Frank Bush of Courtney, Mo.
Humble Country Storekeeper and World Renown Botanist

By Gloria Haralson Smith

To his neighbors in the small community of Courtney, MO, B. F. Bush was the proprietor of a small general store and the postmaster for the area.

Most of them knew of his interest in saving weeds. They were used to seeing Mr. Bush walking about the meadows and along the river bank collecting all varieties of plants. But to botanists at universities throughout the United States and in Europe, he was a remarkable discoverer of new species.

In Jackson County, Missouri, It’s Opportunities and Resources, published in 1928, Mr. Bush was described as a veteran postmaster who handled all the mail addressed to Courtney while at the same time attending a general store. The author described that these combined duties had kept Mr. Bush “more than merely busy for thirty years”. Missing from this description of Mr. Bush and his activities was his passion for collecting plants and his reputation among the scientific world for his many discoveries.

Benjamin Franklin Bush was born in 1858 in Columbus, IN to William and Henrietta Eccles Bush. Little is known about his father but it is believed that he came to the Midwest from his birthplace in Baltimore, MD and at the time of his marriage to Miss Eccles in 1857, he was employed as a juggler for the Dan Rice Circus.

Although the handsome William Bush may have won the heart of Henrietta and her consent to marriage, his chosen profession may not have been looked upon favorably by her family. In a letter to William Bush dated Sept. 8, 1858, following the birth of his son, his sister, Rose, congratulates her handsome brother on his new family and advises him not to allow his wife’s family to “pass their opinion on to you”.
Henrietta’s father and grandfather had been attorneys and politicians in Kentucky and Indiana. When Thomas Lincoln’s first wife and mother of Abraham Lincoln died in Indiana in 1818, Thomas Lincoln returned to Kentucky to wed and bring young Abraham’s step-mother back to Indiana.

On Dec. 2, 1819, in Elizabethtown, KY, Thomas Lincoln married Sarah Bush Johnson in a house once owned by Henrietta’s grandparents. This same grandfather served as a state legislator in Indiana during the 1850s. Henrietta’s great grandfather, William Shepherd, fought in the Battle of Point Pleasant in 1774 and received a pension from Edmund Randolph, governor of Virginia for wounds suffered during that battle. Following recovery from his battles wounds, Shepherd moved to Kentucky and helped to establish Harrodsburg, KY in the 1780s.

Since Henrietta’s family was a solid and established family with roots back to Jamestown, we can only surmise that they were less than excited to have their daughter marry an iteniert circus performer.

In the six years following his birth his parents moved frequently, living in Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois. During that time, Henrietta gave birth to and buried three babies before William Bush’s death in July 1864 in Springfield, Illinois. At the age of 23, Henrietta was a widow with a six year old son and living miles from any family when she met Robert Tindall. Tindall was a Union solider from Delaware who was recently discharged from the Army and was planning to move to Missouri.
Henrietta came to Independence, Mo with her young son, Frank, riding on the first Missouri Pacific train to travel the line between St. Louis and Kansas City. In October 1865 she married Mr. Tindall and they settled in Independence where in 1866 they built a home at 316 North Main. In just eight years, Henrietta had married, given birth to four children, buried three of them in infancy, and as a young widow had traveled to Independence with her young son and remarried.

Henrietta and Robert Tindall bought the land for their home from Harvey Vaile and lived in their home on North Main until their deaths in 1922 and 1923

Mr. Tindall’s trade was carriage trimming and wagon making. Seeking such work in Independence, he opened a shop on the southwest corner of Main and White Oak, and found plenty of work repairing buckboards and stage coaches used by The Star Route of Vaile Miner and Company. When this business grew slack, Mr. Tindall built the first greenhouse in Independence on his property on North Main to supplement his income.

According to one of Mr. Tindall’s sons, the office of the greenhouse in 1942 was in the original wagon shop built by Mr. Tindall in 1866.

Early photos and plats show that the Tindall greenhouses were built on the north and west sides of the Tindall home and for many years it was operated by Mr. Tindall and then by his son. It was in these greenhouses, assisting his step-father, that Bush acquired his early interest in plants.

In May, 1875, Henrietta Tindall describes a two-day invasion of Independence by “grasshoppers”. She said that despite the efforts of her husband and seventeen year old Frank, the insect invasion stripped their yards and plants bare and their loss was over $300 in plants.

