The story of this ornithological teaching collection goes back roughly 130 years to the mid-1880s, when a couple of Addison County teenagers, Chester Parkhill and Albert Mead, became interested in local birds. They were bird fans—that was the term back then, bird fans—not birders or bird-watchers—and the way people observed birds in the late-19th century was you see a bird, you shoot it, you observe it. It was barbaric by our contemporary standards, obviously, but that was the custom.
When Parkhill and Mead were in high school, a College senior named Frank Knowlton came to their biology class to demonstrate skinning and mounting birds. The two were hooked and subsequently enlisted Knowlton to give them private tutorials. Over the next several years—Mead enrolled at Middlebury, while Parkhill stayed home to tend the family farm—they amassed a considerable collection. The skins were well preserved, and their labeling—the precision, the artistry—was done to exacting standards and is an example of museum-quality craft.
Tragically, Parkhill died at a young age. His sister left his entire collection to Mead, and then, at some point before 1939, Mead (by this point a Middlebury trustee) donated both his and Parkhill’s collections to the College. We know this because the spring 1939 News Letter published a story about how this ornithological collection was being used in biology courses.
And after that, things get murky.
During the next decades, Middlebury’s biology department added some outstanding faculty—Hal Hitchcock, George Saul, Duncan McDonald, but I don’t think they were all that interested in the museum skins. And when the science departments were moving from Warner to the new science center in the late ’60s, my guess is that someone looked at these cabinets of birds and thought, I have no interest in those. So they were moved into storage, essentially left to be forgotten.
I was hired in 1985, and on one of my first days on campus, I went down to the storage room in the science center—which, by this point, was filled to capacity—and started rooting around. It was dark and dusty and filled with all of this junk, and at some point I spotted a couple of museum cabinets pushed against the wall way in the back. (This tells you they were probably the first things to go into storage.) They were great looking cabinets, so I started digging through stuff to get to them—it was like digging through sand. In order to go forward, I had to take something in front of me and move it behind me. Finally I reached the cabinets, cleared some space, and opened one of the doors. The overpowering smell of mothballs hit me, and my jaw dropped, not because of the smell, but because of what I saw. This cabinet was filled with these bird skins—birds from the 1880s, all from Addison County, expertly preserved*.
*Following this, Trombulak also discovered boxes of eggs, as well as mounts. They’re without documentation but he believes they were all part of the Mead collection. (More on the entire collection here.)
Unbelievable, I thought. I knew I had to move these up to my teaching room, and I have been curating the collection ever since.