BY MARGO DRUMMOND
In September of 1846, a young medical doctor arrived in Racine from Ohio, accompanied by his wife, Mary. It did not take long for the community of 2,200 to recognize Dr. Philo R. Hoy as he made his rounds, seldom seen without his pocket lens, butterfly net, botany box and insect bottles. Early on his brother had begun calling him the “red-headed woodpecker” because of his hair color and his love of birds. When asked of his interest, Dr. Hoy responded: “If God had time to make birds I have time to study them”… And study them he did.
Assisted by his wife, Mary, Hoy could count 318 mounted birds in his collection, many supplied by Racine’s lighthouse keeper who passed on dead specimens that had flown too near the beam. For the Hoy family’s 1876 4th of July celebration, four mounted American Eagles, decked out with American flags provided decoration.
Mammals, moths, butterflies, beetles and reptiles likewise held fascination for the Hoys. Behind their home at 9th and Main could be found a greenhouse filled with ferns and experimental gardens with individual plots for the three Hoy children as well as cages for their pets which included an eagle, a big white owl, flying squirrels, horned toads, turtles, and even snakes. Daughter Jenny’s teacher was no doubt surprised when the youngster brought her pet snake to class. Equally surprised may have been Mrs. Henry S. Durand who arrived home one Sunday morning from church to find a caterpillar on the fence post, left there for her by Dr. Hoy.
Having cataloged some 1,300 insects and over 2,000 moths during his lifetime, Hoy was once questioned about the amount of time he as a grown man spent on studying something as small as a mosquito. “A thing not too small for the Creator to make is not too small for me to study,” was his reply. Interestingly, it was Dr. Hoy who was credited with perhaps discovering the smallest mammal in the world–the pygmy shrew weighing one-tenth of an ounce.
A friend and close associate of Hoy’s in the love of science was Dr. Increase Latham of Milwaukee who was known as the Father of the U.S. Weather Bureau. Together the two would hike the countryside collecting objects for scientific analysis. Together they would establish the Wisconsin Academy of Science Arts, and together they would carefully excavate and document numerous Native American burial mounds. Believing that it was a child’s heritage to know about birds and trees and insects and flowers, Dr. Hoy believed it was especially important for them to know about the history and culture of Native Americans. It was Dr. Hoy, who as chairman of a committee to locate an appropriate burial site for the city, persuaded others to agree to the selection of what is today historic Mound Cemetery.
Objections to that choice included the site being too far outside the city and, by some, the burial of Christians near the burial mounds of ancient peoples. Thankfully, Dr. Hoy prevailed, providing protection for the 14 Indian burial mounds within the cemetery’s parameters. Later he would identify and catalogue the over 150 species of trees and shrubs once growing there. A spring-fed water body on the grounds was named Sylvan Pond by Dr. Hoy. And the pathways that he laid out, today still wide enough for vehicles, were appropriately labeled Azalea Avenue or Iris or Laurel or Willow.
In 1874, the State Legislature created three unpaid positions to serve as Commissioners of Fisheries. While never active in politics, Philo Hoy was appointed as one. Two years earlier he had been approached by local fishermen to determine what was destroying the white fish in Lake Michigan. A dredging revealed small crustaceans which eastern scientists believed were only found in the North Atlantic or Arctic Oceans leading some to conclude that Lake Michigan had once been salty. As for Commissioner Hoy, he was busy establishing the first fisheries surveys of state water bodies using Wisconsin postmasters who queried locals on lake averages, maximum depths, bottom types, inlets and outlets and species present. Thirty-nine surveys statewide were completed and returned through the postal service.
As a member of the Geological Survey, the Chicago Academy of Sciences, the Wisconsin Board of Health, the Entomological Society of France and the Professional Board of the Smithsonian Institution where his papers can be found, Dr. Philo Romayne Hoy was often visited by fellow scientists from both America and abroad. In 1921, the Wisconsin Academy of Science, Arts and Letters honored him by including his likeness on a bronze medallion. But when asked how she thought her father would have most liked to be remembered, daughter Jenny said this:
“Remember that he was born with three gifts–physical energy, mental hunger, and joy of life… and those three gifts salted with him all his 76 years…”
Margo Drummond’s interest in local history began when she became involved with preservation Racine. For 31 years, she taught high school courses on Racine History and Death and Dying, Issues of Living and Life. She wrote two books, “Blessings of Being Mortal: How a Mature Understanding of Death Can Free Us to Live Wisely and Well” and “Here’s to Your Health.”