George Hebden Corsan
... Part Two

Important dates 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 August 1952.

Corsan's father 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 peddler.

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.

Sir William 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.

Corsan joined 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 (rare).

Corsan's wife 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.

From 1930-35 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 nut trees.

(To be concluded)

Kathryn Lamb Kitchener, Ontario

Song News #10, Spring 1977
 
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