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S. Fred Prince

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Published on: Dec. 2, 1998

Last revision: Nov. 3, 2010

Outfitted with unlimited curiosity and a sense of adventure, S. Fred Prince left Chicago and came to the Ozarks as a bachelor homesteader in the 1880s. He roamed the wilderness of Missouri's Stone County, climbed bluffs to find ferns, searched the hills for wildflowers and descended into the intricate grandeur of a great cavern.

Like others who came here, he found beauty in this rugged country, with its steep-sided ridges, woodlands, glades, springs and waterfalls. Prince took his interest further. An artist and self-taught naturalist, he began to catalog the wonders he encountered above ground and below, in the area of Marble Cave (later Marvel Cave).

This endeavor lasted throughout his long life, and he eventually completed a remarkable body of unpublished work, including illustrated manuscripts on ferns, violets, wildflowers, insects and the cave.

While Prince lived out his life in Stone County, his works traveled far. A lengthy manuscript on ferns is in the collection of the Garden Library of Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C. The Oak Spring Garden Library, Upperville, Va., owns several manuscripts, including 207 watercolors of wildflowers Prince found around Marvel Cave in the 1890s.

Prince's botanical work reveals an intensely inquisitive man, talented with words and watercolors. But it is his cave book, owned by his family, that presents glimpses of Fred Prince and the Stone County life he knew.

His first contact with Marvel cave occurred, he wrote, "almost the same day of my arrival in the Hills-in fact, in a few weeks I knew more about the inside of the country than I ever did of its surface, and it absorbed most of my life that first ten years."

In 1893, new cave owner William Lynch asked him to survey Marvel Cave. Prince devised homemade instruments for the job and came to know the caverns and passages in minute detail.

He "learned to read the pages of the wonderful story written in their rocks and the spaces between-the story of the beginnings of a new world," he wrote. In his illustrated manuscript, The Ozarkian Uplift and Marvel Caverns, he described the cave room by room, analyzing its formations.

His survey took about two years. "We put up a tent in the Cathedral Room," he wrote, "and even built a stone fireplace, and lived down there for a week, or even a month at a time! . . . In the deeper and more remote places, I would often, when tired, simply stretch out where I was and rest-and then go on with the work; there was no change, just even darkness, even, unchanging temperature and moisture, and a blessed stillness!"

He wrote that he altered the cave's name, "for Marble was untrue! Marvel was all truth, and dignity . . ." Although Lynch resisted changing the name, his daughters did so after his death.

When Prince discovered a "perilous" passage, a potential death trap in wet weather, he and Lynch left it off the map, though it led to a room "whose formations would repay the rough journey but not-certainly not, the sure risk of life!"

The cave was often the destination of adventurers responding to rumors of buried treasure or gold and silver deposits. Prince served as cave guide for several days to a man named Gambel who claimed to be a prospector and had "a great fund of good stories." Underground, near Lost River, Gambel accused Prince of lying when he said there was no gold in the cave.

"He flew into a rage, drew a gun on me, and threatened to shoot me if I did not tell him at once where it was. I laughed at him. 'And how will you get out without me,' I said, and blew out our candles! I slipped into a side crevice, and waited (until) he had relighted his candle, and seeing nothing of me, was getting properly scared.

"I let him worry awhile, then came into the passage with him. 'You are a fool,' I said. 'I'm not afraid of your gun... If you ever want to see daylight again, start going.'" Prince ushered Gambel out of the cave and sent him up the road. "He was an amusing cuss, but I did not like his revolver game."

In the 1890s, Prince found time to explore above ground, too, seeking the ferns and wildflowers that would be the subjects of his lengthiest manuscripts.

He was born Samuel Webb Prince in 1857, grew up in Chicago and Wisconsin and worked to finance the education of two brothers. At some point he became known as Fred, and all his drawings and paintings are signed S. Fred Prince.

He lived in Stone County in his 20s and 30s, then focused on a career as a scientific illustrator at Springfield Normal School, the University of Nebraska, Warrensburg Normal and the University of Illinois at Urbana. During this period, he explored Stone County on visits.

Cave country drew him back after his marriage at age 50 to 25-year-old Maude Ellen Higgenbotham. Prince cleared a space for a house on the Indian Ridge property they called Butterfly Hill, built a road with a pick and shovel and planted a large garden, fruit trees and berries. He was a free lance illustrator for universities, and Maude was a teacher at Notch. They taught their children, Alice and Stanley, the botanical names of trees and plants.

