Mill Grove (aka The John James Audubon House) was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1972 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Documentation for the nomination was updated in 1985. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the updated nomination document. [†]
Mill Grove, John James Audubon's home in 1804-08, is a 2-1/2-story house of native fieldstone, with a 2-story west addition of the same material set on a lower level. The structure sits on a rise of land overlooking Perkiomen Creek.
There are inside end chimneys in the wood-shingled roof of the main block and at the west end of the addition. The roofline of the main block is pierced by three gables on the north elevation and two on the south, or creek, side. The cornice is coved with pent across the gable ends.
The main portion of Mill Grove was built by James Morgan, who operated a mill and a lead mine in the vicinity, in 1762. He also erected the west addition, 3 years later, apparently as an inn to shelter travelers stranded at the crossing of the Perkiomen near his home. The dormers and porches were added after 1830. With those exceptions, the house's exterior appearance is apparently the same as when Audubon knew it.
The north facade features a central entrance with a small window cut over it and 4-over-4 sash on both levels to either side. The south facade has 4-over-4 sash on both levels except in the central bay of the 5, on the first level, which contains the main south door. Many of the windows contain the original wavy glass.
The structure's interior integrity is also high. The main block is laid out on a center hall plan. All the floors, except those on the first level, are original and are composed of random width oak and pine. Those on the first level were replaced in the early 1950s, using similar random width native pine more than 100 years old. Nearly all first and second floor rooms, and those in the basement, feature fireplaces set on a 45 degree angle to the true square of the rooms. The only other interior changes of note are the sealing of fireplaces to meet insurance requirements and the closing of one or two doorways to meet public traffic flow regulations.
The wing contains a large room on the first floor, which was licensed as a tavern in the house's early years, and upstairs rooms.
Mill Grove serves as a museum, housing a priceless collection of Audubon's bird paintings, including a complete set of the rare "elephant folios." Several pieces of his furniture have been donated to Mill Grove, and are on display, along with period pieces. An upstairs bedroom has been furnished approximately as it may have been when Audubon had his studio in the house. Murals, in several of the rooms, by George M. Harding, were painted in the 1950s; they illustrate Audubon's travels and adventures in America.
Of other structures that may have been on the grounds during Audubon's residence, only the barn has survived. The entire Mill Grove tract (130 acres) today forms a bird, animal, and plant sanctuary. The property is kept in a natural state, except for small formal gardens and lawns adjacent to the house, and some 6 miles of trails. The flora and fauna found in the sanctuary are quite diverse. Some 180 species of birds have been observed.
Somewhat like the birds he watched, shot, mounted, and painted, John James Audubon is associated with no single location in America. This comfortable farm house in rural Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, was his first home in the United States, in 1804-08. Although his stay here was brief, it was highly significant. Mill Grove is "...historic for its lasting stimulus to Audubon's ... life and achievements."
At Mill Grove, Audubon made his earliest observations of the "birds of America"; conducted his experiments in bird-banding, the first in the United States; devised his methods of taxidermy; and painted artistic renderings of his wildlife subjects. Mill Grove is thus an important site in science and art, and significant in the history of conservation for the movement that sprang from it.
Moreover, it strikingly illustrates the potential significance of an avocation that becomes a passion and then a profession, for Audubon is the prototype and patron saint of America's 20 million birdwatchers. And Mill Grove and the land around it supplied his budding genius with material for inspiration and scientific inquiry.
In addition, although it was his father's property, Mill Grove is the only surviving Audubon home in America. The only house in America that he owned in his own name was "Minniesland," a house he built in New York City in 1841. He died there in 1851. The house was razed early in the 20th century.
Audubon's father Jean, a French naval lieutenant, served in the fleet supporting Washington at Yorktown and was, in the 1780s, engaged in trade in the West Indies. During a sojourn in Haiti, he fathered Jean Jacques, who eventually returned to France with him. The boy got a gentleman's upbringing, but balked at entering the Navy. He studied art with Jacques Louis David, and, at 15, had begun a collection of his own drawings of French birds. At 18, perhaps to avoid Napoleon's draft, his father sent him to the United States.
A refuge was waiting for him — Mill Grove. The elder Audubon had purchased Mill Grove while on a trading voyage in Philadelphia in 1789. Although he may have acquired the estate as a potential refuge for himself — slave insurrections were sweeping Haiti and the French Revolution was beginning — he had never resided there. Nantes, France, remained his home when not at sea or in the West Indies.
