in the long life of George Hebden Corsan remain shrouded in mystery
--- the date of his birth and the date of his death. Corsan himself
said he didn't know when he was born but "aunts and uncles
told me I was born June 11, 1857" near Rockport, N.Y.
In spite of
considerable searching, I have been unable to establish the date
of his death. Perusal of the Northern Nut Growers' Association annual
reports (which usually contained lengthy obituaries of its prominent
members, and he certainly qualified as that over a period of 40
years) reveals only that he died sometime between August 1951, and
was a banker and his maternal grandfather was Canon Hebden of the
Anglican Church in Hamilton. The family moved to Hamilton in his
boyhood, near the Canon's home, which had fine gardens and trees.
The father was apparently a bit of a tyrant and George ran away
from home when he was 14. He worked as a farm hand all over Ontario
during his teens and early 20s. This experience, coupled with literature
on health cults, which were becoming fashionable in the 1870s, turned
him toward vegetarianism. He decided to become a doctor---not in
the accepted version of that profession but at the St. Louis Hygienic
College of Physicians and Surgeons to which was attached the Dodds
Private Hospital. Both institutions expounded and practiced some
of the advanced theories of the time.
George was a
fourth year student when, on an outing near St. Louis, he was bitten
on the wrist by a copperhead snake. Such a bite is usually fatal.
He was ill for months, pronounced dead at one point, but recovered.
When he left the hospital he was thin and frail, unable to pursue
his studies any further. He returned to Toronto and became a fruit
In the 1890s
he became a familiar figure on Yonge St., hawking fruit, his stentorian
voice coming from a gaunt frame. With his fruit he gave away slogans
of health with every breath, exalting fruit and raw vegetables as
the elixir of life.
He had always
been a good swimmer and he took up swimming again as another step
toward the recovery of his health. He mastered the Australian crawl,
which was just dawning on the swimming world.
By 1899 he was
not only a city character as a peddler of fruit, but an athlete
of almost legendary quality. In that year there was a grand swimming
regatta at the Toronto swimming club at Hanlon's Point, with invited
champions from the United States and Scandinavia to be the stars.
Friends at the Y encouraged Corsan to enter and he won all eight
events. "The crowd was so disgusted that a local peddler had
carried off the whole meet," related Corsan, "that they
broke off and went home. The crowd just went home in disgust."
It was the turning
point in Corsan's career. His feat hit the headlines and resulted
in a letter from Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, head of the famed sanatorium
in Battle Creek, Michigan, offering him a handsome salary to teach
swimming at the sanatorium's four big pools. He accepted and his
career was assured.
He taught swimming
at the University of Toronto from 1903 - 1922. He roved all over
the continent, teaching swimming, preaching health and vegetarianism,
shocking people and industries like the dairies and packing houses
almost speechless with his diatribes.
In 1927 W. K.
Kellogg, the corn flakes king, brother of Dr. H. Kellogg, asked
Corsan to build him a bird sanctuary. In two years Corsan spent
$2,250,000 of Kellogg's money on an 850-acre sanctuary the like
of which has never been seen on this continent, according to the
late Gregory Clark.
Mulock, Postmaster-general of Canada (1886-1905) and later Chief
Justice of Ontario, hired Corsan to graft the black walnut trees
at his Orillia estate with Carpathian scions.
Corsan was associated
with Ernest Thompson Seton in the Boy Scouts in 1910. He taught
professional life saving and set up the Chicago Life Guards (1912)
and the St. Louis Life Guards (1913). He was swimming Instructor-in-chief
during the First World War for the whole Pacific coast.
the Northern Nut Growers Association in 1912. His address was given
as the University of Toronto gymnasium and he said he had been "planting
nuts for years." In 1915 he told the NNGA meeting that "I
have four types of soil to grow my trees in--stiff clay, rich gravel,
quicksand and humus, light sand and silt or bottom land, well-drained.
I have no sour, undrained spot on my 15 acres." This would
appear to be Echo Valley (later described as 20 acres) but he did
not use that address until 1925.
In 1926 he reported:
"My land is in a valley and the spring floods come down and
I can't plough the land or it would all be washed away. I had an
awful fight with mice. I found they would chew down the trees almost
as fast as I could get them in, so I got some cats. The cats soon
learned to prefer birds to mice so I killed the cats. Then I bought
a flock of geese. They cropped the grass short and prevented it
from growing so powerfully as to smother out the trees. But the
geese had hard bills and when the trees were small they clipped
off pieces of bark with their bills, so I traded the geese for wild
geese. I learned that they are more discriminating in their choice
of food and though their wings are more powerful, their bills are
not as strong. They have kept the grass down for me and destroyed
the homes of the mice. Then I got pheasants in order to rid myself
of the insect pests. I feel that in another 10 or 20 years we will
have a very beautiful place."
In 1928 when
the NNGA held their convention in Toronto (the first time outside
of the United States) they visited the Echo Valley plantation where
they noted Thomas and Ohio black walnuts; Siers, Fairbanks and Laney
hickories; pecans; Chinese walnuts (rare); hybrid chestnuts; seedling
heartnuts from Virginia sources; filberts and Turkish tree hazel
was listed as a member of the NNGA 1922-25 and in the 1940s his
son, H. H. Corsan of Hillsdale, Michigan, was a member. He married
again (possibly the third time) in Florida in 1950 when he was 93.
he was not listed as a member of the NNGA and he later referred
to a six-year's absence from Toronto, but didn't explain further.
In 1940 he bought
five acres of very rich soil near Kendall, Florida, which is 10
miles south of Miami. He wintered there from November 30 - March
30, returning to the north when the buds started to swell on his
(To be concluded)
Song News #10, Spring 1977