Annual Report: Live beavers

To begin research on the history of the Bell Museum of Natural History, which originated from the collected geological specimens of the 1872 Minnesota Geology and Natural History Survey, the first resource I turned to was the Annals of the Museum of Natural History, University of Minnesota, 1872-1939, a volume written and edited by museum Director, Thomas Sadler Roberts. The book was published prior to -and in commemoration of- the erection of the present James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History at the corner of Church St. and University Ave. Prior to building the Bell (which was officially named after it’s benefactor in 1976), the Museum of Natural History resided in the Animal Biology (later Zoology, when the department name changed in 1927) building, which used to be located at the corner of Church St. and Washington Ave.

(*After the Zoology building was demolished in 1994, a new Basic Sciences and Biomedical Engineering Facility was constructed on the site in 1996, and in 2005 was re-named Hasselmo Hall after University President Nils Hasselmo.)

– Animal Biology (later Zoology) Building, corner of Church St. and Washington Ave, circa 1920s. From the University Archives Photograph Collection.

Annals-MNH.jpgThe Annals of the Museum of Natural History includes biographies of former museum directors, a timeline of significant events in museum history, and the biennial and annual reports from 1918-1939, which describe general museum activities, specimens collected and prepared, exhibits mounted, research and fieldwork conducted, and outreach performed. While descriptions of activities and accomplishments during the museum’s early history are intriguing in their own right, a particular line item in a 1918 report caught my eye:

“Two live beavers, living in an outside pool beside the building, have proved a great attraction to a large number of people. They were presented to the museum in August, 1917 by Mr. Carlos Avery.

Reference to the “live beavers” continued in the report of the following year:

1918 (Jan. 1 – Oct 31): “Live beavers. – The two live beavers presented to the museum by Mr. Carlos Avery, game and fish commissioner, and mentioned in the last report, are still doing well in the outdoor pool and are a never-ending source of interest and study to hundreds of school children and adults. They have grown to nearly full size and have constructed a large lodge exactly like those found in the northern wilds.”

And again:

Oct. 31, 1918 – June 30, 1919: “Live beavers. – The two live beavers are still in the outside pool by the building, are doing well, and continue to attract as much attention as formerly.”

1920: “Live beavers. – The two live beavers presented to the museum nearly three years ago by Mr. Carlos Avery, are still flourishing in the outside pool. They are now fully grown and receive much attention from school children and other visitors.

1921: “Live beavers. – One of the two beavers that have lived in the pool beside the building since August, 1917, disappeared about October 1 last. Whether it escaped or was stolen has never been determined. The one remaining is in good condition and continues to attract much attention.”

Beaver-Article.jpgThe beavers attracted city-wide attention when they received press in the Minneapolis Journal on January 10, 1921. T.S. Roberts’ scrapbooks contain a clipping of the article titled, “He Used to be a ‘Hick,’ But Now He’s Reg’lar City Feller.” The article further explained how the museum acquired their furry friends “Horatio William” and “Ignatius Pzermysl.”

      “According to Minnesota law, a beaver can be condemned to death if convicted of damaging a farmer’s crops. Four years ago, when Horatio William was an unsophisticated little fellow, his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Ignatius Beaver, became colossally ambitious in their dam-building operations at their home up north of Duluth.

      Their dam interfered with a neighboring farmer’s crops, and he complained to the state game and fish department. A game warden was sent up to try the case, found Mr. and Mrs. Beaver guilty, and condemned them to death.

      When the sentence had been carried out, Horatio William and his brother, Ignatius Pzermysl–two little balls of brown fur – were brought down to Minneapolis and presented to the university wild life museum.

      Instead of having them killed and stuffed, Dr. Thomas S. Roberts, director of the museum, turned them loose in an oblong tank, close by the museum, and gave them some building materials.”

The article also addressed the 1920 escape of Ignatius Pzermysl Beaver. Apparently this was not Pzermysl’s first disappearance. The article further explained, “…one cold snowy morning… it was in January-when Charles Phillips, Dr. Roberts’ assistant, arrived at the museum, he met Ignatius Pzermysl walking down Washington avenue, flapping his wide, fishy tail emphatically on the sidewalk, to the amusement of hundreds of university students en route to the 8:30 classes.

After a debacle that required the assistance of a university janitor, the beavers were returned to their pool and a “fence was erected” at the top of the tank to prevent further incident. However, the fence apparently did not deter Ignatius, who escaped once more in October of 1920 and was never seen again.

“Horatio” continued to occupy the tank outside of the Animal Biology building for three more years. The annual reports capture his activity, and his ultimate fate:

1922: “Live beavers – The live beaver continues to thrive in the outside pool and still receives much attention.”

1923: “One of the two live beavers, that formerly lived in the pool beside the building, is still there and continues to attract much attention.”

1924: “Live beaver – The remaining one of the two beaver “kittens” donated to the museum by Mr. Carlos Avery several years ago was wantonly killed last fall in the pond where it had lived so long, by a boy of the neighborhood. Thus closed tragically a never-ending source of interest and entertainment to hundreds of people, adults as well as children. No further attempt will be made to keep live animals in connection with the museum as the cost and difficulties are too great.”

In a way, beavers still reside outside of the natural history museum – as architectural detail.