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January 2024 Newsletter

Celebrating 100 Years of Smith Wilkes Hall and its Benefactor

One hundred years ago this month, construction began on Smith Wilkes Hall, the home of the BTG. The building was completed in time for the 1924 season and was dedicated on August 2, 1924. We will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its dedication at our Annual Lunch this summer...on the exact date - August 2, 2024! I hope you will join us for that celebration. 

Mary Lee Talbot, author of 100 Years of Beauty: A History of the Chautauqua Bird, Tree & Garden Club wrote this of the building:

"In 1923 during Old First Night, Mrs. C.M. Smith Wilkes (Addie Mae) gave $25,000 for the building of the auditorium that became Smith Willkes Hall as a home for the Chautauqua Bird and Tree Club.... F.J. Kidd was the architect and George Rowland, superintendent of the grounds, was the construction supervisor. Construction started on January 3, 1924, and was completed in time for the season. The new building provided an auditorium for programs, meeting rooms for the Club and its officers and in later years, a kitchen. It was built to acccomodate 400 people on the graduated seats and another 100 in moveable student chairs. The acoustics were declared perfect."

A couple of summers ago, one of our Life Members, Marlie Bendiksen, gave me a copy of a lecture she had given to the BTG ten years ago about Addie Mae Smith Wilkes in honor of the 90th Anniversary of Smith Wilkes Hall. I reached out to Marlie last month to ask her whether she would consider turning that lecture into an article for our newsletter and she graciously agreed to do that. Below you will find Marlie's excellent biography of our first Vice President and Benefactor. I know you will enjoy it!  Thank you, Marlie.

~ Leslie Renjilian, BTG President


Addie Mae Smith Wilkes: Her Chautauqua Story

by Marlie Bendiksen

Smith Wilkes Hall, the home of the Bird Tree and Garden Club at Chautauqua, was gifted as a memorial by Addie Mae Smith-Wilkes. Her intent was to create a space to house various kinds of small gatherings. On the back wall, a dedication plaque names the men in her family whose success in the business world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had enabled her to travel extensively and spend summers safely at Chautauqua as a single woman.

Addie Mae Smith was born in 1867 to New Englander parents drawn to San Francisco by the heady business of speculation during the gold rush days.  At the death of her parents a few years apart from one another, she and her brother moved to live with an aunt and uncle in Joliet, Illinois, in the late 1870s. Horace Sumner Smith had successfully established himself within the burgeoning steel industry in post-fire Chicago as the general manager of Joliet Steel, and, with his wife, was instrumental in supporting the civic structures of that growing city, most especially the Joliet Public Library. 

With no children of her own, Addie Mae’s highly creative Aunt Freelove enjoyed influencing her niece in the arts. The family took advantage of the rich cultural resources in and around Chicago, and an adventure in Europe broadened her vision of the world. She became interested in repairing the bindings of well-worn books in her uncle’s personal library, so a course in bookbinding was then added to her list of skills that would, like her piano instruction, become particularly relevant to her future at Chautauqua.

Addie Mae fell under the Chautauqua spell through summer visits with her aunt, and later on her own.  A plaque on the northwest wall of the Arts Quad documents that she established a memorial bindery for those wishing to take the course in book-binding, a popular craft at the time to honor the value of special books. 

Her marriage at age 30 lasted for a brief seven years (1897–1905). Her husband, Charles Wilkes, an engineering graduate of MIT and a gifted organist, worked for the company that designed and built the infrastructure for the sanitary sewer system at the Chicago World’s Fair, then a new requirement for growing urban areas. Addie Mae sometimes accompanied him as he oversaw similar projects in other cities. Following his early death that was attributed to work-related exhaustion, Addie Mae’s next personal commitment was to her aging aunt and uncle.

Some years later, following the deaths of her aunt and uncle, Addie Mae was alone. Without further family obligations, and seeing only bookbinding in her future, she decided to put her possessions in storage and leave Joliet for travel, an amazing choice for a woman her age at that time.  She found that she was constrained by companions, preferring to travel solo and to meet up with her friends for meals or short visits along her way.  Between 1914 and 1929 she traveled for the most part by train and ship, staying in hotels, engaging this amazing world on her own terms. 

