Looking Back: Mysteries with the bird displays

Published 9:10 am Saturday, August 30, 2008

There are displays of mounted birds, large and small, now at several locations in Albert Lea. For many of these birds, preserved for future use by a taxidermist, the origin is with a college that was a part of local life about a century ago.

Roger Lonning, retired educator and media specialist at Albert Lea High School, said he tried to find the name of the local taxidermist who prepared the dead birds to make them appear lifelike. And here’s the first mystery involved with this legacy from the past.

Lonning added that it’s his understanding that this taxidermist had a daughter attending Albert Lea College for Women sometime after the start of the 20th century. He evidently donated the large collection of area birds to the college for use in biological education. Here, the second mystery is based on the name of his daughter.

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In 1909 the Presbyterian-sponsored women’s college on what was then North Pearl Street (now Abbott Street) expanded with the addition of the Cargill Science Hall. This building became the location for the college’s collection of birds.

The Albert Lea College for Women ceased operations in 1916 and the buildings were mostly unused for a few years. In 1918 the Cargill building became a temporary hospital during an influenza epidemic. Then, about 1922, the former college campus was taken over by the local public school system.

The name of the Cargill Science Hall was changed to Abbott Elementary School. What had been the college’s main building across the street was torn down in 1924 and later replaced with the high school’s athletic field. By 1986 this area became the present Lakeview Elementary School.

Lonning said the smaller birds were moved to Albert Lea High School sometime after the purchase of the former Cargill building. A slight mystery could be based on whether their original display cases were also moved from one building to the other. Lonning says these display cases likely came from the college. Some of the larger birds, like the whooping crane, were taken to the attic of the Abbott School and placed in storage.

In April 1966 the Abbott School building was damaged by fire. Fortunately, the stuffed birds stored in the attic weren’t damaged. However, they were covered with soot and several decades of dust.

Before the Abbott School building was remodeled into the present apartment structure, the Freeborn County Historical Society became aware of the large number of preserved birds stored in the attic.

Lonning said Leighton A. “Skipper” Berg really wanted those birds for a future exhibit at the museum. Thus, Lonning, Berg and Bidney Bergie moved all the birds out of the Abbott building.

Many of the birds had very poor appearances because of the soot and dust. Those birds were sent to the Science Museum in Minneapolis for careful cleaning and restoration and returned to Albert Lea.

The museum’s four display cases were made by a local contractor named Christian “Chris” Nelson, a Danish immigrant. Lonning said the glass for the display cases came from the old junior high portion of what was once called the “Central” school as a result of a remodeling project.

The backgrounds based on nature scenes were painted by Lloyd Herfindahl in February 1975. This aspect of Herfindahl’s contribution to local art represent still another, and sometimes overlooked, facet of his talent.

The three display cases, plus several separate eagles and owls, were moved from the old high school facing Central Park to the present high school building on Tiger Lane in 2000. These birds are now in the biology classrooms.

In 2005 the museum made a permanent loan of three of their display cases, plus a number of birds, to the Audubon Science Center at the Skyline Plaza. This action came about as a result of several revisions made to the museum’s exhibit area. (There are also several larger birds perched above some of the museum’s display cases.

The Audubon’s three cases are inside the center. A large birds window display facing the court is a separate exhibit.

Al Batt said many of the birds in the three display cases, plus the exterior exhibit, are from the museum, plus some of the smaller birds that he has donated to the center.

Thus, the original birds donated to the Albert Lea College for Women by a now unknown taxidermist about a century ago are now at three locations in the city. Through the years other birds have been donated or purchased for the present displays. As a result, there could be a mystery factor as to which are the original birds and which are the birds added in later years.