History of Helen and Alice Bristow Bird Sanctuary and Wildwood Preserve Established 1924

Early Bird Conservation Movement

The Origin of Bird Conservation

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, a movement in the U.S. began against the wholesale slaughter of birds.

Birds were being slaughtered for their feathers which were a staple in women's fashion at the time, particularly for hats.

The movement against the slaughter of birds started through women's clubs, which placed emphasis on conservation and nature.

Who Led the Bird Conservation Movement?

Mabel Osgood Wright

Mabel Osgood Wright was an American author from Fairfield, CT who wrote extensively about birds and nature and was an early leader in the Audubon movement. She helped organize the Connecticut Audubon Society and was elected as the first president in 1898. As a pioneer of bird protection, in 1914, Wright established the Birdcraft Sanctuary located in Fairfield, which is the second oldest private songbird sanctuary in the United States.

A portrait of Mabel Osgood Wright, one of Wright's books published in 1895 entitled, "Birdcraft," and a signed season ticket (1930-1931) to the Birdcraft Sanctuary.
"A bird in the bush is worth two in the hand. And one bird in the bush is worth ten on a bonnet." - Mabel Osgood Wright

September 1, 1900

Ernest Harold Baynes

The genesis of private bird sanctuaries began with Ernest Harold Baynes, a naturalist and bird protection fanatic. In the early 1900s, Baynes traveled around the country sharing stories and spreading information about the significance of birds. In 1911, Baynes helped establish the very first private bird sanctuary in Meriden, NH. A few years later Baynes gave a book tour talk in Greenwich, CT about the importance of saving birds, which was attended by several New Canaan residents.

A photo of Ernest Harold Baynes with his pet fox in Meriden, New Hampshire taken in 1906, a portrait of Baynes with a chickadee at his lips, and Mr. Baynes' popular book, "Wild Bird Guests: How to Entertain Them."

Baynes Memorial in Meriden Bird Sanctuary

Ernest Harold Baynes: naturalist, crusader, author, friend of the birds and all living creatures. In this sanctuary which he founded this memorial was placed by the Meriden Bird Club and its friends.

Ernest Harold Baynes, 1868-1925

Teddy Roosevelt

In 1915, Baynes published his book, "Wild Bird Guests: How to Entertain Them." Teddy Roosevelt, who was a major player in the establishment of the National Parks Service and had just finished serving his second term as President, wrote the preface to Baynes' popular book. As a fellow conservationist, Roosevelt recognized the importance of preserving birds as well as our natural assets.

Preface to "Wild Bird Guests: How to Entertain Them"

"We Americans have recklessly wasted our national assets in the past. But now there has come a change. We are trying to preserve our forests and utilize our water supply and care for the soil instead of merely exhausting it... There is sound economic reason for protecting the birds; and in addition there is ample reason for protecting them simply because they add immeasurably to the joy of life." - Teddy Roosevelt

Ernest Harold Baynes, Wild Bird Guests - 1915

Woodrow Wilson

Baynes established the Meriden Bird Sanctuary, the first private bird sanctuary in the U.S. Every year, the sanctuary put on a play, featuring President Woodrow Wilson's daughters who spent the summers in Meriden, N.H. The involvement of his daughters at the sanctuary may have influenced Wilson to bring the Bird Migratory Act before the senate in 1916, which was enacted in 1919.

A portrait of Woodrow Wilson, the Migratory Bird Act which was introduced in 1916 and enacted in 1919, and Miss Eleanor Wilson, center, playing the lead in Percy MacKaye's drama, "Sanctuary: A Bird Masque," which was performed in the sanctuary on September 12, 1913. MacKaye was a Cornish poet and a friend of Baynes. The play emphasized the loss and threat of extinction of birds for frivolous purposes and was written at the request of Baynes. 
Bird Conservation in New Canaan

Who Led the Bird Conservation Movement in New Canaan?

Due to growing national concern for bird conservation, in 1916, a group of New Canaan residents were inspired to establish the Bird Protective Society.

Led by president Harry Bates Thayer, the society consisted of several other elected officers and gained many members within its first year. Among these founding members were well-known New Canaan families including the Davenports, Fearhakes, Frothinghams, Gerdes, Hoyts, Nobles, Sillimans, Thayers, and especially Stephen B. Hoyt and Myra Valentine.

Lists of the first officers and first members of the New Canaan Bird Protective Society, 1917-1918.

