Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

On May 31, 1966, D. S. Nace of the state Department of Forests and Waters, now the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), scrawled a note to Joe Hill of the Mont Alto Nursery, in Franklin County, and attached it to a stack of documents. “Might find something of interest in these. Don’t Destroy,” he cautioned. Those nine words ultimately proved to be an invaluable directive. This stack contained twenty-four letters, a set of lecture notes, and a ledger written by Ralph Elwood Brock (1883–1958) some fifty years earlier.

At first glance, the papers appeared to be just another set of records kept by an employee of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. However, they proved to be much more than that—they are a record of life at Mont Alto Forest Reserve for the first African American forester in the United States. According to historical sources, Brock was born in the early 1880s near the Schuylkill County seat of Pottsville, to the Reverend John C. Brock (1843–1901), of the African Methodist Episcopal (A. M. E.) Church, and Alcinda Jane (Dickson) Brock, both of whom emphasized and embraced education. Dickson was born in Virginia and Brock was a native of Carlisle, Cumberland County. The Reverend Brock, a veteran of the American Civil War, served in Company F of the 43rd Regiment, United States Colored Troops. He began his military career on April 5, 1864, as a private and was mustered out on October 20, 1865, as a quartermaster sergeant. Like many African American soldiers during the war, he dispatched letters from the battlefield to The Christian Recorder, the official newspaper of the A. M. E. Church, published in Philadelphia beginning in 1863.

Brock and Dickson married in Carlisle on Christmas Day in 1867. In addition to Ralph, they were the parents of Mary Elizabeth, William (who died in infancy), Rachel Alcinda, Maria Louisa, John Robert, and Howard Faunteroy. The family moved about southcentral and southeastern Pennsylvania for several years. A census taker in Carlisle for 1870 reported John Brock was employed as a gardener, but several sources state he was a schoolteacher in Harrisburg and nearby Steelton, Dauphin County, and Marietta, Lancaster County. The July 3, 1878, edition of the Harrisburg Daily Patriot listed him as a teacher at the city’s Eleventh Street School “for colored students.” The 1880 Census recorded the Brocks living in the capital city’s second ward, shortly after which they moved to the Chester County seat of West Chester.

In West Chester, the Reverend Brock resumed his duties as a teacher and minister. In 1891, he married a young couple, Janifer and Julia Rustin, the maternal grandparents of civil rights activist Bayard Rustin (1912–1987). Ralph Brock’s sister Maria taught English and elocution to Rustin while a student at West Chester’s Gay Street School, an all-black elementary school noted for its legendary teaching staff. The widely acclaimed PBS Point of View Series documentary Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, produced by Sam Pollard, cites Maria Brock as essentially responsible for Rustin’s command of language as well as his captivating speaking ability (see “In King’s Shadow: Bayard Rustin and the 1963 March on Washington” by William C. Kashatus, Winter 2004). She served as a principal correspondent for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), reporting on annual branch activities.

The Brock family was an integral part of the African American community in West Chester. Ralph Brock entered West Chester’s public school system but graduated from Howard High School in Wilmington, Delaware. The Association for the Moral Improvement and Education of Colored People — founded in 1866 by white clergy and business leaders to build thirty-five primary schools to educate black children — established the school in 1867, which eventually evolved into the high school. The association named the school to honor General Oliver Otis Howard (1830–1909), Civil War veteran and commissioner, from 1865 to 1874, of the U. S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. As head of the so-called Freedmen’s Bureau, Howard promoted the welfare and education of former slaves.

Ralph Brock lived in Wilmington from 1899 until his graduation in 1900. He moved in 1901 to Carlisle, his father’s last charge before the minister became ill and returned in June to his home in West Chester. He was a good student who apparently impressed Addison L. Jones (1856–1924), superintendent of West Chester’s public schools for thirty-five years, from 1889 until his death and, like the Brocks, resided on Miner Street. In late November 1901, Jones brought Brock — who had lost his father in August — to the attention of Joseph Trimble Rothrock (1839–1922), appointed the Commonwealth’s first commissioner of forestry in 1895. In his letter, Jones queried Rothrock about “a place” for the young Brock in his department.

