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The Vedder Museum & Menagerie


Dr. John J. Vedder standing on corner of Bay and Treasury ca. 1894
[source: Shorpy's Historical Photo Archive]

A Brief Introduction

I must admit that I have thrown this webpage together driven partially by family interest as I am a direct descendant of Dr. John Vedder. I did realize though, that as I was compiling this information out of interest for my family, that it would be neat to have everything in one place for people who have a general interest in St. Augustine to have something beyond simply secondary hearsay information.

Doctor John Vedder and the Vedder Family in St. Augustine

John Vedder was born in Schenectady, New York, on July 22, 1819. He came from an old Dutch family that were among the earliest settlers of what was then called New Amsterdam. His father, John I. Vedder, was a blacksmith and farmer who spent his entire life in Schenectady. Dr. John's father was one of six sons born to Johannes Harmanus Vedder, a Revolutionary War veteran. Dr. John's mother Mary Brouwer Vedder died in 1827 when he was only eight years old and his father remarried shortly afterwards. This death was a terrible shock to the young child, as he was particularly close to his mother.

Dr. John was only 12 years old when the first steam locomotive in regular service in the United States, the DeWitt Clinton, made its first run from Albany to Schenectady. It placed central New York at the forefront of modern technology at the time. This clearly had an effect on him, as he left his hometown to work with the Syracuse and Utica Railroad, which began operations in 1839. Starting off as a mechanic, he eventually worked his way up to actually operating the trains themselves.

How long he actually worked for the railroad is not clear. By 1860, he was involved in the mercantile business. According to family stories, he was a very astute investor, as he bought as many S&U stock as he could lay his hands on. The S&U was among the railroads consolidated into what became known as the New York Central. This story has not been validated, however. What has been validated is the fact he married rather well. His first marriage was to Eleanor James, the sole heiress of a respectable Welsh merchant family from Utica. Following her death in 1851, Dr. John married again to Mary Adams, who was the daughter of another well-to-do merchant family in Utica. From his first marriage, Dr. John had two sons who survived into adulthood; from the second he had two sons and a daughter.

So how does Dr. John Vedder go from being the head of a household with five children and a wife in New York to living on his own and operating a dentist office and zoo in St. Augustine, Florida? The key to this would be his uncle, Dr. Elihu Vedder, Sr., the father of the world renowned painter.

Who Wants to be a Dentist?

Dentistry seems to have been a family business amongst the Vedders. The first dentist of the family was Dr. Elihu Vedder. He married Elizabeth Vedder, a distant cousin, and had two sons with her. Ever on the lookout for a new business opportunity, Dr. Elihu and his wife relocated to Matanzas, Cuba, circa 1840. They left their two sons behind in boarding schools, and from this time until they reached adulthood, the younger Elihu and his brother spent most of their lives shuffling between relatives and schools. The death of Elizabeth Vedder in 1852 was a tremendously traumatic event. She was particularly outspoken in her support of the younger Elihu's pursuit of art, and it was owing largely to her that Elihu, Jr., received formal art training. Dr. Elihu's second marriage was to Caroline Smith, whom Elihu, Jr. referred to as "Mamita."

One of the enduring mysteries of Dr. John Vedder was whether or not he was actually a doctor at all. Dentistry, much like the medical profession at the time, had much lower professional standards. By the 1860s, although dentistry was well on its way to transitioning from a trade to a profession, there were still many loopholes and little to no regulation enforcement. What is known is that Dr. John's oldest son Daniel James Vedder was a fully certified graduate of the Union College dental program. Dr. John later stated that he picked up the profession from reading up on the subject, likely picking up books assigned to his son from Union College. By the late 1860s, Dr. John actually lived in Matanzas, Cuba, with his uncle, possibly working as an apprentice. He would remain in Cuba with Dr. Elihu for much of the 1870s. Daniel James Vedder also spent time there, likely joining in the family practice.