Harry Bates Thayer

H.B. Thayer played a major role in organizing the Bird Protective Society. At the time, Thayer was the highest paid executive in the U.S. He led AT&T and served as the president of Western Electric, AT&T's manufacturing arm. Harry Thayer possessed the Founder's skills to incorporate, lead and organize the Bird Protective Society.

A photograph of the Thayer family by their pond in New Canaan, and H.B. Thayer's photograph and obituary in the New York Times, September 3, 1936.

H.B. Thayer 1936 Memorial Resolution

"A proper attitude towards wildlife should be the major project of the society until the twenty six square miles within our bounds become a veritable sanctuary. Insofar as Songbirds are concerned this dream has come true."

Stephen B. Hoyt

Stephen B. Hoyt came from one of the oldest families in New Canaan. He ran a florist and greenhouse in New Canaan located on Main Street. Stephen became the second president of the New Canaan Bird Protective Society in 1919. In order to effectively demonstrate good bird and wildlife habitat management during his presidency, Hoyt promoted finding a piece of land and establishing an official bird sanctuary in New Canaan. There is a bench located in Bristow park to memorialize Stephen's wife, Anna, who served as the secretary of the Bird Protective Society during the pre-war period.

S.B. Hoyt Florist and Greenhouse Logo
A portrait of Stephen B. Hoyt, a photograph of Hoyt and his granddaughter Nancy Carter Harding who is still alive and has written stories about being in Bristow, and a bench in the park engraved with initials 'ARH' for Anna R. Hoyt, Stephen's wife and former secretary of the Bird Protective Society. The bench sits by a red oak planted in Stephen B. Hoyt's honor.

Mrs. Barend Van Gerbig

Stephen B. Hoyt, while searching to acquire land for the bird sanctuary, came upon three property owners who owned 17 acres of swamp and gravel pits behind Mead Memorial Park. In order to acquire this property, Hoyt began to fundraise and approached Mrs. Barend van Gerbig (nee Edith Olcott) who was an important civic supporter and financial contributor in New Canaan. Mrs. Van Gerbig was doubtful that Hoyt could raise the money publicly, so she generously made three donations of $2,300, $5,000, and $700 which was enough to cover the $8,000 needed to buy and fence the Bird Sanctuary.

The Resolution written by Stephen B. Hoyt August 12, 1924, announcing the purchase of 17 acres on Stamford Ave. A ledger from the treasurer reports which show most donations of $1 compared to Mrs. van Gerbig's two donations given on June 5th and July 14th of 1924, and the van Gerbig family headstone located in Long Island.

Mrs. Van Gerbig is Taken By Death

Mrs. Edith van Gerbig, aged 83 years, died Wednesday afternoon at her home in Smith Ridge. A resident of New Canaan for the past 41 years... Mrs. van Gerbig devoted much of her time to [local] philanthropies.

The New Canaan Advertiser - July 16, 1953

People's Forum: Gave Sanctuary Land

An impressive list of Mrs. van Gerbig's philanthropic activities, so quietly carried on through her long life... To that already long list should be added her generous gift of land and fencing for our Bird Sanctuary, which has become such a valuable asset to our town.

Alice Bristow - The New Canaan Advertiser - July 23, 1953

The Opening of the Park

The First Year of Bristow

Shortly after Mrs. van Gerbig donated the funds to purchase the property behind Mead Park, the Bristow Bird Sanctuary officially opened in September of 1924 as the third oldest bird sanctuary in the nation. During the first year of the park's opening, 91 species of birds were seen in the sanctuary including common species such as woodpeckers, warblers, sparrows, and less common species such as pheasants and ruffled grouses.

Bird counts serve as an important indicator of the health of our natural spaces, as the number of species reflects how the natural world responds to human influence and changes to the environment.

A list of 91 bird species seen in Bristow Sanctuary from September 1924 to September 1925.

The Bird Sanctuary!

"Through the generosity and interest of Mrs. Barend van Gerbig, the New Canaan Bird Sanctuary is at last a fact. And what a happiness it will be, as we walk through this country which adjoins the Mead Memorial Park, to know that our birds at last have adequate protection; a protection which has been hoped for, many years." - Whitman Bailey
"The day I feel is fast approaching when people as a whole will see the value and the beauty of our birds. Certainly the new sanctuary will do much to bring about that appreciation..." - Whitman Bailey

The New Canaan Advertiser - May 29, 1924

Drawing of the Bird Sanctuary by Whitman Bailey, 1924

Formal Opening of Bird and Wildwood Preserve September 6th, 1924

On September 6th, 1924 New Canaan officially opened its Bird Sanctuary in Stamford Avenue, - one of the finest of its kind in the State, with about one hundred and fifty actively interested spectators present.

