“There is not a weed growing on God’s footstool that is not good for something.”
The Independence Examiner printed that 84 years ago. The statement is from Frank Bush, an Independence native who became one of the foremost botanists of his day. The article was written by James A. Southern, nephew of the newspaper’s founder, “Colonel” William Southern.
Those two figures from local history come to life briefly this Saturday at an event to mark the 160th anniversary of Bush’s birth and to celebrate his life and work.
“My mom said Grandpa was famous in his field. … But to the local people he was the little old guy with the walrus mustache pulling up weeds,” says Gloria Smith of Independence, Bush’s great-granddaughter. Smith is well versed and experienced in genealogical research, and she’s the one who’s pulled the story together.
The event is from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at the National Frontier Trails Center, 318 W. Pacific Ave. in Independence. It’s billed as a “BED Talk” – think TED Talk, except it’s botany, ecology and design – and it’s put on by the city’s Tourism and Parks and Recreation departments. Local attorney Ralph Monaco will play the role of Bush, and Scott Smith (Gloria’s husband) portrays Southern.
Benjamin Franklin Bush – B.F. or Frank – was born in Indiana in 1858. When he was 6, he and his mother came to Independence, riding the first Missouri Pacific train to come across the state from St. Louis to Kansas City. Henrietta Bush, a widow, soon married Robert Tindall and built a home at 316 N. Main St. just off the Square, buying that land from Harvey Vaile, namesake of the Vaile Mansion.
“She lived there in that house, on that block … until 1922,” Smith says.
Robert Tindall made wagons and did carriage trimming, but he moved into something new. He built the first greenhouses in the city, north and west of the house -- the corner of Main and White Oak -- for a florist business. That is how young Frank developed an interest in plants.
In 1880, at 22, he set out on a systematic study of local plants and two years later published “Flora of Jackson County,” listing 609 species. Then, starting in 1888, he ran a general store in what used to be Courtney, roughly the area where Missouri 291 crosses the Missouri River. (In those days, the river bent farther north in that area than it does today. The river’s course was shifted in the 1930s.) The store “was a place where farmers (ate) lunches of crackers and sardines, washed down with red soda pop,” Smith writes. In 1896, Bush added the job of postmaster to his duties.
The location and vocation were perfect for what he called botanizing.
“His life long study of the plants of Jackson County resulted in it becoming one of the best known sections of the United States from the botanical standpoint,” Smith writes, “and his writings and plant collections made the name of Courtney familiar to botanists throughout the world.”
There were expeditions elsewhere, too, many of them. He wrote a book after discovering an unknown “cork tree” with extremely light wood in southeast Missouri. The “herbarium” and Missouri forestry collection – both his work – won top prizes at the 1894 World’s Fair in Chicago. He found new species, including the Missouri willow not far from his home, and he discovered that the leaves and flowers of the primrose change markedly from season to season.
Smith has found hundreds of pages of Bush’s correspondence with experts at Harvard, the University of Missouri, the University of Notre Dame and the Smithsonian Institution. Botanists of world standing – plus quite a few journalists – would come to Courtney to see him. Today, 35,000 of his preserved botanical samples from Missouri, Texas and Oklahoma are at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. And a plant is named for him, Bush’s poppy mallow.
“He loved what he did,” Smith says.
To prove his point about every plant having some purpose, he showed Southern a letter from the Edison Laboratories in New Jersey, asking for samples of tarweed.
“Bush sent 50 pounds,” Southern wrote. “Later a chemist wrote that it is the best material found from which to make hard rubber discs and all kids of electrical apparatus of that nature …”
He wrote journal articles and books, and he catalogued the trees and shrubs of Swope Park. In 1902, the “Manual of The Flora of Jackson County, Missouri” was published under the authorship of Kenneth K, MacKenzie, “assisted by B.F. Bush and others,” but Smith says her grandfather was being far too modest about his role in that.
“Grandpa was overly humble,” she says.
She adds, “He had a reputation for being very detailed and precise about what he did.”
At his death in 1937, The Independence Examiner put it this way in a front-page article: “Frank Bush, as he was best known, was a quiet man. He lived a simple life. … He was recognized as an authority on all plant life in this territory.”
He kept at it until his late 70s, almost until he died. He’s buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Independence.
Telling his story
Smith says at first she thought genealogy was all names and dates. But she got into years ago – she is a first cousin seven times removed of Thomas Jefferson and a 28th great-granddaughter of William the Conqueror – and has become the family’s resident expert. That means stuff comes her way, and it means she feels a responsibility to pull these stories together.
She spent quite a bit of time on Frank’s story, assembling hundreds of pages from letters, newspaper articles and even copies of plant specimens that he collected and pressed in the field, lugging them back for record-keeping.
“I kind of think of this” she says. “ … as the … most complete term paper I’ve ever written in my life.”