Frank Bush attended the local school in Independence. Little is known of any formal education following his graduation from 8th grade, however it was apparent that young Bush was eager for knowledge and self taught in many areas, including Latin which he used later in his botanical work. Mr. Bush taught on occasion at the Woodlawn College in Independence, MO.
On a Sunday afternoon in 1878, a group of young men of Independence met and decided they would become students of nature. They believed this study in the woods and fields would be more profitable than their idleness about town. Each of the young men chose a special line of investigation and Bush, because of his employment as a florist, decided to become a botanist. Thus he began a lifelong study of the flora of Jackson County.

Bush was a born naturalist and in the country about Independence he found a most interesting field for exploration and study. Within a radius of a few miles were areas of open prairie, woods, and creeks running to the Missouri River. Many unusual species of trees and smaller plants grew along the high limestone bluffs. The wild life was rich and varied in plants and animals. All of these conditions contributed towards a rich flora. Many preserved fossils were found in the beds of limestone and sandstone and evidences of Indian inhabitants were abundant in the form of flint arrow heads and other implements.

While Bush went into the woods and struck up an acquaintance with trees and plants; taking notice of every green thing, he studied books. Soon he began to discover mistakes that other botanists had made. And after awhile he began to discover plants there were new to science. The other botanists of the country took notice and he was soon recognized as one of America’s foremost botanists.

 His life long study of the plants of Jackson County resulted in it becoming one of the best known sections of the Unites States from the botanical standpoint, and his writings and plant collections made the name of Courtney, familiar to botanists throughout the world.

Another early interest was birds and he eventually knew all of the resident and migrant species of the region by sight and by their calls and songs. His collection of birds eggs was valuable since it contained sets of many species no longer found in the region. He contributed his notes concerning birds of this area to Otto Widmann’s “Preliminary Catalog of The Birds of Missouri” in 1906. While his interest in birds continued throughout his life, the study of plants dominated his work.
Another of his interests was poetry, one he shared with his friend Arthur Grissom. In October 1879, one of his poems entitled “October” was published in the Jackson Sentinel.

Old Father Time with horologe in hand
Has ushered in October days;
A soft and golden sun shines o’er the land,
In the place of melting blaze.

Your smile is seen where soon will be the frown
Of wintry blasts, and cold and sleet;
November follows with his snowy crown,
And walks about with icy feet.

In 1880, at the age of 22, Bush began a systematic study of the flora of Jackson County. In 1882, Bush published “Flora of Jackson County”, giving a list of 609 species of plants. This publication created much interest in his work.

Prof. Charles S. Sargeant, one of Harvard’s highly esteemed botanists came to Courtney to meet Bush. Professor Sargeant had listed and named fourteen redhaws for all North America, but Bush pointed out 110 here in Missouri; as a result of their collaborative efforts, they extended the list to one thousand by 1911.

For many years Prof. Sargeant made frequent visits to visit Bush and together they made pilgrimages to other areas of the country while Bush assisted Professor Sargeant as he revised “The North American Sylva”. Bush collected many specimens over the years for the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University.

In 1884, Bush published First Supplement to the Flora of Jackson County raising the total numb er of species in Jackson County to 906. Bush was assisted by Bishop Cameron Mann, who was then pastor of Grace Episcopal Church. During this time Mr. Bush and Rev. Mann had shared many excursions around Independence studying the botany of the region. Another close friend of Bush who accompanied him on his excursions was the poet Arthur Grissom.
While teaching school in Courtney, Missouri, Bush met Martha E. Smith. Her family had settled in the Courtney area in 1835 and her great grandfather, William Smith had owned over 600 acres in the bottoms prior to his death in 1841. He left this land to his two sons, Enoch and Jesse who deeded an area on the hill overlooking the bottoms for a cemetery where William Smith was buried in 1841.

When Bush married Martha in 1886, the marriage was noted in the local newspaper and he was described as favorably known here as a botanist of Jackson County. After they were married they lived in Courtney where he ran a general store from 1888 and was postmaster from 1896 until they moved to Independence in 1935. While living on the second floor above the general store and post office, Mr. and Mrs. Bush raised seven children.

Some of the people in the community wondered why a scientist who had so many distinguished visitors could be contented in such surroundings. Bush’s establishment was the typical general merchandise store of the country villages. The groceries and lamp chimneys were kept on one side of the room and the dry goods on the other. It was a place where farmers eat lunches of crackers and sardines, washed down with red soda pop.

Thelma Haralson, one of his granddaughters recalls seeing him sitting with his feet on the potbelly stove reading a western novel in his free time and described him as a loving and patient man.

The mail that came to the three or four dozen families in the locality did not keep the botanist very busy. The post office was a case of pigeonholes on one end of a counter.
In the coming years, Bush was absent on his frequent botanizing expeditions and his wife managed the business of the little store and the post office.
While on an expedition in the “sunk lands” of southeast Missouri in 1891, Bush made one of his most important discoveries. He found an unknown “cork tree” that had the lightest of any known wood and subsequently published a book on this discovery.

