Owen Bryant: Our “Beetle Man” in Montara, Part II

At the California Academy of Sciences, amateur entomologist Owen Bryant met Dr. Blaisdell, a Stanford doctor and insect expert who named some of Bryant’s beetles. Owen also befriended Hugh B. Leech, the Associate Curator of Entomology, and the man who would write Bryant’s obituary in 1958.

These were the experts who attracted the beetleman Owen Bryant and the reason he moved into the old Montara schoolhouse—so he could live close to the Academy located in Golden Gate Park.

When Owen and Lucy Bryant moved to Montara, lthey also purchased two building lots in the El Granada Highlands. Owen believed they might have oil beneath them as he had seen oil operations nearby. At any rate he had a special understanding of the petroleum business.

Dr. Ross suggested that oil was the source of Owen’s income. He was the president of the Calgary, Alberta-based Bryant Oil Company, and, while not rich, income from the venture sustained his lifestyle, enabling him to pursue his bug interests.

“He had a dictatorial father,” Ross told me four years ago. “I believe his father wanted to send poor Owen—who was basically a bug collector—to school to become a doctor.”

Owen Bryant, who was born in Brookline, Mass. In 1882, attended Harvard, but according to his correspondence stored at the Academy, he did poorly in English courses, failing four times. He repeated the class until the sympathetic instructor passed him so that he could enter medical school as his father wished. He graduated from Harved in 1904 and spent three unhappy years attending medical school.

As soon as summer break came, the naturalist in Owen prevailed, and he was off to the Bahamas, Newfoundland, Labrador and Java collecting birds, mammals, reptiles, seashells—and his beloved insects.

Then, in 1908, Owen’s father died and he was free, and that meant the end of his medical career.

Clearly Owen had enough income to become a gentleman collector. But he was scarred by the frustration of being forced into the medical education he did not want and the trauma of the failed English classes.

In 1939, in response to an “anniversary survey” from Harvard College, an angry Owen responded:

“I have made it my business to avoid business and professional relations of each and every sort,” he wrote, “but have had the misfortune to be n ot quite able to keep out of the clutches of the legal and medical professions.”

In discussing his lifelong commitment to observing insects, he sarcastically wrote: “My hobby is the same one I have been engaged in most of my time for the last sixteen years, the puerile one of catching bugs, presumably begun then because I entered my ‘second childhood’ at that time.”

When reporting public service activities, Owen ridiculed the question by snipping that he had “trapped one pack rat and four mice.”

These were the words of an embittered man.

But the years smoothed Owen’s rough edges. In 1954, now living in Montara, he was again asked to respond to another Harvard College survey. This time Owen’s anger was gone. He matter-of-factly cataloged his affiliations and accomplishments, dryly observing that he was “still at it”, that is collecting his insects.

The passage of time and Owen’s pleasant relationship with the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco were surely responsible for his mellowing—but he never recovered from the trauma of flunking English classes at Harvard. That horrid experience blocked Owen from ever becoming a bona fide scientist. He believed he could not write well enough to author the all-important papers that were required.

For his entire life as a collector, he never could do the writing himself. It was always up to others. Someone had to correct his grammar and someone had to do the typing and someone had to address the letters to the appropriate person. The problem was solved when he married Lucy McBride in 1932. She was a competent secretary who helped her husband deal with all of his deficiencies.

Owen and Lucy were a good match.

Photo: Lucy McBride Bryant, Special Collections/California Academy of Sciences

In his correspondence, Owen recounted that wife Lucy was a scrapper. He told of one incident when she faced up to water officials in Montara, claiming that the Bryants were not getting their proper amount of water. In spite of the bureaucracy, she prevailed.

In 1957, Lucy McBride died. Her death hit Owen very hard and he became morose. He gave a treasured insect storage case to Paul Arnaud, an acquaintance from Redwood City. The old Owen would never have parted with his equipment but it was clear that even his precious bugs could no longer hold his interest.

On October 26, 1958, the 76-year-old amateur entomologist Owen Bryant passed on. He left his entire estate to the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. The estate included the Montara Grammar School, the El Granada Highlands building lots, boxes of correspondence, photos—and, of course, his beloved insect collection.

(The property was sold but the correspondence, photos and insects remain as part of the California Academy of Science’s collection).

Dr. Ross recalls revisiting the Montara schoolhouse shortly after Owen Bryant’s death. He was very moved when he saw Owen’s family photographs strewn across the cover of the king-size bed in the bedroom/classroom.