Dr. Elihu, who went by the name Elijio Vedder while living in Cuba, might have spent the remainder of his life there were it not for political situations. There was a failed revolution which took place in Cuba at the time, and although it was unclear exactly what role Dr. Elihu played in it, he was exiled from the island by Spanish authorities in 1876. After a very difficult journey to Key West in which he nearly died from illness, he joined his second wife's relatives in the town of St. Augustine. He purchased a portion of land from the old Fairbanks home in the North City area of St. Augustine.

The exact date of Dr. John's residency in St. Augustine, like many details of his life, is not known. The first evidence of his presence in St. Augustine is from court records of his divorce from his second wife Mary in 1877. He is also mentioned in a letter written by Dr. Elihu Vedder to his son as spending considerable time hunting and fishing in the St. Augustine area in 1879.

The Scalawag

For all intents and purposes, Dr. John came into the city with the full intention of running a dental practice. He purchased a Spanish colonial building likely somewhere in the vicinity of the St. Augustine Cathedral. The painting titled "Vedder Corner" by Frank Henry Shapleigh, dated 1888, shows what was likely the original building. Vedder was an avid collector of natural specimens and began displaying these specimens in his office. He quickly realized that people took more of an interest in his natural history collection than in his dental practice. Sensing a business opportunity, he expanded his displays, bringing in live animals such as rattlesnakes, and began charging admission. He also sold live animals. This 1883 article references baby alligators acquired from Vedder by Cornell University. There are at least four alligator specimens in the Cornell University collections acquired from Vedder. And so for a brief period in the 1880s, he ran an unusual double business of a dental office and a zoo out of the building. By the mid 1880s, it was clear where the business was and he retired from dentistry to focus fulltime on natural history.

To push his museum and menagerie, Dr. John's penchant for promotion drew a tremendous amount of attention. He was always careful to address himself as "Doctor" despite the dubious circumstances of his entry into dentistry. He promoted himself heavily as an expert in the field of Florida's natural history. He was portrayed as a genteel old widower although in actuality he was a divorcee. He even sought to gain affirmation from professional railroad engineers associations of his oft-repeated claim of being the oldest living railroad engineer in the United States. In a letter to his wife written during one of his visits to St. Augustine, Elihu, Jr., described Dr. John as a "scalawag." Nonetheless, the crowds ate it up and Dr. John quickly became a local celebrity. His museum became the go-to place for many of the oddities found in St. Augustine, including specimens of the legendary St. Augustine Monster and a large shark caught by Thomas Edison with an electrified fishing reel. Due to his habit of leaving the building unattended at night, the rattlesnakes he kept in wooden boxes kept escaping into neighbors' yards. After repeated complaints, he eventually shut down the zoo and focused exclusively on the natural history museum.

In April 1887, a fire swept through downtown St. Augustine that hit a number of buildings, including the St. Augustine Cathedral and Vedder's Museum. The fire resulted in a complete loss of the original Vedder museum building, but he was able to salvage much of his collection. By 1888, he was set up in the old Spanish Treasury building at the corner of Bay and Treasury streets. In an article that appeared in an 1888 edition of the Boston Medical Journal, the author referenced the museum shortly after its relocation:

Among the buildings burned were one or two which will be missed - particularly "Doctor" Vedder's museum, which together with some fine specimens of the crotalus horridus, was completely destroyed. The old gentleman has found a new location for his treasures near the yacht club, and seems to be enjoying a fresh era of prosperity. The greater portion of his collection was saved, including the fine old snake who always shows his resentment of the near approach of strangers by sounding his rattles - thereby offering a capital opportunity to one wishing to learn to distinguish the difference between their distinctly intermittent vibration and the continuous hum of the locust. The crane whose loss of a leg has been artfully supplemented by a wooden contrivance (thereby giving him while in motion the appearance of being in his cups) was also rescued, together with the pet pelican, and are to be seen in the flesh on payment of the usual price of admission.

Running a Tourist Operation

The timing of his museum's emergence as a popular tourist destination proved fortuitous. In 1888, Henry Flagler built the Hotel Ponce de Leon and extended the rail lines from Jacksonville to St. Augustine. The new hotel was a sensation. Suddenly people from all over the country were arriving for the winter. They were also bringing back stories of the city to their hometowns, including Dr. Vedder's Museum. By the early 1890s, Dr. John's name appeared in newspapers and magazines across the country. Seeing an opportunity, he took the show on the road. He displayed traveling exhibits in at least two cities, San Francisco and Utica, New York. The extensiveness of this road tour is unknown, however.

