Hosbrook Bird Sanctuary Provides Peaceful Oasis

By Regina Villiers. Originally published May 13, 1992 in The Suburban Life, added January 15, 2014.

When Miss Nelle Hosbrook died in 1975 she realized she couldn’t take her beloved woods with her; but she took legal steps to prevent the area from ever becoming a parking lot. She willed her woods to the city of Madeira with the agreement that they remain as they were and be turned into a bird sanctuary.

Today, not quite as they were, but much the same, they stand there, a block from the business section of Madeira, a quiet monument to an unusual lady.

Miss Nelle lived on that spot for nearly a century, in a house built by her father, John A. Hosbrook. It was part of a 100-acre farm owned by her grandfather, John L. Hosbrook. Next to it was the farm of his brother, Mahlon. Mahon’s farm, a fruit farm, had something most unusual, a huge pear orchard.

Miss Nelle was born Dec. 5, 1878, one of twins. Her twin lived only one day. Miss Nelle lived to be 96, though some who knew her would insist she was 97. Even now, she would be highly incensed that we are discussing it at all, because she never told her age. Once, when someone asked her pointblank how old she was, she drew her slight figure to its tallest and fixed an icy stare on the questioner. “That’s a subject I never discuss,” she said.

Miss Nelle’s great-great grandfather, John Hosbrook, a soldier in the Revolutionary War, was one of the first settlers in Madeira.

Daniel Hosbrook, her great-grandfather, was the first teacher in Madeira. Miss Nelle also grew up to be a teacher, a teacher of music, and she became an organist of the Madeira Presbyterian Church.

Miss Nelle is a legend around Madeira, and numerous stories float about depicting her personality. Time has tempered the stories; but in truth, she was one spunky, independent woman who did as she pleased and said what she thought, to the point of bluntness.

She once would not allow a U.S. postman to come on her porch for weeks, while a Carolina wren nested in her mailbox.

She taught piano to Mrs. Virginia Perin, Starting when Mrs. Perin was 9 years old. Mrs. Perin recalls a visit from Miss Nelle after Mrs. Perin had married and had children. During the visit, Miss Nelle gave her a stern lecture about allowing her young son to play with a toy gun.

Miss Nelle was an inquisitive woman who remained interested in learning and in world events as long as she lived. In her 80s, she went to school to learn to type and even later, to learn “new math.”

She would stop in almost every day at the gift shop of good friends, Brownie and Helen Morgan, to discuss world news and issues. Once, in the late 60s or early 70s, when she would have been at least 90 years old, she asked them: “Do you think all the social and behavioral problems we’re having in the world today are sex related?”

A fiercely independent woman who wanted to do everything for herself, she was forced, in her later years, to get a cleaning woman. “I despise it,” she complained to her friends. “I can’t find anything because she puts everything where it’s supposed to be.”

But Miss Nelle had a quieter side. She knew every wildflower in her woods, and she talked to the birds. But, one woman who knew her says she’s sure the birds never talked back. “They wouldn’t have dared,” she said. “Nobody talked back to Miss Nelle.”

A wispy woman, Miss Nelle walked around her yard and her woods daily. She’d walked through the woods, carrying a cup of tea and a long pointed stick. She used the stick to pick up any stray bit of paper or trash that got tossed or blown, defiling the beauty of her woods. One of her cat companions would be trailing at her heels.

Miss Nelle loved cats. One of her cats, a female tiger named Tabby, hated men. If a man tried to enter Miss Nelle’s house, Tabby would hiss and spit, attacking the offending male around the legs.

Miss Nelle never drove or owned a car. She walked everywhere she went, or she rode the train. She was a familiar sight on the streets of Madeira, a small woman with a basket on her arm, walking home with her groceries.

Because of her foresightedness and generosity, the people of Madeira have a quiet oasis in the heart of town, where birdcalls can almost compete with the sound of traffic on Miami Avenue. Her legacy to us is the scent of wildflowers and the singing of birds.

Though the Nelle V. Hosbrook Bird and Wildflower Sanctuary seems almost perfect, it lacks some important thing—signs warning the public not to pick the wildflowers and the reinforcing of those signs.

The wildflowers have been diminishing rapidly with the addition of paths and a picnic table in the woods. Somehow, I don’t think Miss

Nelle intended that we should picnic or ride bikes in her woods. I think she left them to the birds and the Wildflowers, to remain in their natural state, unsullied.