08/12/2013 09:38 am ET Updated Oct 12, 2013

The Most Famous Man You Never Heard Of: Part IV

Before I continue the story of my grandfather, John Davey, the "Father of Tree Surgery," I want to tell you about an amazing coincidence that happened to him in England in 1864. He was 19.
Unable to read and write, John lived in the insular world of rural England, surrounded by others who knew very little about current events. But one day, an American Civil War naval battle erupted in the English Channel, and my grandfather heard the skirmish. I'll let him tell the story:

It is in the parish of Stawley, Somersetshire, England, and it is June 19, 1864. The flocks have filled themselves with the luxuriant pastures and lie basking in the warm sunshine of that lovely day. The mountain lark has sung his song of love and retired among the ripening grasses and fields of grain. But, hush! What was that? At intervals - again and again, and again - there comes a deep, distant thundering roar, "b-o-o-o-o-o-m!" "What can it be? Can't be thunder for there are no clouds."

News traveled slowly in rural England at that time, so it wasn't until a few days later that the mystery was cleared up. Two American warships had met and dueled in the English Channel, within earshot of many Britons that day. The word spread that there was a war in America and that it was a fight about slavery, and that was all anybody knew.

The USS (United States Ship) Kearsarge sank the CSS (Confederate States Ship) Alabama during the "Battle of Cherbourg," which was one of the most significant naval conflicts of the Civil War. The Alabama had been highly effective in capturing U.S. merchant vessels, and the Union Navy had been after this thorn in their side for years. The commander of the Kearsarge learned that the rebel ship had put in at Cherbourg for repairs, but France refused her access to a dry dock. As the Alabama was leaving Cherbourg, the Kearsarge was lying in wait in the English Channel, about seven miles off the coast. Word spread about the impending battle, and wealthy Parisians traveled to the coast to see it. I'm guessing that they brought lunch! Boats sailed out with spectators as well, all of whom couldn't wait to see the mayhem of this great battle.

Years later, my grandfather wrote about that day:

The profound, thundering voices of the guns of those two American battleships still reverberate in my ears, and under the influence of a broader education, the language of the guns is now interpreted: Every "Broadside" from the Alabama declared, "Slavery is of Divine origin." From the throats of every mammoth gun of the Kearsarge, pronounced with tongue of flaming fire, came the response: "He hath made of one blood all nations to dwell upon the face of the earth."

Thus, John Davey was a witness (albeit an ear-witness) to a Civil War skirmish in his native land of England! Moreover, for a man who had not learned to read or write until he was 21, he became an eloquent wordsmith.

It wasn't until nine years later that my grandfather joined the multitude of Europeans who set sail for the promised land of America. On April 14, 1873, my grandfather disembarked at Castle Garden, New York - now known as "Battery Park." It is located at the southern tip of Manhattan, and the Castle Clinton (an old fort that still remains) was used to process immigrants from 1855 to 1892. Thereafter, all immigrants landed at Ellis Island.

How I wish I knew what John was thinking and feeling that day! The sights, sounds, and smells of this vibrant land must have been very different from anything he had known. I think now of the many times I have enjoyed walking along Battery Park, never realizing this was where my grandfather -- "Father John," as he came to be known -- first set foot on this continent. He was 27 years old.

During this year of 1873, 267,000 immigrants passed through Castle Garden. Of that number, 44,000 of them went to the "Middle States," as they were called. One of them was my grandfather, who went immediately to Warren, Ohio, with a grand total of seven dollars in his pocket.

On his way to Ohio from New York, the first thing John noticed was the wanton destruction of trees, and the scenes of primeval forests being decimated to provide farmland for an expanding country. He was shaken to the core; it was as if trees were the enemy that had to be destroyed. After all, trees were, to many, just a cheap source of building material or fuel. When trees were sick, the attitude was that "All plants die, so what's so different about a tree?" His heart broke as he saw beautiful old shade trees being trimmed by local "tree butchers," making them look like hat racks. Thus, John's passion about the care and conservation of trees was stimulated immediately, and only grew stronger over the years.

By the time my grandfather made it to Ohio, he had learned what his fellow immigrants had discovered - that rather than being the land of opportunity, there couldn't have been a worse time to migrate to America. The country was in a severe depression. He writes:

I came direct to old Warren, Ohio, and struck the country as she was going into the worst depressing "panic" she has ever seen. Times grew steadily worse and unemployment increased. If a man was seen driving along with a load of bricks, men would run after him hoping to get a job laying those bricks. If a load of lumber went by, carpenters would flock after it hoping to get a job.

However, as often happened for John throughout his life, he found lovely mentors, and lived with a wonderful family by the name of Ratliffe. Brigadier General Ratliffe was a distinguished Civil War veteran, for whom John had a lifelong regard. In fact, John later named a son Ira Ratliffe Davey. Another friend was James Abram Garfield, the President who was later assassinated, and my father (James Abram Garfield Davey) was named for him.

