of memory. But he didn’t much like myths. He was too much a modern for that. 

    When we walked down to the river that last day, I remember, Joel had been tricked by the appearance of the water close to the bank. He thought there might be a new mud bank there, but it turned out to be just the opaque shore light that he had seen. A minor moment, but one that shows how his attention worked. He would notice and comment on things, natural or artifactual or documentary that struck him as possibly tangible clues he could examine in his long, patient study of the Garden’s landscape. 

    In one of my last visits with him at Pennsylvania Hospital he asked if I had ever seen Maxfield Parrish’s “The Dream Garden,” a “favrile glass” mosaic executed by Tiffany and Company. It is in the lobby of the Curtis Building at Sixth Street and Chestnut in Philadelphia (just a block from Joel’s apartment on Washington Square). “You should see it,” he said, when I told him I hadn’t. On my next visit he asked again, and I said that I had stopped there on my way home after he had mentioned it. The mural is a shining, oneiric landscape, done in 240 luminous colors, depicting a waterfall, a dark blue tarn almost hidden among small trees, a chaparral mountain, and deep, tall shady groves. In the Curtis lobby it is framed with heavy white marble molding and lit by soft light from hidden lamps. Within the picture itself, in the center of its lower edge, there is a stone ledge flanked by two masks such as would have been used in a classical theater. The illusion is that one might step into this garden and become a figure in a dream of harmony in completeness. 

    When he was dying, Joel told his sister and brothers he wanted to be buried at the Woodlands, and they have since interred his ashes there. He told me he thought this was the appropriate place, though he didn’t say why. I guess he thought I understood this implicitly. The Woodlands, the 19th century rural cemetery on the Schuylkill River in west Philadelphia, had been the garden property of William Hamilton, and this made Hamilton and William Bartram neighbors in the 1790’s and later, until Hamilton’s death in 1813. (They had been schoolboys together at the Academy of Philadelphia in the 1750’s.) Joel did archaeological text excavations and survey work there in 1993 and he took great interest in a mass or botanically preserved seed packets found in the attic of Hamilton’s house on the property. But there is another connection: Before Hamilton ownership, the property that became the Woodlands belonged once to Benjamin Chambers, a Bartram ancestor; so, in this way, Joel’s remains rest now on Bartram property.

    Editing this piece, I see how much I’ve left out that could interest readers of Joel Fry. I haven’t mentioned, for instance, how he came to photograph William Bartram’s Commonplace Book and write a perceptive, well documented article on it, or his several presentations to the Bartram Trail Conference at sites full of memory of William Bartram’s Travels. And much more. I’ve barely been able to get Joel’s voice into this piece, which I regret. But no doubt Joel will continue to be read, and others will add to or correct my impressions, as Joel would want. 

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