The house at Mill Grove had been built in 1762-65 by James Morgan, who operated a mill nearby on Perkiomen Creek. Because the property contained a mine that produced lead, copper, and zinc, and was close to Valley Forge, it had been looted during the American Revolution, although the house escaped essentially unscathed.
In March 1804, Jean Jacques (whose name was quickly anglicized to John James) arrived at Mill Grove. He was supposed to develop the mine on the property for his father; however, he fell under the lure of the Pennsylvania countryside. He roamed the wooded hills along, the Perkiomen and the Schuylkill and pursued hunting, taxidermy, and painting. He was intensely interested in studying the area's wildlife, particularly its birds.
He was a prodigious collector of nests, eggs, and avian specimens, which he faithfully sketched in life-like attitudes after first arranging his subjects for the sittings by means of wires thrust through the carcasses and then bent and twisted to hold them in the desired positions. This method of arranging the specimens was his own invention. Here, Audubon also performed the first authentic experiments in bird banding in America. He banded a species of flycatcher, the phoebe, succeeding generations of which still nest at Mill Grove. During his stay, Audubon also became acquainted with Lucy Bakewell, daughter of the owner of a neighboring farm, and became engaged to her.
Audubon actually spent less than 2 full years of his life at Mill Grove. He returned temporarily to France in 1805, worked in the office of his fiancee's uncle in New York City from the autumn of 1806 until August 1807, and opened a general store in Louisville, Ky., later in the latter year. In 1808, he went back to Mill Grove to marry Lucy, but quickly set out for Kentucky with her.
During the Audubons' peripatetic life — they lived in New York, Ohio, Kentucky, Missouri, and Louisiana, in addition to Pennsylvania, and he traveled through Texas, Mississippi, Arkansas, Illinois, Tennessee, Florida, Maine, the Carolinas, and much of the rest of the Nation — Lucy played an indispensable role. She saw him through two decades of poverty, failure in business, and his struggle to establish himself as a nature artist. Her earnings as a schoolteacher often supported the family, and she financed his trip to Britain that finally led to the publication of his work, beginning in 1826.
During Audubon's stay at Mill Grove, another Frenchman — albeit with a Portuguese surname — Francois (Francis) DaCosta, had served as his guardian and partner in the mining operation. DaCosta was also assigned a half-interest in the property. When the Audubons left for Kentucky in 1808, DaCosta acquired full ownership of Mill Grove.
DaCosta, in turn, sold the property to Samuel Wetherill of Philadelphia, in 1813. Wetherill's descendants owned it until 1951, when it was sold to the Montgomery County Commissioners to be held forever as a shrine to Audubon and as a wildlife sanctuary.
Mill Grove has been open to the public as a unit of the Montgomery County park system since the spring of 1952.
Adams, Alexander B. John James Audubon. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1966.
Audubon, John James. (Maria R. Audubon, ed.) Audubon and His Journals. New York: Dover, 1960.
Audubon, Mrs. John James. The Life of John James Audubon, The Naturalist. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1873.
Dock, George, Jr. "Sanctuary on the Perkiomen," Audubon Magazine, July-August 1951.
Eberlein, Harold D. "Philadelphia Houses, A Proud Past," National Geographic, 118, 2 (August 1960), pp. 162-165, 170-171.
__________, and Van Courtlandt Hubbard. Portrait of a Colonial City. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1939.
Ford, Alice. Audubon by Himself. Natural History Press, 1969.
Herrick, Francis Hobart. "Audubon the Naturalist. 2 vols. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1917.
Historical Society of Montgomery County. Historical Sketches. III (1905), pp. 233-241.
Hocker, Edward S. "Up and Down Montgomery County." (Scrapbooks in the possession of the Montgomery County Historical Society.)
Northwood, J. d'Arcy. "Audubon's First Home in America was Mill Grove," Nature, 48, 9 (November 1955), pp. 464-466.
Peattie, Donald C., and Eleanore R. Dobson. "John James Audubon," Dictionary of American Biography, I, 423-427. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1943.
Tower, Samuel A. "One for the Birds," The Washington Post, Sunday, April 14, 1985, p. C9.
† Charleton, James H., Mill Grove, John James Audubon House, nomination document, 1985, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.