The Ratliffe family encouraged John's passion for gardening, giving him a greenhouse across from their home. He also worked as a janitor in a private school, trading labor for tuition. He studied Latin, Greek, Astronomy and Mathematics, as well as Botany. He rose every day at 3:00 A.M. to study and to complete his janitorial duties, and then during the day he worked in his small greenhouse, helping with people's gardens and lawns.

Unfortunately, the greenhouse was not a financial success. As always, John was focused on giving his customers much more than they expected - unusually beautiful plants that would inspire them to appreciate the wonders of nature. However, this did not allow him to make a profit. His skill with plants and flowers began to be recognized and admired, and this kind of compensation meant more to him than money ever could.

Although the greenhouse failed, during this early phase of his American life, John Davey began a lifelong study of trees and their preservation. He observed that all vital parts of a tree are new with each succeeding year - twigs, leaves, sapwood, cambium layer, inner bark, rootlets, flowers, and fruit - everything is new. Man and other forms of animal life endure for only a limited period, as they must use the same organs from birth until death, when they gradually wear out. Trees, however, live on for hundreds of years, and, under ideal conditions, can live indefinitely.

It was also at this time that my grandfather began experimenting with lettuce leaves, which grew individually. He had the novel idea that he could develop them into head lettuce. Believe it or not, it took John Davey ten years of intensive work in his greenhouses in order to accomplish this. It might not sound very important, but at the time it enabled growers to ship lettuce to many parts of the country in winter, which they had never been able to do before. And by the way, John never even earned one penny for all that work - and all that ingenuity!

If you remember, I have described my grandfather as a person who was totally and completely incapable of indifference. This applied, as well, to his growing feelings about his adopted country. Of his native England, he wrote, "I question if there is one Britisher in a thousand that ever thinks of government in any other way than that it is some kind of God-appointed affair set up, in which the 'subject' must bow with the most profound reverence."

Perhaps you can imagine the awe he describes the day that he understood what it means to be an American, and from that day on, he became a devoted and vocal patriot.

It happened in this day (it was July 4). A friend came by and said, "Put aside that hoe and rake and come down to the park and hear the Declaration of Independence read." Mainly to please my friend, I accompanied him. Bracing my back against an elm tree (which I regret to say is now destroyed) this Britisher listened curiously. Presently the speaker, or rather, the reader, was introduced. When he came to the expression, "We hold these truths to be self-evident; that (before the law) all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among those are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," etc., a light began to dawn in my mind and when I heard that "Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed," this Britisher was there and then (politically) "born again."

Whenever John recounted the story of the day he became a citizen, his eyes would fill with tears, as he proudly told how he raised his right hand and swore allegiance to the Constitution of the United States, foreswearing loyalty to the British Crown. He learned every word of our Constitution, and could quote it literally until the day he died. He also knew every verse of "America" and "The Star Spangled Banner," and sang them with a zeal and fervor that inspired others.

Those of us in my family who remember the stories about my grandfather, tell them affectionately, fully acknowledging that John Davey was a bit eccentric. For example, along with his developing American patriotism, John had a deep reverence for the national flag. Whenever he saw it, he would tip his hat in salute. Moreover, if he spotted a flag that was displayed incorrectly in someone's yard, he would think nothing of marching up to their door and informing them of the proper flag etiquette. After all, "Do It Right Or Not At All."

While formulating his scientific theories, John, as always, was coming up with ideas about how to be of service to his fellow man. The severe economic crisis of the time was creating devastating consequences for families, and for society in general. My grandfather was acutely aware of the plight of orphans, in particular. Having himself at the age of 13 felt like an orphan after his mother died, and being "put out to service," his heart bled for youngsters being raised in cities. Jobs were scarce for everybody, and knowledge about working on the land was rapidly being lost.

His solution was that instead of establishing "reformatory" schools, he would establish "formatory" institutions. These would provide a basic education, teaching youngsters the value of working hard, as well as knowledge of Mother Earth and "the heavenly father." He felt that these city children, armed with an understanding of agriculture, could attain a healthy lifestyle, contentment, and the ability to always make a living.

This is where John's tendency to be a dreamer shows clearly. Never thinking about financial reward for himself, he nevertheless spun endless fantasies about how he could accomplish his goals. He founded a small newspaper, which he could barely afford to have printed, hoping that by advertising plants to be sold from his greenhouse, he could somehow amass enough money to establish the orphanage.

When presenting this idea to the public in his newspaper, he wrote:

Undoubtedly the revelation of this will give rise to comments and criticisms. Every man of a progressive spirit must meet with this. I notice that men of enterprise are often called "visionary," and sometimes complimented by being declared "crazy."

In emphasizing that John Davey was such a hard worker, I don't mean to imply that he was all work and no play. His wry sense of humor and the sparkle reflected in his eyes were often written about. So, when this passionate and soulful man met my beautiful grandmother Bertha Reeves, he pursued her with enormous energy, and my guess is that she never stood a chance of saying "no."

To be continued...