Born in McVeytown, Mifflin County, Joseph Trimble Rothrock earned a bachelor of science degree in botany from Harvard University in 1862, enlisted in the Union Army in 1863, and saw action during the Civil War at Antietam and Fredericksburg, where he was seriously wounded. The University of Pennsylvania awarded him a doctor of medicine degree in 1867. He taught botany, worked as a surgeon, and helped establish the Wilkes-Barre Hospital in northeastern Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County. For the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania, now the Pennsylvania State University, he served as professor of botany, human anatomy, and physiology from 1867 to 1869. Although he never professed to be a forester — his credentials were those of scientist, botanist, and physician — Rothrock was closely linked to the Pennsylvania Forestry Association throughout his long career. As forestry commissioner, he advocated the purchase of lands for the State Forestry Reservations, the training of foresters for state service, the establishment of forest tree nurseries for reforestation, and the formation of a system of facilities and people to detect and extinguish forest fires.

In 1902, without government support or endorsement, Rothrock established a camp in Mont Alto State Forest to treat tuberculosis patients with a regimen of fresh air and vigorous exercise. Rothrock’s White Pine Camp, nothing more than a few crudely built shacks, evolved into the Mont Alto Sanatorium and to what is today the South Mountain Restoration Center. The state legislature appropriated eight thousand dollars in 1903 to enlarge the camp, which was moved farther east, to higher ground where the air was not as damp. Rothrock may himself have been suffering from tuberculosis — known as consumption and later as the White Plague — which decimated families and entire communities in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He stepped down as forestry commissioner in 1904 but served as a member of the State Forestry Commission until 1914, when poor health forced him to resign. He died in 1922 at the age of eighty-three.

Just two months after Jones had written him, Rothrock began corresponding with Brock and the two developed a relationship in which the commissioner served as mentor. At Rothrock’s suggestion, in April 1902, Governor William A. Stone (1846–1920) appointed Brock as student assistant forester at Mont Alto State Forest Reserve, located in a wilderness known for its abundant natural resources and beauty.

While studying at the Pennsylvania State Forest Academy, Brock worked as student superintendent of the nursery. An outstanding student, he excelled in courses in civil government, constables manuals and laws, geology, political geography, forest influences, chemistry, zoology, silviculture (the care and cultivation of forest trees), and nursery practice. He graduated from the academy with a 90.4 average, ranking second in his class. Following graduation, Brock remained at Mont Alto, where he became superintendent of the nursery. The Pennsylvania Negro Business Directory for 1910 identified him as “probably the only experienced forester of the colored race in Pennsylvania. He has spent a great deal of his time making a study of this very important question: how to preserve our forests.”

Brock supervised the nursery from September 1, 1906, until March 1, 1911. In January 1908, he married Pauline Wethers of West Chester, and the couple lived at Mont Alto until his resignation five years later. Officials highly regarded Brock, who appeared zealous and eager in both professional and personal pursuits. In a letter to Rothrock in January 1903, he requested time to work in West Chester’s African American community later that spring. “While home I noted that the important events held by members of my race at our church institutions, conferences etc. generally occurred between the middle & end of May & since most of these are controlled by men interested in & known to me by my Father.Would you think that an advisable time to go & become acquainted with them in their work & its effects.”

Brock also informed Rothrock he would be traveling to Tuskegee, Alabama, “to learn first handed the work done in the pineries and turpen- tine forests.” A historically black college, Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) would have been one of the few institutions to welcome Brock, an African American. In a letter to Robert S. Conklin, Rothrock’s successor as forestry commissioner, in November 1910, Brock requested permission to allow D. W. Ogden of Philadelphia to stay with him at Mont Alto. Dr. Ogden was an individual “of influence and position, and at present, he is a leading factor in several ‘movements’ that are of interest to my race, regarding preventative measures in Tuberculosis, and for this reason alone I should like to have him, and show him all I know regarding this open air work.” In most of Brock’s correspondence to the Department of Forestry’s administrators, he sought permission to undertake the most basic of functions and request supplies. However, some other correspondence is more of a personal nature, provoked by circumstances decidedly unsettling to his superiors.