Prince continued his personal research. Stanley Prince recalls going with his father on "tramps," collecting ferns. On one memorable outing, his father saw a fern on the side of a cliff and tried to reach it from the top. "He just couldn't quite reach it, so he tried to persuade Mother to reach up and get the fern." He remembers his mother, in her long skirt, reaching.

"She was deadly scared of snakes. We had some rattlers, cottonmouths, you name it. All of a sudden it developed there was a swarm of copperheads in there, and she went screaming her head off."

Kansas State Agricultural College hired the artist in 1919. The Princes moved to Manhattan, Kan., where Fred Prince lived apart from his family in a light-filled studio in a rooming house. He worked on scientific illustrations, pressed fern specimens for his collection and painted.

Stanley Prince describes his father as "intelligent, autocratic, the old school, 'My word is law.' He was widely accomplished, a good carpenter, artist, surveyor. He had an inquiring mind."

Rex Johnson, now a retired cave guide, was a young teenager when he assisted the artist in his continuing wildflower search in the 1930s. "I helped him through the woods," says Johnson. "He'd get so wrapped up in his work, he didn't know which way was up; he'd get lost. He'd sit there and sketch them on the spot. He'd have quite a fit when he found a rare flower."

Velma Bass met Prince in 1930 when she worked for Genevieve and Miriam Lynch, after they inherited the cave from their father. She remembers Prince's integration of art and nature with his daily life. He lived at the Lynch sisters' house for a time and planted a garden of wildflowers he brought from the woods.

Bass and her husband live there now, and though the garden is gone, she says, "Every once in a while something shows up that I know is a wildflower and that I think probably is something Mr. Prince had started there." He also raked a path through the woods, leading to a spring down the hill. Bass says he was "knowledgeable, a wonderful artist."

In 1929, when Prince was 72, he returned to Stone County. At last, he had time to concentrate on his manuscripts-ferns, violets, wildflowers, insects and the cave-separate parts of what he called "The Woodland Book." In the 1930s he worked from memory and from his writings and drawings dating from the 1890s.

"Certainly he was a unique individual in terms of the amount he accomplished," says George Yatskievych, Conservation Department botanist and curator of Missouri plants at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. He says it's unfortunate Prince published so little.

In 1904, Prince's article on the ferns of the Marble Cave area was published in the American Fern Society's Fern Bulletin. In Galena, he discovered a new form of dandelion, Taraxacum laevigatum f. scapifolium, which was distinctive because of leaves growing on the stalk and at its top, around the base of the flower. Prince co-authored an article on it for the Kansas Academy of Science in 1938.

When Prince began listing wildflowers in 1893, not much botanical investigation was going on in southwest Missouri. In the 1920s and 1930s, researchers made rapid advances in inventories, but population growth in Stone County led to changes in the environment, and a number of plants once noted by botanists haven't been seen in recent years.

"There would have been added historical importance to the publication of his work simply as a record of a snapshot in time," says Yatskievych.

Although his caving days were past, the mysteries and challenges of Marvel Cave stayed alive for him as he worked on his cave book. "After many years of absence, I can still thrill to the memory of my adventures in this greatest of all caverns," he wrote in 1938. "...Time itself is lost in its tremendous depths." Prince died in 1949 at age 92.

He'd explored these hills inside and out, capturing on paper much of what he learned about "this curious country," as he called it. He had devoted himself to understanding one place on earth.

Fred Prince's works traveled far. In the late 1930s, his daughter Alice took most of his manuscripts east, hoping to sell them and raise money for his support.

After Alice Prince Shafer's death in Washington, D.C., in 1992, her niece, Charlotte Prince Al-Hujazi, found the cave book and some sales records from the 1960s, but no trace of several manuscripts Shafer had included on her list of the artist's works.

Still missing are 23 watercolors of butterflies and insects, which could be tucked away in institutional or private collections.

One more unsolved mystery: Several people have seen additional wildflower illustrations in Stone County since Prince's death, with the last report around 1980. Those pages have not come to light again.

There are clues to the number of wildflowers the artist may have intended to include in Rainbow in the Grass, his wildflower manuscript. Stanley Prince has his father's wildflower sketchbook, full of pencil sketches with touches of color to guide him in painting the book illustrations, and two notebooks that list 333 flowers he found. Only 230 finished illustrations are in the institutional collections.

So the question arises: Did Prince continue to paint the remaining flowers on this list after his daughter took the manuscript? That might explain the later appearance of illustrations in Stone County, but where are they now?

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