A special legacy for us, beyond the buildings at Chautauqua that carry her name, is in a few family artifacts and examples of her book-binding talent. With the skills she had learned as a young adult, she prepared to keep her travel notes by cutting 5”x7” pages of vellum, often lightly lining them to keep the writing tidy, and tying them into packets with silk ribbons so they would be ready to be bound when she returned. She tucked the number of packets she expected to need into her luggage, and off she went. Although only one journey was finally bound into a book, she valued her stories enough that all her bundled notes are now secured in the Oliver Archives Center.

Addie Mae Smith was an acute observer. The descriptions of people and the flora and fauna she engaged were meticulous, often accompanied by a sketch or small black and white photo. This was true for the stories of all the encounters she had during this period.

Five excursions she journaled in this way. “Chronicles,” she called them: “Europe and the Near East,” 1914; “A Year in the Orient,” 1915-1916; “A Summer in Alaska,” 1917; “A Summer’s Motoring,” 1919 (Addie Mae, a friend, her chauffeured 1919 Roadster travelling the newly opened Lincoln Highway between New York and San Francisco); and “A Dip Below the Equator,” 1923 (the Amazon and Argentina). 

Having completed her travels, she finally settled in Washington, D.C., where she continued to find ways to invest her waning energy.  Despite her declining health and much against the advice of her friends, Addie Mae returned to Europe for a final visit to complete her earlier journey that had been interrupted by World War I. It was in Barcelona that her heart gave out and her life ended. She was alone at the time, 62 years old, and in the midst of the independence she so coveted as she lived through the personal grief that had pervaded her life. 

The Smith Library with its beautiful winding stairway and large windows became a repository for her book collections, of which few now remain. It holds a number of the artifacts she knew would enhance the essence of the Chautauqua she had come to know. It would amaze her how vibrant a space it has become over these years with year-round activities.  

Also, Smith Wilkes Hall might be seen, with the circular walls of its outdoor-indoor gathering space, to remind us of the safety of a family Addie Mae had always yearned for and never had enough of: a shelter for small community gatherings in their various forms. 

At least one more mystery remains. Unfortunately, it is encased in the cornerstone of Smith Library, securely tucked away for another day.

- Marlie Bendiksen, a BTG Life Member and life-long summer Chautauquan, spent 15 summers as an assistant researcher in the Oliver Archives Center. She is a retired school principal and district-wide program supervisor deep into retirement in La Crosse, WI.

Photo above from the Chautauqua Archives: Mina Miller Edison and Addie Mae Smith Wilkes in the garden behind Smith Wilkes Hall in 1929.

From the Chautauqua Archives: Addie Mae Smith Wilkes and the Miller Family in 1929. Left to right: Mina Miller Edison, Addie Mae Smith Wilkes, Mrs. Lewis A. Miller, Milton Miller, Lewis Miller, and Mrs. Robert A. Miller (Louise Igo Miller). Mrs. Robert A. Miller co-founded the Bird and Tree Club with Henrietta Ord Jones in 1913 and served as Bird and Tree Club President from 1913-1923 and 1929-1931.


The Henrietta Ord Jones Society

The photo above shows the good folk of the Bird and Tree Club at the dedication of the Arboretum in 1915. The woman with the shovel is Henrietta Ord Jones, co-founder of the Bird and Tree Club and the woman who donated the land for the Arboretum.

In her memory and honor, we have named our House and Garden Tour Sponsorship Society after her, the Henrietta Ord Jones Society.   We hope you will consider supporting this year's House & Garden Tour by becoming a member of the 2024 Henrietta Ord Jones Society. This $155 sponsorship donation to the BTG includes a ticket to the House & Garden Tour.

Henrietta Ord Jones Society membership donations MUST be received no later than April 1, 2024, in order to have your name appear in the tour booklet.

