John Ripley Forbes, the great man nobody knows

Left indelible (green) mark on North Fulton, Atlanta



I met John Ripley Forbes in 1993 when I was new to the Fulton County Commission beat. The County Commission was not the most collegial of boards, and John Ripley Forbes at 80 was an irascible old curmudgeon of a man who knew his mind and spoke it.

I thought at the time that this was an ill-omened juxtaposition for an old man with a slightly hare-brained idea to cadge $1.9 million from this Board of Commissioners, a group as loathe to spend that kind of money north of the Atlanta city limits sign as they were to pluck out their own eyes.

Now, the County Commission had promised the money for, of all things, a nature center called Big Trees (later the John Ripley Forbes Big Trees Forest), plumb in the middle of Sandy Springs (then a city only Eva Galambos’ eye) and right on Roswell Road to boot.

The commissioners were pleading poverty of their purse and a bit of indifference to the plight of 10 acres of trees in far off Sandy Springs. But this guy Forbes had tenacity and a force of will that was just about irresistible.

I was amazed that he wrested the money at the penultimate moment as bulldozers were literally poised to turn those trees into a car dealership. Now that is not the whole story, but it was my first encounter with what I later found out to be a great, great man.

I thought he was some local tree-hugger who got a lot of people involved with this “save the trees” project. But Sandy Springs had a lot of people like that, because if they hadn’t, Sandy Springs would have had concrete poured from one end to the other.

So I was used to that sparing north of Atlanta in the few short months I had covered Fulton County. It was only recently that I discovered – with the help of the Chattahoochee Nature Center’s inestimable help – that Forbes was perhaps the foremost preservationist of the great outdoors in the last three quarters of a century.

Lynne McIntyre at the Nature Center put me in contact with Gary Ferguson, a writer of real quality having written 18 books on science and nature, and the veil was lifted. Ferguson’s latest book is “Nature’s Keeper: John Ripley Forbes and the Children’s Nature Movement.” It was a revelation.

Ferguson called Forbes, “The most fascinating man I never met.” And having now read his book I can understand what Ferguson means.

A reporter dreams of interviewing one of those larger-than-life game changers, and it turned out I had the telephone number of one of them in Rolodex.

Reading Ferguson’s book, I learned that at the turn of the last century, nature and its study were revered. By 1920, no city in the U.S. was without a natural history museum. Forbes was ordained by Providence to be a purveyor of children’s nature centers. For Forbes would serve no project that did not include children.

He understood that the key to awakening the thirst for knowledge in children was experience. Don’t have a kid read about a raccoon. Have him hold one. He will learn more about the raccoon holding him for 20 minutes than he ever would by writing a six-page essay on one.

Forbes grew up in a time when the Boy Scout Handbook was second in sales only to the Bible. People had a connection with nature that was ingrained from our pioneer days. But by the 1930s, we were starting to lose our affinity with nature.

Forbes was the right man in the right place. He loved the outdoors, from the times he spent at his parents’ summer cabin on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee. Tom Sawyer may have had the Mississippi to himself, but little Ripley didn’t miss much growing up as child. He was a natural naturalist.

And he was touched by destiny. His minister father gave him a love and respect for nature. His inquisitive mind drew him to study animals, especially birds. And he grew up, met and was mentored by the great zoologist William Hornaday (he founded the Bronx Zoo).

Forbes led an incredible life that shaped him for the mission he was destined to take on. That was passing on the love nature to the succeeding generations.

Again it was late in the day when I was educated to the scope of what he did in a lifetime. At 26 he drove to Kansas City in 1936 to convince the city fathers that they should renovate a crumbling old mansion called the Long Mansion and turn it into a natural history center.

By dint of his enthusiasm, his organizational skills and his enormous capacity to involve others in his interests, he got them to accept the idea and him as curator. That he offered to raise the money for his own salary no doubt stood greatly in Kansas City’s estimation of him.

By 1940 it was an incredible success, and like all successes it created an enormous amount of jealousy against Forbes. His chief enemy, a board member of Long Mansion was also on the local draft board.

Forbes left with the equanimity that characterized everything he did. And it gave him a modus operandi.

He would find the project, get it going, bring others to live and breathe it as he did and then go on to the next project.

In his life he founded or helped found more than 200 nature centers throughout the United States. A Time magazine called him, “the Johnny Appleseed of nature centers,” at a time when a quote from Time stood for something.

The list above, are the 10 nature centers he founded in metro Atlanta after moving here to retire.

He came to Roswell to start a center and was poking around Bulloch Hall, still in private hands then back in the 1970s. Roy “Splinter” Wood, father of the city’s current mayor and of the Chattahoochee National Recreation Area, chanced upon him and convinced him instead to buy a few acres for sale down on the Chattahoochee.

Irresistibly, Forbes worked his magic, creating a board of the wealthy and the committed, and from those six acres came the Chattahoochee Nature Center.

And here I thought CNC Executive Director Ann Bergstrom smote a rock down by the river and the nature center sprang up fully formed. By that I mean to say Ann has much the same spirit and proselytizing skills as Forbes had. In other words, when she twists your arm you don’t feel the pain.

“Johns fingerprints are all over Fulton County and DeKalb,” Ann told me. “He was the one who got Fernbank [Science Center] under the stewardship of DeKalb Schools. So that sealed it as a learning center for children.

“His foundation, the Natural Science for Youth Foundation built more than 150 nature centers all over the country. He could rally the community to form public-private partnerships.”

Forbes would fall in love with a place, marry it to an idea and then draw everyone to his flame. He began the idea of nature centers, Ann said.

“He wanted enough green space where you could learn. He understood the role nature can play in education.

“He was a busy beaver,” Forbes’ wife Margaret said. “He had his dream mature as a child. And he would share the way he felt about the natural world as a child.

She said Forbes told her once, “You have one lifetime to do it all in, so you have to stay busy all the time. And he worked to acquaint children with the natural world.”

He got developer Jim Cowart and preservationists Judy Webb and Margaret Kreuger to work together to create Autrey Mill Nature Preserve and Heritage Center. They caught his idea and ran with it.

The Chattahoochee has a motto or slogan that I think Forbes would agree with:

“Conserve today.

Respect tomorrow.”

But I like the part Lynn McIntyre added to it:

“There is no planet B.”

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