Mr. Baynes Will Lecture on Birds

Ernest Harold Baynes, naturalist and general manager of the Meriden Bird Club and Sanctuary... will lecture to the New Village Hall, Friday evening, September 12 at 5:15... Mr. Baynes' work in conservation of wild bird life is well-known throughout the country and the success of the Meriden Sanctuary is largely due to his efforts.

The New Canaan Advertiser - September 11, 1924

Bristow Transfers Hands

The New Canaan Bird Sanctuary and Wildwood Preserve

In 1934, due to the Depression and increasing doubts about being able to maintain the property, the Bird Protective Society agreed to deed the Bird Sanctuary to the Town of New Canaan. However, the transfer came with several conditions that must be upheld. Although the property was transferred to the town, the Bird Protective Society along with the Garden Club still played an active role in caring for and managing the property.

Conditions for the Transfer of Bristow to the Town of New Canaan

  1. That the land so deeded shall be forever maintained as a Bird Sanctuary and Wildwood Preserve, and used for no other purpose whatsoever
  2. That no part of it shall ever be sold
  3. That the Bird Protective Society, through its duly constituted officers reserves the use of the building known as the "Sanctuary House" for its meetings, library, museum, etc., and for such purposed as may be incidental to its educational program
  4. That the public shall enjoy the free use of the property consistent with the purpose described in these conditions

Signed by Anna R. Hoyt, Secretary - February 5, 1934

A Wildflower "Finding List" for September, 1931, including various ferns, herbs, and shrubs, a photograph of the St. Francis statue, designed and made by New Canaan artist, Carroll Holliday, which was added to the sanctuary in 1941. St. Francis is the patron saint of birds, conservation, and environmentalism.

Henry Kelley

Henry Kelley was a leading citizen of New Canaan and served as the President of the Bird Protective Society from 1937 until his death in 1949. He was also a lifetime member of the Park Commission and served three terms as President of the Fairfield County Planning Association.

To honor Kelley, the directors of the Bird Protective Society raised funds to purchase 12 acres of land for a wildlife refuge and bird sanctuary by Wahackme Road and received a gift of 25 acres bordered by Silvermine Road and Cedar Lane from Clarence and Alice King. The Henry Kelley Uplands Sanctuary remains open today for birding and visitation as part the the New Canaan Land Trust's "Still Pond Preserve"

A note from the New Canaan Bird Protective Society asking for funds to establish the memorial Henry Kelley Sanctuary, a photograph of Henry Kelley in the New Canaan Advertiser, and the entrance to the Henry Kelley Uplands Wildlife Sanctuary which is now part of the New Canaan Land Trust's holdings within the Silvermine-Fowler Preserve.

Henry Kelley Sanctuary Proposed as Memorial

Henry Kelley was born in New Canaan over 90 years ago; his long life was devoted to the welfare of his beloved town, to making it a finer and more beautiful place in which to live, and to preserving its heritage of beauty for future generations.
"Everybody knew him. Everybody loved him, and everybody enjoyed life in this fine little Connecticut town, to some extent at least because of his endless devotion to its welfare." - Myra Valentine

The New Canaan Advertiser - June 5, 1952

Myra Valentine

Myra Valentine was a founding member of the Bird Protective Society as well as a past president of the New Canaan Garden Club in 1920. Miss Valentine served as President of the Bird Protective Society from 1949 to 1954, and was the Honorary President for many years thereafter.

A photograph of Myra Valentine, New Canaan Advertiser, October 6, 1954, a letter to Myra Valentine from Helen and Alice Bristow inviting her to be the Guest of Honor at a gathering with the Board of Directors written October 1, 1954, a note to Myra Valentine recognizing her for her work at the New Canaan Bird Protective Society, and a note from Valentine to the Bird Protective Society written December 7, 1960.
The New Canaan Bird Protective Society Officers from 1954-1955. Honorary President, Myra Valentine and President Helen G. Bristow.
A photograph of a group of visitors outside of the bird sanctuary circa 1955 standing next to the mighty white oak which marks the entrance to the park and is believed to be around 300-400 years old.

