While not a biography of legendary American forester and conservationist Gifford Pinchot, On Strawberry Hill: The Transcendent Love of Gifford Pinchot and Laura Houghteling explores a vital and transformative facet of his personal life that, until now, has remained relatively unknown.
At its core, Paula Ivaska Robbins’s On Strawberry Hill: The Transcendent Love of Gifford Pinchot and Laura Houghteling is a human interest story that cuts a neat slice across nineteenth-century America by bringing into juxtaposition a wide array of topics germane to the period—the national fascination with spiritualism, the death scourge that was tuberculosis, the rise of sanitariums and tourism in the southern highlands, the expansion of railroad travel, the rage for public parklands and playgrounds, and the development of professional forestry and green preservation―all through the very personal love story of two young blue bloods.
Born into a wealthy New York family, Gifford Pinchot (1865–1946) served two terms as Pennsylvania’s governor and was the first chief of the US Forest Service, which today manages 192 million acres across the country. Pinchot also created the Society of American Foresters, the organization that oversees his chosen profession, and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, the oldest forestry school in America. Ultimately, he and his friend President Theodore Roosevelt made forestry the focus of a national land conservation movement.
But before these accomplishments, Gifford Pinchot fell in love with Laura Houghteling, daughter of the head of the Chicago Board of Trade, while she recuperated from “consumption” at Strawberry Hill, the family retreat in Asheville, North Carolina. In his twenties at the time and still a budding forester, Pinchot was working just across the French Broad River at George Vanderbilt’s great undertaking, the Biltmore Estate, when the young couple’s relationship blossomed. Although Laura would eventually succumb to the disease, their brief romance left an indelible mark on Gifford, who recorded his ongoing relationship, and mental conversations, with Laura in his daily diary entries long after her death. He steadfastly remained a bachelor for twenty years while accomplishing the major highlights of his career.
This poignant book focuses on that phenomenon of devotion and inspiration, providing a unique window into the private practice of spiritualism in the context of Victorian mores, while offering new perspectives on Pinchot and early American forestry. In addition, preeminent Pinchot biographer Char Miller contributes an excellent foreword.