James McConnell was an instrumental member of the National Tree Seed Laboratory, originally called the Eastern Tree Seed Laboratory, when he was appointed director in 1971. Even though he recalls the job putting him in over his head, he regarded the seedlab as a very interesting place. While he was there he oversaw what he called an “administrative monstrosity” as he had to deal with money, leases, and seed requests coming and going from a number of different sources at the same time. The seed testing process was one that, in Mr. McConnell’s words “only women can do. They have the patience, they have the agility to do it and keep up with it.” At the time, McConnell’s seed lab was one of only two accredited in the country. One of his first jobs as the director involved working to bring back customers that had been lost under the poor management that was in place before he became director. This involved a fair amount of travel as he personally went to every previous nursery that had business with them and not only regained their business, but also helped them grow their new seedlings.
Eventually, James McConnell became involved in the creating of the US Tree Seed Center that played host to a number of foreign researchers and inquiries. When he was out traveling and seeking business for the accredited seed lab, Mr. McConnell could never imagine the contacts he would make from across the globe. One day he recalls he came across a funny looking letter during his work. Much to his surprise it was from the Duke of Wellington requesting for longleaf pine see to plan at his estate. He then arranged with his boss in Atlanta to send him some seed along with a letter saying that he would be coming through London on his way to Norway in the next month. The Duke of Wellington then invited Mr. McConnell and his wife to come by and see the seedlings they had requested at their estate. Unfortunately the travel plans did not work out, but they did keep in touch long enough for the Duke to question why the seeds were coming up like grass. Mr. McConnell assured him that that was just how they grew and that they were doing just fine. “When pine seedling comes up it looks like a pine, this looks like a clump of grass, longleaf does.”
Among James McConnell’s many jobs, one involved working under the Mississippi River and Tributary survey in the Atchafalaya Basin of Louisiana, as seen above. His job was to document just what was in this area, as no one really knew this exactly up to this point. This job first involved many maps and compasses to measure just where he was in the surveyed area, and then culminated in a “cruise,” or a documentation of the different types of vegetation, soil, tree types, and many other things that were on the list of things the core engineers wanted to know about the area. These areas were typically measured in “tenth acre plots,” which meant workers, such as Mr. McConnell, would use a large walking stick and measure out in different directions to define the areas they would work in. Mr. McConnell enjoyed doing this type of work, but admitted that being alone in the forest made the job tiresome, remarking that today this type of individual work wouldn’t be allowed unless they knew exactly where they were. “Nobody ever knew where I was, except me, and sometimes I didn’t know, recalls Mr. McConnell with a laugh.
He had many interesting encounters in his times carrying out this work, his most frightening probably being his close encounter with a creek bed full of cotton mouth snakes. He had stopped at the edge of the creek bed during one of his measurements and was caught by surprise by the unwanted visitors. “Honest to goodness, I cannot remember getting out of there. I think I must have flew. I think I must have just jumped up and flew.” Another more common encounter in the forest was that of old remnants of people who had lived on the land, including handmade headstones, full cemeteries, and foundations of houses. Mr. McConnell could easily use his knowledge of vegetation, such as walnut trees specifically the black walnut, to know that houses had been there. Concrete blocks were also a more obvious giveaway of human life, along with old wells or a forgotten road running through the trees.
A Christmas Cactus our group received from Mr. and Mrs. McConnell.
Maps of Region 8 owned by Mr. James McConnell.
The second picture shows Cordsville, an area in which Mr. McConnell worked during his time in the Forest Service.
[Ally and I (Clare), interviewed Mr. McConnell and his wife at his home in Lilburn, GA. We talked on his sun porch and discussed the different jobs he had throughout his career. It was a nice, quiet atmosphere making it easy to do transcriptions from the recorder.]
As soon as James, or Jim, McConnell finished his degree in Forest Management at Louisiana State University, it was time to get to work. He started his first job in 1956 on the Catahoula Ranger District at the Kisatchie National Forest in Louisiana. While supervising a work crew, McConnell was simultaneously learning the ropes himself. “The Ranger gave me a copy of the FS manual and said to read it 30 minutes a day. Then he would ask questions,” says McConnell.
Over the course of a career spanning 36 years, McConnell worked and lived in Louisiana, Germany (while in the army), Mississippi, South Carolina, and lastly, Georgia, where he retired in 1993.