The Helen and Alice Bristow Bird Sanctuary and Wildwood Preserve

Helen and Alice Bristow

After Myra Valentine, Helen and Alice Bristow, two sisters, were the longest term members of the Bird Protective and Audubon Societies. Helen was Secretary and then President of the Bird Protective Society, wrote columns in the New Canaan Advertiser titled "Round Robin," and both Helen and Alice were avid record keepers about the society and park. In 1987, the sanctuary was rededicated to honor the sisters.

A photograph of Helen and Alice Bristow and an example of Helen's "Round Robin" columns written for the Advertiser in November of 1960 which detailed the addition of the St. Francis statue to the sanctuary in 1941.

Helen Bristow Succumbs; Naturalist and Writer

Often she conducted bird-watching expeditions and was considered one of the area's foremost authorities on ornithology.

The New Canaan Advertiser - September 20, 1984

Rededication of Sanctuary to Honor Bristow Sisters

The New Canaan Audubon Society will honor old friends, the late Bristow sisters, Sunday, when the well-known Old Stamford Road Bird Sanctuary will be renamed in their honor.

The New Canaan Advertiser - September 17, 1987

Bristow Park Today and Current Bird Conservation

Updated Photos of Bristow Park

The entrance to the Helen and Alice Bristow Sanctuary and Wildwood Preserve, a view of the refurbished pond with newly installed benches, the newly added wooden bridge, the park in the fall, Bristow in the evening, a bird seed storage locker made to look like a bluebird house, Wake Robin Trillium and ferns, New Canaan Land Trust Summer Interns spend a day at Bristow clearing invasive species, and a Cedar Waxwing that was recently released in the sanctuary with the help of Wildlife in Crisis.

Bird Conservation Today

Despite the efforts of the Helen and Alice Bristow Bird Sanctuary and Wildwood Preserve and other bird sanctuaries around the country, the National Audubon reported that in the past 50 years, as many as 3 billion birds have left us. This is an immeasurable loss considering the environmental, recreational, and economic value that birds provide.

A graph showing the significant loss in bird populations since 1970.

In order to aid the recovery of bird populations, we must provide examples of better bird management in New Canaan. By looking back to the constitution of the New Canaan Bird Protective Society written by Stephen Hoyt in 1924, we can work towards better educating all 20,000 townsfolk of New Canaan about bird and native plant conservation.

Constitution for the New Canaan Bird Protective Society

Section 3: To develop and maintain a preserve for the attraction and protection of birds and the collection and preservation of natural plant life.

Stephen B. Hoyt, President - September 2, 1924

Bristow Park 2024 Centennial Master Plan

As the Bird Sanctuary approaches its Centennial in 2024, the Conservation Commission and the Friends of Bristow Park developed a master plan to restore Bristow Park. The Friends of Bristow Park initially raised $25,000 to undertake the wetlands and property survey as the basis for Landscape Architects Keith Simpson and William Pollack to design a 5-year Centennial Master Plan and Park maintenance program for the next century.

The plan calls for rebuilding the GreenLink Trail that runs from Mead Park to Old Stamford Road into a more senior and stroller friendly path, pond dredging, enhancing seating areas for visitation and bird viewing, improving trails, adding bird houses and feeders, increasing native plant diversity, fixing the fence line, and remodeling the entrances to improve access and senior parking for the park.

The Friends of Bristow Park recently raised $20,000 with SustainableCT for the installation of a Pollinator Pathway in Spring 2021 to add native plants along the GreenLink Trail. The native plantings will provide habitat for pollinators and birds while serving as a demonstration site for all of New Canaan

A map of the 2024 Master Plan.
Details of the 2024 Master Plan.
Bristow Park 2020 Year in Review.

Let's Make New Canaan a Songbird Haven

Please Donate or Volunteer:

Friends of Bristow Park

New Canaan Community Foundation

111 Cherry Street

New Canaan, CT 06840

This presentation was produced by Avery York with support from Chris Schipper. Photographs from Patrick Comins, Executive Director of Connecticut Audubon. Funding provided by the Friends of Bristow Park including the Stuart Higley Foundation, the New Canaan Community Foundation, the Exchange Club, Jeniam Foundation, Anderson Family Foundation, MLE Foundation, Marty McLaughlin, Arthur Berry, the Seelert Family and the Many Friends of Bristow Like You.


Created with an image by GeorgeB2 - "cardinal red bird wildlife"