The museum remained one of the most successful tourist destinations in the city throughout the 1890s. There were some challenges, including the 1887 fire, but despite this, the museum thrived. Upon Dr. John's death in 1899, his museum building and collection was given over to the St. Augustine Historical Society, forming the first permanent repository and collection of the group. What was left of his live animal collection was given over to the Bronx Zoo in New York. The building burned completely down in 1917, and not much is left from the Vedder Collection aside from an inventory of items given over to the Society. The specimens he donated to Cornell remain the only known remnants of his collection.

Anyway, without much further ado, I present to you a list of primary sources I have found along the way of the Vedder Museum:

Publications

Don't Fail to See Dr. Vedder's Collection of Creation in Florida: page 1 page 2
Undated pamphlet printed by SF Hall in Jacksonville

Advertisements

Museum- Dr. John Vedder has on Exhibition...

In January of 1878, Dr. Vedder conducted a traveling exhibit in the city of Utica featuring collections of animals he compiled while in Florida. This advertisement ran in at least two editions of the Utica Morning Herald

Vedder's Genuine Curiosity Store Advertisement in the 1886 St. Augustine City Directory
Visit Dr. J. Vedder's Museum and Menagerie Advertisement in The Standard Guide St. Augustine by Charles B. Reynolds, published 1896.

Articles

Untitled Article from Cornell Daily Sun dated 2 Nov 1883
Edison's Electric Shark Hunt Article from The Omaha Daily Bee dated 8 Apr 1884 detailing the electrocution of a 700 lb "Demon Shark"
A Florida Museum Article from Forest and Stream dated 14 Jan 1886
Unofficial Log of the Stella Article from Forest and Stream dated 24 Mar 1887
Letter from St. Augustine, Florida Published letter dated 25 Feb 1888 from the 8 Mar 1888 edition of the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal
Uticans in Florida Article from Utica Daily Observer dated 2 Apr 1889
Floridian Monsters Article from the San Francisco Chronicle dated 22 Oct 1889
The Habits of the Rattlesnake Article from Forest and Stream dated 18 Aug 1892
Letter to the Editor Article from Field and Stream dated 17 Mar 1894
The Animal World Chicago Inter-Ocean article 29 Dec 1895
Dr. John J. Vedder biography Article from the National Police Gazette dated 27 Apr 1896(portrait from article)
Remarkable Old Man Article from The Middletown [NY] Daily Argus dated 18 Sep 1896
Curious Rattlesnake Poisoning Article from Forest and Stream dated 13 Feb 1897
"Dr. Vedder's Escape Narrow" Article from The Florida Times-Union dated 26 May 1897
"Floridiana" Article from The Florida Agriculturalist dated 27 Jul 1898
Excerpt from the Fourth Annual Report of the New York Zoological Society (1900) (source: Google Books)
The Mysterious Bird Letter written by Fred Vedder, grandson of Dr. John Vedder ca. 1940

Artwork

"Vedder Corner", painting by Frank Henry Shapleigh, dated 1888

Photographs

Photograph of Two African American children in front of Vedder Museum
Photo of Dr. John Vedder standing in front of Treasury Street ca. 1894 (source: Shorpy Historical Photo Archive)
Photo of Vedder Museum after SAHS takeover
Rollins College photo of Vedder Museum
Hand-tinted postcard photo[from Florida Memory Project]
Vedder Museum, circa 1907 (From University of Wisconsin Archives)
The Seawall , St. Augustine (Vedder Museum on far left)[from Florida Memory Project]
Sketch of Treasury Street (corner of Vedder Museum on right)
Two black men on Treasury Street ca. 1880s (window from Vedder Building on right)
Hand-tinted postcard of Treasury Street (Vedder Museum on right)
Another hand-tinted postcard of Treasury Street (Vedder Museum on right)
1890s postcard photograph of Treasury Street (notice the D on the building to the right)