By Dana Stubbs – Special to the Navarro County Gazette
As a young girl growing up in an affluent Corsicana home at the turn of the twentieth century, Martha Conger Neblett was known as a “small, fiery young lady.” “Connie,” as she was called by her friends, entertained audiences wherever she was featured to sing or play the piano.
Both her parents were intellectuals who taught their children to enjoy music, literature, art, nature, and history. Each parent had definite plans for Connie. Her mother, Mattie, taught Connie to be a lady – no other future was thinkable for a daughter. Connie learned to exercise the social graces, to entertain, to be agreeable to gentlemen, to embroider, dance, and sing; to recite verses for company at an early age, and later, to read poetry for parlor gatherings. Corsicana’s Judge Bob Neblett, her father, proposed to develop her mind; above all his children must be able to think.
As little Connie grew, it became apparent she was not going to be the gracious little girl of her mother’s dreams. However, she was the delight of her father as a tomboy daughter who climbed trees almost as soon as she learned to walked. She loved to lay flat on the ground and she teased antlions – “Doodlebug, doodlebug, your house is on fire.”
Hand in hand for hours on end, Connie and her father strolled their big, shady yard on West Third Avenue in late afternoons of spring and summer. He had made birdbaths from sections of gutter pipe, and it please him to introduce his daughter to their patrons. He told Connie about the Texas mockingbird, the greatest singer in the world. He instructed her about the special native bird of paradise. He told her some call the flycatcher a Scissortail, but in Texas it was called Bird Of Paradise. Connie believed it. The exquisite flush of coral under the wings, the pearly head, the magnificent tail – it was always her favorite.
The nature loving father told his daughter how the mourning dove got its name from its sad call and gentle spirit. On the other hand she learned the blue jay was a cocky fellow. Her father told her how some people did not like the Jay’s thieving, arrogant ways, but he always had on a handsome coat of blue.
On Sundays, Judge Neblett drove the family out into the Navarro County countryside. He stopped along the way to point out native trees, shrubs and wild flowers. However, in April their outings were made specifically to view miles and miles of Texas bluebonnets. Sometimes the State Flower would be set off by patches of Indian paintbrushes, winecups, daisies and prickly poppies and were always enjoyed by the Neblett family.
As a young lady, Connie studied voice and piano at Forest Park College in Saint Louis and took postgraduate music at the University of Chicago and the American Conservatory. As a music teacher her pupils respected her as a warm and caring instructor.
In 1918, she was married to Lynn D. Brooks, but soon after the marriage she was granted a divorce and was restored to her maiden name.
Her father’s early teachings gave Connie the love of nature she carried with her throughout her life.
She became known as the Texas bird lady. After World War I, she became a bird bander for the United States Biological Survey. In 1926, she married Jack Hagar, a Bostonian who had come to Texas because of his interests in oil and real estate. The couple had no children. In 1935, they moved to the coast.
She spent the rest of her life as an amateur bird-watcher in Rockport and gained the respect of professional ornithologists in Europe and the United States. She added over twenty new species to the list of Texas birds and was the first person to report numerous species of migratory birds, including several that were thought to be extinct.
Over the years Connie spoke to numerous schoolchildren, garden clubs, and other groups, and she kept detailed notebooks. Her observations were published in several ornithological journals, and her work brought amateur and professional birders to the Gulf Coast from throughout the world.
One of the highlights of her life was in 1956 as she was photographed for Life Magazine.
Connie was a member of the Rockport Women’s Club, The Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs, the Texas Ornithological Society and the American Ornithologists’ Union. She received a special citation in 1962 from the National Audubon Society, which convened in Corpus Christi that year largely to be near Rockport’s flyways and to allow the seventy-six-year-old “bird lady” to attend.
The beloved bird watching native Corsicanan died on November 24, 1973, in Corpus Christi, after two years of hospitalization and blindness. She was buried at Rockport Cemetery in a spot overlooking the bayfront named in her honor: Conger Hagar Wildlife Sanctuary.