Perhaps Owen Bryant had been studying those photos, reviewing his own life.

“The Bryants were gypsies of a sort,” Dr. Ross reflected. “Both liked that life and they would not have lived long in that schoolhouse. One day they would have gotten itchy feet, and said, “Let’s go to Costa Rica. The insects are good down there.”

Owen Bryant: Our “Beetle Man” in Montara, Part I

At left: Owen Bryant (Special Collections/California Academy of Sciences)

In an earlier post I wrote a tribute to Richard Schellen, the wonderful Redwood City librarian, now gone, not only makes researching Coastside history fun …- sometimes he turns it into one of those special “Eureka!” moments.

A while back, I had one of those lucky experiences.

While flipping through the Schellen Collection, I was zeroing in on Montara, when I became fascinated with a 1958 obituary. The subject was Owen Bryant, an amateur entomologist, who resided with wife, Lucy, and their collection of 200,000 mounted insects in Montara’s historic two-story schoolhouse.

Wow! A bug collector in the old grammar school? I had to know more.

This is how it worked: The Schellen Collection steered me to the original newspaper article with the complete obit– and the Eureka! I needed to further my research: Owen Bryant had nurtured a close relationship with the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

A phone call later, I learned that the Academy of Sciences had it all.

Four years ago, on a rainy winter afternoon, I sat in the curator’s offices, looking through several boxes of Owen Bryant biographical info. I also met Dr. Edward S. Ross, then the 86-year-old curator-emeritus of entomology. He had been with the Academy since 1939, an expert in 300,000 species of insects, but he was even more famous as a “close-up” photographer. The walls of his office were covered with the extraordinary pictures of people, places and wildlife that had been published in college textbooks and National Geographic.

In the early 1950s, Dr. Ross visited the Bryants at Montara, followed by dinner “at the restaurant (Frank’s) on the nearby beach”. Ross clearly remembered seeing the bell towers of the two-story Montara Grammar School from Highway 1.

Ross remarked that the 60-x90-foot former schoolhouse had been converted into an unusual residence. On the first floor Owen and Lucy used a classroom as a bedroom—pushing their king-size bed up against the blackboard. One of the few things that brightened the surroundings was a museum quality of Mt. Resplendent in the Canadian Rockies. There were many boxes yet to be unpacked, including some containing Lucy’s inherited silver.

None of Owen’s prized insects could be seen on the first floor—although upstairs there was a “bug room”, office and library shelves overflowing with naturalist’s books bounds in fine Moroccan leather and gold tooling.

Photo at left: During the 1950s Montara Schoolhouse was home to the Bryants.

Did the reclusive Owen and his vivacious wife, Lucy, find Montara dull—insect-wise? They had just come from a favorite bug-hunting area on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona. Insect collecting was outstanding there at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains—especially during Arizona’s rainy “monsoon” season when there was a great burst of life in the desert at night. The wind was soft, the flowers were fragrant and it was “gangbusters” for beetle hunters. Owen, wearing bug-collecting gear, and armed with a stick, beat the bushes, overturning stones to unearth his prized insects.

“Owen had a great time in Arizona,” Dr. Ross told me. “From moment to moment he didn’t know what kind of beetle was going to bounce in. It was like manna from heaven. Most people would say, ‘Ugh!’ Owen Bryant said, “Ahh!”

Before settling down in Montara, Owen hadn’t stayed put for very long. He and Lucy were rootless, always moving from one place to the next: Alaska, Banff, Canada, Steamboat Springs, If anyone wanted to locate the Bryants, all they had to do was find out where the beetles were flourishing and Owen and Lucy would be there.

Dr. Ross said that Owen Bryant had moved to Montara “to be near the Academy. He came up here once a week with boxes of things.”

Owen needed the experts at the Academy of Sciences to identify his insect specimens. Sometimes he brought in a beetle that had never been seen before and the scientists named it.

Beetles were Owen’s greatest interest and by 1950 he had donated 38, 530 specimens. Ross pointed out that many accomplished people were amateur collectors of insects. Charles Darwin, for example, was fascinated with beetles because of their tremendous diversity.

At the Academy Owen Bryant found more than expert entomologists; he forged enduring relationships with the scientists and the institution.

Dr. Edward Van Dyke, who had been there since the early 1900s “was a famous beetle person,” Ross said, “an M.D. who practiced medicine but his real passion was the bug collection he kept in the back office. Whenever the patients weren’t around, Van Dyke was in the back room.”

…To Be Continued