By Jan Lawrence
Editor’s note: Lawrence is the chairperson for the Dry Ridge Museum in Weaverville.
John Simpson Cairns was the second son of immigrants. His father, John Cairns, along with John’s wife, Agnes Simpson Cairns, was born and married in Scotland. John Simpson came with the family from Massachusetts to Haw Creek in Buncombe County in 1870 and on to Weaverville in 1879 to establish a woolen mill on Reems Creek.
John Cairns was trained as a weaver in Massachusetts. His son, John Simpson, was eight years old when the Reems Creek Woolen Mill was established on Reems Creek where the old Weaverville Mill Company Restaurant building is today.
John Simpson attended elementary school in Weaverville where he developed into a voracious reader and an inattentive student whose mind rarely seemed to be in the classroom and more often in the great outdoors. At an early age, he was an avid naturalist with a talent for taxidermy. He constructed traps to catch field mice, skinned them and preserved their skins.
He caught insects and mounted them on cardboard, selling them to neighbors. He saved his money and purchased a gun, much to his parents’ dismay. He was familiar with firearms and used them most of his life, an interest that led to his death.
He attended Weaverville College for a couple of semesters when he was eighteen years old, but he was not very successful because of the pull of the woods over the lure of book learning. He worked for a while in his father’s woolen mill, but he was often absent for two or three days at a time…in the woods.
His parents who were hard-working people could not understand their son. They felt like it would be much more profitable if he would devote all his time to the mill instead of to his hobby of collecting things from nature. Both of his parents worried about him when he spent time on long hikes in the mountains. However, he was not strange or stupid although he probably puzzled many hometown folks. He knew exactly what he was doing. As he roamed the mountains, he watched and learned and kept accurate records.
Slowly he gained prominence as an expert on birds and was able to sell bird skins and eggs to museums, schools and other scientists. He often was contacted and consulted for information on ornithology and was soon writing articles accepted and published in scholarly journals, all without a formal education. He established a close relationship with some members of the faculty at Trinity College, which later became Duke University. Some of his specimens were sent to Harvard and the Smithsonian.
Slowly, he established a reputation for complete accuracy and honesty. In a tribute to him written several years after his death, it was said: “John [Simposon] Cairns was authentic. He never claimed to have seen a bird for which he could not produce a skin.” Today it is rare for an ornithologist to kill a bird. The bird, instead, is captured by photography and its call tape recorded. In the course of his work, Cairns used a gun daily. He was an excellent marksman and, it was said, “absolutely fearless with a gun.”
Cairns sold many of the skins and eggs he collected; however, he began in his early 20s his own private collection, adding the best and rarest as long as he lived and refusing to sell it. On October 10, 1888, he married Lena Creasman of Haw Creek. They had two children, John Frank Cairns born in 1890 and Jeannie Lillian Cairns born in 1892.
On June 10, 1895, Cairns and six other people set out from Weaverville in a wagon, bound for Black Mountain. For the rest it was to be a pleasant camping trip in the forest; for Cairns, it was an expedition to get a rare specimen of a raven he had long pursued. Cairns’ wife and children were on the trip along with his sister Agnes Simpson Cairns (who later married James Henderson Wright), Zebulon Vance Weaver who later became a congressman and Sarah “Sally” Coleman who later became the second wife of O’Henry.
They made camp and Cairns set out in pursuit of the raven, agreeing to return by 6 pm. When he had not returned by 7 pm, the others started an all-night search that was not successful. The next morning they got help and sent out search parties again. About 11 am, one of the search parties found him, dead from a gunshot wound.
Witnesses who inspected the scene came to the conclusion that sometime during the previous afternoon Cairns had spotted an unusual clump of moss high up on a tree trunk. He evidently tried to dislodge the moss with the butt of the gun when the gun discharged. It took 15 hours to return his body to Weaverville.
Although the significance of his death and the magnitude of his scientific success was apparently not appreciated in Asheville, it was by many of the leading journals of the day. Shortly after his death, his widow, burdened financially and with two small children, sold his private collection of bird skins and eggs to Dr. Foster A. Sondley, the lawyer-historian of Buncombe County.
The collection became the property of the city of Asheville when Dr. Sondley, died along with thousands of rare books and other artifacts. It was housed in corners of Pack Library in glass display cases. When Cairns lived, few of his friends really understood what he was accomplishing but in his own quiet way, John S. Cairns , the “Bird Man of Buncombe County” was creating knowledge.