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Bernheim at 90: James W. Browne: Bringing Order to the Forest

By Bernheim

In Bernheim’s 90 year history there have been many people whose giant contributions have made this arboretum and research forest possible. Without doubt, Isaac W. Bernheim was foremost in that group but he was far from alone.  Most of the other names are not familiar to Bernheim visitors but their vision and efforts have been key in making this forest sanctuary available to us all.  It is appropriate that we look back at some of those giant contributions.  This is the third in a series of posts that hopes to highlight those efforts (click here to read part 1; click here to read part 2)

James W. Browne

Pictured third from left is James W. Browne at the Fire Tower with Isaac W. Bernheim in 1930.

James W. Browne is far from the best known figure in the history of Bernheim. There are no lakes named after him like there are for Hugh Nevin or Mac McClure and no road bears his name like Paul’s Point Loop which honors Robert Paul. He made his mark quietly but with great effectiveness in a time of critical need.

In the first decade of the work to create this forest, much was accomplished.  The most vital tracts of land were purchased, the fire tower was erected, a nursery for trees was started, work had begun on fencing the property, and a great deal more. Despite this progress, there was often a lack of direction and cohesion to the efforts.  The work force at the forest was small, often just six or so laborers.  The equipment was basic and primitive and horses were used to navigate the trails and dirt roads.  A single vehicle was available and was used to perform multiple tasks. The budget for the work was very small – a typical annual allotment for everything including payroll, tools, and all needed supplies was about $14,000.  Mr. Bernheim’s plan and the structure of the trust reserved the bulk of his financial gift for the years following his death.

Despite the notable accomplishments, the work was often in danger of coming to a halt due to a lack of effective leadership. With Isaac Bernheim residing far away from Kentucky and the Bernheim Foundation Board of Trustees meeting infrequently, the work in fulfilling Mr. Bernheim’s dream was dependent on the leadership in the forest. That leadership was sometimes ineffective and lacked continuity.  During the nine year period between the creation of the Foundation in 1929 and 1938, the work was supervised by four different chief foresters.  All had been considered highly qualified and excellent choices but problems developed in each case.  Mr. Bernheim and the Foundation Board were understandably very concerned when the last three of those had to be replaced in a two year period.  A surprising and unusual choice to lead came forward.  James Browne had worked as the Chief Bookkeeper (a position that today would likely be called Chief Financial Officer) for the Bernheim Brothers Distillery for many years and had become a trustee of the Bernheim Foundation when it was formed.  In 1938 he was serving as President of the Foundation.  On the twentieth of September of that year, he stepped down from that position and accepted the job as Forest Manager. He had no background in forestry, horticulture, road construction, landscape design, or any related field. What he did possess was a deep desire to see the project succeed, an eagerness to learn, a firm idea of the direction that the work needed to take, and a willingness to take charge. Take charge he did.

He also had the respect and trust of Isaac Bernheim and, when necessary, was willing to firmly express his objections when he believed Mr. Bernheim’s directions were poorly thought out.  During his time as Forest Manager, great progress was made. The Cedar Ponds (now renamed the Olmsted Ponds and Mac’s Lake) were constructed and in 1949, Lake Nevin was added.  Construction of the current entrance road was begun and the road leading from the arboretum to the fire tower, first planned and laid out in 1933, was finally built.  Fire roads were improved and new ones were added, the area for the arboretum was cleared and work was initiated to follow the plans developed by the Olmsted Brothers architectural landscaping firm.  His tenure continued until his death on October 2, 1949 at the age of 67. Without his strong leadership it is very likely that the forest would not have been ready to open to the public in 1950.  His selfless dedication to that goal deserves honor and respect.

In 2019, Bernheim celebrates 90 years of connecting people with nature. At over 25 square miles, Bernheim is the largest privately held forest dedicated to conservation and education in the region. Our arboretum is home to plant collections of over 8,000 varieties, public art, and educational programming for thousands of students.  Our pristine forest hosts hikers and outdoor adventures alongside research and conservation projects which will serve to protect the environment for future generations.

As a 100% member and donor supported organization, we could not fulfill this important mission without you. We hope you’ll continue to support our efforts throughout the next 90 years.  Join or donate by clicking here.

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