As a member of the 2024 Henrietta Ord Jones Society, you will receive one ticket to the House & Garden Tour, your name will be listed in the House & Garden Tour booklet, and your name will be listed with corporate sponsors and 2024 house and garden owners in the Chautauquan Daily on Tour Day.

$100 of this donation is tax deductible.


Tickets on Sale for the 2024 House & Garden Tour

July 11, 2024!

Tickets available on the Chautauqua BTG website or by mail using the ticket order form.

The 2024 Chautauqua BTG House and Garden Tour is Thursday July 11th during Week 3 of the 2024 Chautauqua Season. 

Individual tickets are $55. If you are interested in an Individual Sponsorship at $155, please scroll back up to read about the Henrietta Ord Jones Society. If you are interested in a corporate sponsorship, please email us here

The 2024 House and Garden Tour will combine Chautauqua history, homes, and gardens.  Join us for docent-led House and Garden Tours.

Plan to enjoy a day at Chautauqua viewing beautiful homes and wonderful gardens while taking in all Chautauqua Institution has to offer.


The Soil Food Web: 

Understanding Soil Biology

Here is a brief preview of Dinah Hovey's wonderful and very informational article. Too long to publish in its entirety here, you can read the full article by clicking on this link.

Dear Reader,

I have been bitten by the Soil Health Bug. And I hope you will get bitten too. I've written this article to explain why.

For nearly a year, I have been studying and contemplating the soil food web after first finding a YouTube video by Dr. Elaine Ingham, professor at Oregon State University and later founder of Soil Foodweb, Inc., a consulting and education firm that works with property owners and soil laboratories to access and remediate soils and soil biology.

She is the microbiologist and soil scientist who in the 1980s coined the term soil food web. She is a smart and funny lady, check her out.

The soil food web is the complex living system that constitutes the community of microbes and other organisms that live all or part of their lives in/on the soil. Its residents include plants, archaea, bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, microarthropods, insects, small vertebrates, and earthworms, etc. The system describes how energy is transferred between species in an ecosystem. In this energy economy, organisms eat and are eaten by more than one predator. The resulting pattern resembles a web and not a linear food chain. This soil ecosystem is the basis for all life on Earth.

In the meantime, here is my tongue-in-cheek summary of what I have discovered.

~Dinah Hovey, Chautauqua County Master Gardener Volunteer, Class of 2020.


It might be called the soil food web, but...

Plants Are in Charge. It All Starts With Plants. They harvest sunlight and water and carbon dioxide. Through photosynthesis, they produce sucrose, a simple sugar, to use as an energy source and to feed microbes. And to create more complex compounds to build their tissues and support their growth.

Plants Are Party Planners extraordinaire. They cater a grand smorgasbord and invite a community of microbes. Plants produce sugary root exudates to attract soil microbes. Plants use from 5% to 30% of the food (sugar) they produce through photosynthesis to share with bacteria and fungi as exudates from their roots. In addition to simple sugars, these exudates contain organic acids and amino acids. Plants vary the type of exudates according to their growth cycle needs and stressors. Varied exudates attract varied microbes. The soil microbe profile is constantly in flux. (Source: Feed Your Friends: Do Plants Shape the Root Microbiome? at > publication > 320448042)

Friends Are Important. And plants just wanna have friends but particular friends. They are discerning as to whom they invite to the smorgasbord. It's all about relationships. The Root Exudates they produce are made to attract exactly the microbes they want as friends and companions. And to attract them at the specific times they are wanted and needed. These preferred microbes take up residence in the root zone of the plant aka the rhizosphere. This is an area only 2 mm wide (1/10 inch) that directly surrounds the roots and root hairs.


Blue Jay photo by Jeanne Wiebenga. (No one takes photos on Dennis's "soggy mess days," so we used this beauty from a "brilliant white snow day.")

Not Quite Seasons...

On this dreary day in late January, nothing seems quite settled.  It’s not quite February, which is a nondescript month at its best.  The brilliant white snow that had accumulated from late December through early January recently turned dirty and then disappeared, leaving a soggy mess of broken sticks and partially rotted leaves behind.  The few days of warmish temperatures that melted the snow didn’t quite include enough sunshine to bring full green color back to the plants in our backyard.  Nature seems to be napping or taking a break.