In 1894, Mr. Bush discovered a new species of willow tree on a creek bank near his home. Named the Missouri willow, the wood of this tree was much harder than the ordinary willow and the leaves were different. Those coming to Courtney to inspect this tree included Prof. Sargeant from Harvard and Prof. William Trelease from Shaw’s Garden in St. Louis as well as other noted botanists.

Mr. Bush collected and prepared the Herbarium for the Columbian Worlds’ Fair at Chicago in 1894 and it won first prize as did the Missouri forestry collection, also prepared by Mr. Bush. Local papers noted that Mr. Bush had received national recognition in the form of diplomas from the management of the World’s far stating that he was of great service in finding and mounting plants for the Herbarium and the forestry exhibit and was entitled to much credit for his work.

By 1901, Mr. Bush’s reputation as a botanist was so widespread that his arrival in Marshall, Texas was noted in the local newspaper. They described that the purpose of his visit was to collect trees for Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University and that he had collected quite a number of new species around Columbia and San Antonio as well as an undescribed species of plum and a several new species of red haws.

Jackson County, situated where the floras of several different regions blend, was of special interest to the botanist. “Flora of Jackson County” was published by Bush and MacKenzie in 1882 and in 1885, Bush and Rev. Mann published a supplement to this flora and in 1888 Mr. Bush published a second supplement.
 Kenneth K. MacKenzie was a student under Bush following his graduation from Manual Training High School in Kansas City in 1896. For six years the two men researched throughout Jackson County, collecting plants and classifying them and in 1902 published “Manual of the Flora of Jackson County, giving 22 new species and a total of 1,192 varieties of plants. Following publication of their book, Mackenzie moved to New York City and by 1908 was a practicing attorney in that city.

In 1905, Mr. Bush learned that the evening primrose, common to Missouri, changed from season to season displaying a marked change in both leaves and flowers. While the primrose had been known to botanists for 75 years, this particular behavior had never been observed. This discovery caused such interest among botanists that Hugo De Vries, a celebrated naturalist of Amsterdam, Holland made a trip to visit Mr. Bush to discuss his discovery. Prof. De Vries was formulating a new theory of botany and the pecular changes in the evening primrose supported his views.

By 1909, Mr. Bush’s was recognized for his work by the Board of Education in Independence who voted to “procure a large photograph of Frank Bush, our local botanist, same to be placed in Library at High School.” The photograph was subsequently hung but perished in the fire that totaled the building in 1939.

In 1911, Mr. Bush was listed among the “Prominent Men in Greater Kansas City” and described as an unassuming man with a national and even international reputation.

In 1912, Mr. Bush was featured in “Diversions of Busy Men” in the Sunday edition of The Kansas City Star. They described him as famous because of his diversion. His leisure is spent in the study of botany and he has an international reputation because of his researches in the science. For several years he has been associated with the botantical department of Harvard University. He has discovered so many plants that were new to science that he is considered one of the foremost botanists in America. His work was the first ever published on the flora of Jackson County.”

By 1924, Bush had attained a certain level of celebrity and his granddaughter Thelma Haralson remembers the local newspapers coming to Courtney to interview him each year on his birthday. During an interview that year, Bush displayed a letter from the Thomas A. Edison Company Laboratories in New Jersey asking for a sample of tarweed.

Bush sent fifty pounds to them and a chemist replied that it was the best materials found so far to use in making hard discs for use in electrical apparatus and inquired as to the quantity available in this area. That was just one letter of that type he had received. Much of his time was spent answering questions of other botanists and in writing treatises on plants for botanical magazines.

Many plants were sent to him every year from all over America and Europe for him to study, identify and return to their owners. Dr. Paul Aellen of Basel, Switzerland with whom Bush frequently corresponded, named many new plants for this storekeeper-botanist.

During all these years, Mr. Bush was constantly on the search for more plants. The Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis has over 35,000 items collected and categorized and preserved by him.

In a letter to Dr. Steyermark in September 1936, at the age of 78, only five months before his death, Mr. Bush wrote:

“I suffered three bad falls last year that prevented me from doing as much as I had planned, but I got several hundred new localities. This past spring, I had two bad falls from bluffs, one of which laid me up for a week or more and kept me from doing what I had planned to do.”

Benjamin F. Bush died on Feb. 14, 1937 at his home in Independence and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.

Smith is the great granddaughter of the the botanist.

Read a full contemporary description of Bush's life by Ernest J. Palmer.