In several letters written between 1908 and 1910, Brock addressed what appeared to be a persistent problem of poor personal finances and miscommunication. For instance, several of his personal bills had been sent to the academy instead of his residence, and administrators suspected that he might have been attempting to have his personal obligations paid by the school. “Referring to your letter to Mr. Wirt regarding some goods ordered of Wm. H. Moon & Co. by me,” he wrote to Conklin on December 6, 1908, “I desire to state that it is for some roses, hydrangras etc. that I had ordered for some parties, a relative of mine, to whom I sent the bill & several statements that were sent to me, which now I had thought paid.” In a letter to Conklin dated June 10, 1910, Brock wrote, “Mr. [Edwin A.] Ziegler [the second and last director of the academy] has just presented me with several bills to which you desire explanations, the first a telephone bill has been paid some time ago.” Brock evidently resented such questioning. “The second,” he bristled, “refers to a personal bill at the Corona [Hotel in a predominantly black neighborhood in Harrisburg], which I requested sent to me the first of every month & for which I gave my address, which to my mind appears self evident. I expect to be in Harrisburg an evening early next week on some business connected with the Masonic Home & shall pay the bill at the time. It had no business being presented to your office in the first place.”

Three months later, in a letter to Conklin written September 21, Brock explained he was informing the secretary “more fully regarding the matter referred to in a previous letter. I thought that it was my place to acquaint you fully with the arrangements that were made, while I was in a very difficult position. The arrangement that was made then has been fully adjusted by the sale of a small property here. . . . Also Mr. Conklin, I desire to make an ample apology for the concern I have given you lately. I have been in a great deal of trouble lately, some of my making & some that I am not responsible [for], all of which has worked ill for me, my color making it harder for me than another, though this is offered as no excuse on my part. Of course I know not of all that has been learned by you, but all that I know of that concern financial obligations I have met & I am now free of all debt, excepting current expense. I shall turn over my accounts to Mr. Hoerner who has always been kind & considerate towards me to further my strength in money matters. I think it is a good arrangement for me and I hope it further meets with your approval. Also I trust that even through reverses my work has been satisfactory, for I have given far the fullest benefit of my ability, without stint.” Brock added a note under the heading “Personal” at the end of his handwritten letter. “This property does not represent my entire ‘savings,’ only that part that was in a form for attachment that required Mrs. Brock’s joining in. The rest has been placed in trust some time ago.”

Historians and researchers have been unable to find definitive proof why Brock left the academy. A 1909 graduate of the academy recalled five years later, “Brock had a hard time of it for none of the boys could quite content himself being ordered around by a darky, regardless of his ability.” In letters to Irvin C. Williams, deputy commissioner of forestry early in 1911, he made clear his intentions to leave state service and join the private sector. On January 25, he asked Williams, “I desire to ask, if you have time, if you would care to give me any particular advise regarding the work I shall undertake down near West Chester, also if you would advise me whom to approach?” He added, “Dr. Rothrock will have some work through the Shade Tree Commission. I have written several men who are interested in suburban real estate operation. . . .I have learned of some of the holders of woodlands through the boys who were here helping on the Chestnut Blight Investigations” [see “Our Documentary Heritage” in this edition]. Brock also explained he intended to emphasize his work at Mont Alto in advertising.

“I am very anxious to get as much work as possible in my home section, as well as be of real service,” he informed Williams in a letter dated February 12. “Regarding the forest industry,” he continued, “I have been following closely the developments in handling orchards and it was really in that line that I intended to get a fair share of the work. I had made arrangements for securing a spraying outfit, when you mentioned it, tho I did not get a motor machine as I intend not to make any ‘bluffs’ at all, but to establish a permanent business by doing thorough work at as small a cost as possible, both to myself & those that I hope to serve. I think that this is the best method of making a sure start, and I am very anxious to make a success of it.”

