Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Max Latterman--The Veblens' Caretaker at Herrontown Woods

It was a very pleasant surprise to find in the mail one day some newspaper clippings from back when Max Latterman, Sr. was taking care of the Veblens' house and grounds. His tenure there actually predates the Veblens, as he was first hired by J.P.W. Stuart, who moved the prefab house to the site and then later sold it to the Veblens. Max's love of Herrontown Woods was such that he continued to work there even after both Veblens had passed away. Below is one of the articles, from the 1980 Fall/Winter edition of the Mercer County Park Commission News. Thanks so much to Jean Latterman, Max Latterman Sr.'s daughter in law, for sending these articles!




Autumn is the perfect time to catch a glimpse of the wonder of the Herrontown Woods in Princeton, a Mercer County Park Commission facility open to the public every day at no cost.

And it is said that this tree arboretum is as rich in history as it is in beauty. A walk through 141-acre garden of trees will point up the latter, but only a conversation with caretaker Max Latterman will bring out the international significance of the property.

Latterman will tell you that the Herrontown Woods, donated to the county of Mercer in 1957 by world famous mathematician Oswald Veblen, were the grounds of this estate for thirty years.

Veblen was brought to Princeton University as an associate professor in 1905 by Woodrow Wilson, then the president of the University, and by Dean Henry Burchard Fine. Years later, he was influential in the founding and establishment of the academic direction, especially in mathematics, of The Institute For Advanced Study, a post-doctorate institution in Princeton. He is also credited with influencing Einstein and other great mathematicians to join the faculty of the Institute.

Latterman was the caretaker for the Woods even before Veblen purchased the property. The 75 year old Latterman, whose German accent sounds a bit like Grandpa Stroehmann's, provides some interesting insights about the property.

The estate, according to Latterman, provided a source of enjoyment and relaxation for Veblen. Although the professor frequently traveled to Europe and Maine during fhe summer months, he always enjoyed the grounds which are now the Herrontown Woods.

Latterman's responsibilities, while employed by Mr. Stuart, included caring for the grounds, the two houses, the barn, shed and hay barrack, and also the hunting horses. Saddle sore or not, Latterman rode the horses every day to give them excercise. "It was not fun by the time I got off all of them", he said.

Latterman works only four hours a day now, but still begins his day at 7 a.m. Walking through the property, Latterman can trace the beginnings of parts of the woods and gardens, which surround the houses. He points to a section of the woods between the two houses, "where the old barn used to be", and notes that that is where Veblen planted several oaks trees. Latterman said that Veblen also used to transplant certain trees from one area of the property to another, giving the woods both balance and beauty.

Veblen's wife, Elizabeth, also liked to garden, planting daffodils (in circles). wild hyacinths and other rare flowers that she had collected from Europe, giving the property a radiance in the spring.

During those summer visits to Europe, Latterman was left to care for the estate alone. "I didn't mind it," he said. "But it was very quiet. When I got home, I was glad to hear some voices." Even today, with the exception of an occasional passing car or airplane overhead, the Herrontown Woods remain a quiet place. "I still like to hear voices when I get home," he said,

Latterman, who probably knew more about the intricacies of the houses and the woods than the Veblens themselves, explained that the main house, located off Herrontown Road, was rebuilt by previous owner J.P.W. Stuart, who had the house moved from New York. Just for show, Latterman unlatches what almost looks like a secret vault and explains that the beams are connected by metal pins, making the dismantling of them still possible today.

He recalls that many of the professor's friends, colleagues and students visited the property, enjoying a walk through the woods with Veblen. Perhaps the most famous colleague was Albert Einstein.

But the professor, according to Latterman, loved the solitude of the property and spent many hours alone. "'When he wanted to be left by himself," said Latterman, "he would go off to the second house and study there where there was no telephone." Latterman recalls that he would stay there for long hours and burn a lot of wood that Latterman had cut up for him to keep the cottage warm.

Mathematics professor Deane Montgomery of the Institute For Advanced Study, a close colleague of Veblen. also recalls the smaller of the houses and refers to it as Veblen's ''study" . "He always liked the outdoors, though," said Montgomery. "In his later years, he would spend time cutting wood himself."

"Because the Veblens had no children," said Montgomery', "he (Veblen) thought very carefully on the matter of the houses and the property. He concluded that the county would be the most likely to carry out his intentions of leaving the property in its natural state."

As he continues his tour, Latterman explains that the stone walls surrounding portions of the estate were made from the rocks that farmers had cleared from their fields during the winter.

Walking through the woods, one will notce the absence of slate or stone walkways, which sometimes contrast with the softness of the woods. "The professor did not like cement sidewalks," said Latterman. "This is why I made, and still repair the wooden sidewalks."

With all the quaint features about the houses and the personal touches of the walkways and gardens, the trees are still the stars of the show, with marked paths winding through the woods.

The arboretum includes a pine forest, over thirty species of trees, a countless amount of shrubbery and a brilliant collection of flowers.

Friday, May 3, 2013

A Small Victory at Herrontown Woods

(originally posted at PrincetonNatureNotes.org, April 26, 2009--Herrontown Woods being Princeton's first dedicated nature preserve, donated by the Veblens in 1957) 

Most people know about the big victory won at the Princeton Battlefield in 1777. Few have heard, however, of the small victory of 2009 that took place at Herrontown Woods, on the other side of town, on a sunny afternoon in late April.

There, the mighty resistance of an eight year old to taking a walk in the woods was overcome by an irresistible alliance of rocks and water.

Strident complaint dissolved into "Daddy, look at this!", as we headed upstream towards a picnic in a boulder field.

Contributing to the rout of homebound entertainment media was a frog presiding over a reflected forest.

Plenty of auxiliary forces were on hand, effective mostly with the accompanying adult. The opening buds of a witch hazel.

Some interesting stuff on the forest floor--here, a reddish-brown spiny fruit of the sweetgum, a flowering wood anemone, and some leaves of trout lily.

And the fiddle heads of Christmas fern perched on boulders.

Even the trails were strategically rock-strewn to add sport and comfort to the way home.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

George Dyson on Veblen's Role in Preserving the Institute Woods

If you missed George Dyson's March 21 talk at DR Greenway, entitled "Princeton's Christopher Robin - Oswald Veblen and the Six Hundred-Acre Woods", here's a link to a high definition video, posted by videographer Kurt Tazelaar: https://vimeo.com/63494165.

(May 4 update: technical difficulties seem to have made the photo and "play" button disappear, but the link should work)

Realizing I was going to be arriving back in town too late to hear the talk, I asked Kurt Tazelaar if he could videotape the presentation. He and Sally Curtis were willing, DR Greenway and George Dyson gave permission, and after considerable work by Kurt and Sally to put it in finished form, it was posted online.

Among other things, George describes how Oswald Veblen's grandparents lost their land in Norway due to a crooked lawyer, and how this may have fed Oswald's passion for land acquisition. Other insights in the talk include thinking of Veblen--who argued early on in favor of the Institute for Advanced Study acquiring considerable land, and then did much of the legwork and negotiating to acquire the first 600 acres--as the bridge between the Institute's intellects and the land on which they do their thinking.

The video also includes a charming intro by George's father, Freeman Dyson, and some photos and description of the years George spent living in a treehouse. The latter plays in to a theme that's been coming up more recently related to the project--the movement in architecture to design ultra-small houses.

Thanks to George, Kurt, Sally and the DR Greenway for making this video possible.