But closer observation reveals that the grey squirrels are playing tag in the trees and bushes.  That game of “tag” means that spring is on its way and soon squirrel pups will be rubbing the fur from around their mother’s nipples as they nurse.  And, yes, the grass is already getting a little greener.  The sticks in the damp come from shrubs where hungry rabbits browsed on bark during the winter.  The rotting leaves are busily returning their nutrients to soil so new leaves, with that stunning variety of bright greens of spring, can issue forth in all their tender glory.

Nature never really takes a break.  She’s always preparing the way for the next exciting display of the industriousness she’s so successfully hidden from us during these dreary intermediate days of the not-quite seasons.


- Dennis M. McNair PhD


For those of you in Western NY,

From February 1st – March 15th, the New York Natural Heritage Program is hosting the


2nd Annual Hemlock Wooly Adelgid (HWA) Winter Mapping Challenge

in partnership with the NYS Hemlock Initiative. Join the challenge to help map HWA along the “leading edge” of its current range and compete to win a prize! 

To participate: find some hemlock trees in your area, check for HWA egg masses (look for white fuzz balls on the undersides of twigs like in the photo above), and report your findings to NY iMapInvasives. The iMap users who survey the most sites for HWA will win the challenge! Double points are awarded for surveys in any of the survey gap counties along the "leading edge" of HWA's spread (see map on NY iMapInvasvies website – includes four western New York counties!)  Visit the NY iMapInvasives website to learn more about the challenge. 

To learn more: about the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, Chautauqua's Eastern Hemlocks and to hear our own Jack Gulvin talk about them, click here

And while you're out stomping around in nature, keep an eye out for:


Nesting Bald Eagles! 

In Chautauqua County eagles start nesting in January - building a new nest, or remodeling their old one (pairs mate for life and return to the same nest each year). They'll lay 1-2 eggs in February and will be on nest for 2-3 months. Once the chicks hatch, parents can be seen bringing food to the nest regularly - increased activity and increased visibility on Chautauqua Lake because they have hungry mouths to feed! In Chautauqua County, the young generally don't leave the nest and fend for themselves until late July or early August.

And for your moment of mirth, check out these two witty and informative Instagram sites: The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC) and the National Parks Service. Both post amazing nature photos with the most clever captions you can imagine. And how about this sassy eagle walk?!


We have a beautiful new website! Same old address ( but that's about all that's old! We will spend the rest of the off-season fleshing it out but it's up and running and GORGEOUS!  Check it out here and read a little about the creator below:

Some of you met our part-time interns last summer—we had two: Galen May and Julia Fulkerson. They were Godsends! They helped us welcome visitors to our walks and talks, handed out materials and took head counts, but as you all know, the superpower of the under-30s is that they can do technology. Any and all of it. Without fear.

And thankfully, in spite of full-time school for Julia and a full-time job for Galen, they continued to moonlight for us this fall, helping with Mail Chimp and our ALL NEW website.

Julia is responsible for making this newsletter pretty. It is her little birds and nice fonts that make it sing. She loads up articles and makes the buttons work and when I "break the internet," she's the one who repairs it after class.

And Galen is the one who figured out that our old website was so old and unsupported that it basically didn't work anymore. It was time to build a new one on a new platform. She spent the fall doing just that and it is BEAUTIFUL. And IT WORKS!

And now here is where it hurts to keep writing, because as much as we do not want to share Galen, the truth is that we don't pay all that well and she needs to pay rent and buy groceries, so I'm now going to be completely selfless and tell you that if need a web designer AND if you will pay her better than we did, you can contact Galen at her email:  

~Leslie Renjilian, BTG President and (somehow) Chair of the BTG Technology Committee, which is why I'm SO glad we have Galen and Julia helping out!


Photo by Jeanne Wiebenga of a cardinal flying in to join a red-bellied woodpecker on her feeder. 

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