At the end of the 19th century, the art of taxidermy was a fad. Mounted birds and other animals were used as home decor and most naturalists, amateur and professional alike, collected and mounted specimens. As such, the Whatcom Museum’s Edson-Edson-Booth Bird Collection of over 600 mounted birds is an important cultural and historical artifact. But it is much more than that.
It is also an irreplaceable educational and scientific treasure, a testament to early Whatcom County ornithology and the impetus for the very existence of our outstanding community museum.
The man responsible for the majority of the collection is John Milton Edson who personally collected them over more than fifty years starting in the early 1890s. Another Edson, Edward, not related to John, was a long-time mayor of Lynden where he operated a drug store on Front Street which housed his collection of sixteen mounted owls. Edward Edson donated his collection to John Edson on his death in 1944. Though John Edson reportedly spent his later years doing research on and writing about taxidermy most of the two Edsons’ birds were mounted by Bellingham taxidermist Edward Booth. Booth’s personal collection was donated to the museum when he died in 1959, completing the Edson-Edson-Booth Bird Collection.
Late in his life John Edson told a story of how, as a small child, he had killed “a beautiful, bright-plumaged bird” with a slingshot. He was so shocked by what he had done that he “vowed to preserve the beauty of birds”. It is hard to miss the irony in how he chose to do that preservation. But in those days, before the publication of field guides or ornithology texts, most scientists studied birds or even identified them in hand after shooting them. At least John Edson went through the effort and expense to have his birds preserved so that others could learn from them.
John Edson was raised in the western-most part of New York State between the Allegany River and Lake Erie. He obviously became interested in birds at an early age because before he left New York he published The Birds of Chautauqua County NY just as he would publish Birds of the Bellingham Bay Region in 1908, over twenty years later. As a young man he found work in the printing trade and he took those skills west with him to Seattle where he worked for the Post Intelligencer for a few months before heading north to Bellingham Bay. Here he was a pioneer newspaperman, starting the Whatcom Democrat and the Morning Gazette in Sehome. Two years later he formed a business partnership and founded Edson and Irish Printing Company which became the most successful printing firm on Bellingham Bay well into the first decade of the twentieth century. From 1913 to 1919 Edson worked as the Registrar at the Bellingham Normal School, now WWU, and he housed his growing collection of birds at that institution.
During this time John Edson continued his ornithological pursuits, studying and collecting birds throughout northwest Washington, Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands, and Skagit and Whatcom Counties. The oldest mount in the museum collection, a gray jay, was collected in 1891. Besides building his collection he was writing articles which were published in noted ornithological journals such as The Murrelet and The Auk, the journal of the American Ornithologist’s Union (A.O.U). In 1917 Edson was elected an Associate of the A.O.U. It was a major achievement to be accepted as a collaborator by this elite organization of professional scientists.
Since visiting a natural history museum in Buffalo, New York as a teenager, John Edson had dreamed of founding an institution to house the bird specimens he would spend most of his life assembling. He realized that an opportunity was approaching in 1939 as Bellingham was constructing a new City Hall. Many of the city’s citizens wished to preserve the old City Hall building and Edson captured the momentum of that movement. The Museum Society was founded that year and the Bellingham Herald credited Edson with pioneering that effort. The board of trustees included such prominent citizens as Dr. Carl Cozier of the Bellingham School District and Dr. W. W. Haggard of the Bellingham Normal School, who was elected president. John Edson was elected Secretary and Activities Director and was eventually named the museum’s first Curator. Funds were raised and a five-year lease with the city was signed to house the museum in the old City Hall building. Edson outlined the collections as: pioneer souvenirs, curios, Indian artifacts, historical records and geology, mineralogy and paleontology specimens, plus the collection of over 600 mounted birds. The emphasis was on natural history.
It soon became obvious that running a museum on donations would be problematic, especially after the beginning of World War II. In 1944 Edson and the board started an initiative, gathering signatures aimed at making the museum a City institution. Through a tremendous political effort the citizens of Bellingham voted on December 2, 1944 to make the Bellingham Public Museum a wholly City owned and operated institution. John Edson was the inspiration and driving force behind the creation of what is now our Whatcom Museum.
In November of 1945 John Milton Edson, 84 years of age, moved to Seattle to live with his daughter. He lived there until his death in 1954 at age 92. His papers ended up at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington but we have inherited his true legacy. His birds have become our birds and his museum our museum.
Written by Paul Woodcock, Vice President of the North Cascade Audubon Society, with research collaboration from Jeff Jewell, Whatcom Museum Photo Archives Historian.