While employed at Mont Alto, Brock remained involved with the African American community of West Chester, and after his resignation on March 11, 1911, he and his wife moved to West Chester, where he “engaged in landscape gardening and orcharding…most of his work is caring for suburban and country estates in the vicinity of New York City and Philadelphia.” He worked in landscaping in the West Chester and Philadelphia areas until the early 1920s, when he moved to Cleveland, Ohio. In 1928, John D. Rockefeller Jr. hired him as a gardener for the Paul Laurence Dunbar Apartments in Harlem. Rockefeller built the apartment complex, named to honor poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906), the African American poet who garnered national critical acclaim. (Dunbar’s ex-wife, poet Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar later taught at Brock’s alma mater, Wilmington’s Howard High School.) Brock worked, too, for the Rockefeller interests as a supervisor of the Radio City Gardens at Rockefeller Center. He also worked at Riverside Park, a narrow four-mile long park adjacent to the Hudson River on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. From 1944 to 1945, he worked as a part-time assistant gardener at the Harlem River Houses, a sprawling apartment complex covering nine acres erected in 1937 specifically for African Americans, the first public housing project built with federal funds, under the auspices of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Failing health forced him to retire in 1957. Brock and Pauline moved to New Jersey to be near his brother, Dr. Howard F. Brock, living in Westfield.

Ralph E. Brock died at the age of seventy-nine on December 9, 1959, at the Smith Convalescent Home in Lawnside, New Jersey. In addition to his wife and brother, survivors included his sister Maria, a son Russell T., and a grandson. He was buried in Chestnut Grove Cemetery in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Although DCNR renamed the South Mountain Seed Orchard, about two miles from Mont Alto, long a mainstay of state forest seed and seedling production, the Ralph E. Brock Seed Orchard on the forester’s birthday in 2000, his story attracted greater attention three years later, during the centennial celebration of Penn State Mont Alto. In 1929, despite bitter student and alumni opposition, the Commonwealth merged the academy and the Pennsylvania State College (now University) to create the Mont Alto campus. In 2003, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) installed a state historical marker honoring Brock at the entrance to the campus during the centennial year. (Other markers erected by the PHMC at Mont Alto commemorate the founding of the Pennsylvania State Forest Academy and George H. Wirt, its first director.) Other tributes included the creation of the Ralph E. Brock Environmental Stewardship Scholarship Fund in 2000 to benefit students at the Cornerstone Christian Academy in Philadelphia, and the planting of a tree in his honor by the Pottsville Shade Tree Commission in the city’s historic Charles Baber Cemetery on Arbor Day in 2001. Most recently, The State Museum of Pennsylvania installed a display in Ecology Hall chronicling Brock’s early career at Mont Alto.

Ralph Elwood Brock was the first African American forester in the United States. His importance lies not in his race but in his commitment to conservation and forestry, a legacy that endures far beyond the millions of trees planted under his direction. His is a story of persistence in the face of challenge, and of courage in the shadow of doubt. His life’s work — to make this world self-sustaining and beautiful — made a significant contribution to underscoring William Penn’s vision of a healthful, verdant colony, and a country life the founder succinctly described as “A Sweet and Natural Retreat from Noise and Talk, and allows opportunity for Reflection, and gives the best Subjects for it.”


Travel Tips

No matter where roads take one in the Keystone State, travelers are bound to be awed by the abundant natural beauty. Dozens of state parks, as well as state game and forest lands, national forests, recreational areas, scenic byways, wildlife preserves, habitat sanctuaries, rivers, ponds, and lakes beckon both residents and visitors with seemingly limitless opportunities to discover firsthand the majesty of Penn’s Woods. Agencies and organizations dedicated to showcasing our vast natural resources — and their efforts to conserve them — are as varied as the field of natural history itself.

The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) preserves and maintains 117 state parks (including the 23-acre Mont Alto State Park in Franklin County), manages 2.1 million acres of state forest lands (including Rothrock State Forest, named for Pennsylvania’s “Father of Forestry,” Joseph Trimble Rothrock), and provides information on the Commonwealth’s ecological and geologic resources. DCNR also establishes community conservation partnerships through grants and technical assistance to benefit rivers, trails, greenways, regional heritage parks, open space, and natural areas. For example, DCNR’s Kings Gap Environmental Education Center, consisting of 1,454 acres on South Mountain in Cumberland County, offers a panoramic view of the Cumberland Valley, sixteen miles of hiking trails, and diverse environmental education, interpretation, and awareness programs. To learn more about DCNR and the areas and programs it administers.

Founded in 1993, the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art, near Millersburg, in northern Dauphin County, fosters appreciation for the natural and cultural heritage of Pennsylvania and furthers the legacy of the nationally recognized wildlife artist, illustrator, naturalist, and writer E. Stanley “Ned” Smith (1919–1985). The center houses a gallery featuring paintings by Smith and various wildlife artists, oversees twelve miles of hiking travels, hosts monthly lectures, and offers special programs for school, youth, and community groups.

Many recognize the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy (WPC), founded in 1932, as one of the nation’s oldest and leading conservation organizations—its land stewardship, forestland conservation, and natural heritage programs are nationally recognized—but few may realize that the conservancy also administers Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural masterpiece, Fallingwater, on Bear Run, a rushing mountain stream at Mill Creek, Fayette County. Designed by Wright in 1935 for the Edgar J. Kaufmann family of Pittsburgh, Fallingwater is the architect’s only residential commission open to the public with its setting, original furnishings, and art collection intact. WPC also manages the 5,189-acre Bear Run Nature Reserve, its largest property, in Fayette County. To learn more about WPC programs and to plan a visit to Fallingwater.

Pennsylvania native Rachel Carson (1907–1964) sounded the alarm for environmental awareness with her 1962 book Silent Spring, in which she warned the public about the effects of misusing pesticides, challenged the practices of agricultural scientists and the government, and called for a change in the way humankind viewed the natural world. The Rachel Carson Homestead, a plain, five-room farmhouse in Springdale, Allegheny County, where the biologist, scientist, and writer was born and where her family lived until 1930, treats visitors to an intimate look at Carson’s world. To mark the centennial of her birth, a Spirit and Nature Conference will be held on Saturday, November 3, at Chatham University (formerly Pennsylvania College for Women), Pittsburgh, Carson’s alma mater. Workshops and panel discussions will address the reverence for nature found in world religions.


For Further Reading

DeCoster, Lester A. The Legacy of Penn’s Woods: A History of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry, 1895 to 1995. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, 1995.

Fergus, Charles. Natural Pennsylvania: Exploring the State Forest Natural Areas. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2002.

Finafrock, John L. Notes on Franklin County History. Chambersburg, Pa.: Kittochtinny Historical Society, 1942.

Gerhold, Henry D. A Century of Forest Resources Education at Penn State: Serving the Forests, Waters, Wildlife, and Wood Industries. University Park: Penn State University Press, 2007.

Hocking, Joan M., ed. Centennial Voices: The Story of Mont Alto—A Continuing Story, 1903–2003. Mont Alto, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University, 2003.

Maas, Eleanor A. Forestry Pioneer: The Life of Joseph Trimble Rothrock. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Forestry Association, 2003.

Pinkett, Harold T. Gifford Pinchot, Private and Public Forester. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970.

Rhoads, Ann Fowler, and Timothy A. Block. The Trees of Pennsylvania: A Complete Reference Guide. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.

Thomas, Elizabeth H. A History of the Pennsylvania State Forest School, 1903–1929. Mont Alto, Pa.: Pennsylvania State Forest Academy and the School Founders Society, 1985.

Thorpe, Richard R. The Crown Jewel of Pennsylvania: The State Forest System. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Forestry Association, 1997.

Yelinek, Kathryn. The History of South Mountain Restoration Center, 1901– 2001. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission for the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, 2001.


The author recognizes R. Alexander Day of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources for his foresight in heeding D. S. Nace’s 1966 instructions by preserving the Brock papers and turning them over to the Pennsylvania State Archives where they are safeguarded as part of Record Group 6, Records of the Department of Forests and Waters.


Rachel L. Jones Williams, Harrisburg, is an independent historian who recently applied her training as exhibit developer for a long-term exhibition on African Americans at The State Museum of Pennsylvania. The author is a 2006 graduate of Elizabethtown College, Elizabethtown, Lancaster County, and will continue her education in history and museum studies in the Cooperstown Graduate Program at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Oneonta.