Signing off...

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The month of May was a blur. The final metadata spreadsheets were submitted, lingering corrections were made, digitized collections started to appear on the UMedia Archive, fifty-five drawers that contained over 6,900 glass plate and film negatives were re-housed in protective four-flap envelopes and were re-boxed and stored in the film vault deep in the caverns in Andersen Library. And then it was June.

Since the moment the first botanical print from the Department of Botany collection hit the flatbed scanners in April of 2013, ten different student workers spent over 2,400 hours scanning over 200,000 unique archival materials contained within the natural history collections preserved by the University Archives.

Our project title turned out to be an apt description of our work over the past 13 months - my, did we go exploring! Photographer C.J. Hibbard's botanical prints in the Department of Botany collection took us to the first fall of the Temperance River in northern Minnesota. Upon viewing the glass plate negatives in the Bell Museum records created by Thomas Sadler Roberts, we traveled to places forgotten and familiar, from the historical post office of Ware to Itasca State Park. The lantern slides produced by botany professor Ned L. Huff took us all over the state and far beyond its boundaries, all the way to the coast of Vancouver Island to the beach where the Minnesota Seaside Station once resided.

The materials are now in the hands of University Libraries' digital collections staff, who will oversee the gradual upload of these assets into UMedia in the coming weeks. Then the public will have the opportunity to explore.

On a personal note, the author of this blog is sad to close this very significant chapter in the life cycle of these materials. However, our explorations over the course of this past year will lead to new chapters that have yet to be written about Minnesota's natural history.

Where does the author go from here? Well, on Saturday, she gets married. Then, inspired by the adventurous and spectacular Ned L. Huff, she will travel with her new husband to explore northern California's Redwood forests (Sequoiadendron giganteum), just as Huff did so many decades ago.


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When the author returns to Minnesota she plans to spend her weekends visiting many of the fabulous locales of our state introduced to her by this project. Weekdays will be spent on a new processing and digitization project for University Archives.

Last week, when updating the finding aid for the Department of Botany collection, it was with great pleasure that we added Ned L. Huff to the list of persons represented in the collection and a subseries with a full description of his collection of lantern slides (the previous version had no mention of him). Upon coming across his necrology in the minutes of the University Senate, which concluded with the statement, "While he lived a quiet life, unmarked by any spectacular happenings, his devotion to his chosen work has left its mark on his many students. His thoughtful and cheerful personality and devotion to his family and to his many friends are still fondly remembered." The phrase in reference to his life as "unmarked by any spectacular happenings" has bothered me ever since, considering what we now know about Ned.

Not only did he teach general botany to hundreds of University of Minnesota students and the general public through the Extension Division over the course of his 39 year career, he also created 3,400 lantern slides that document over 300 unique locations, hundreds of botanical species, and some of the earliest known photographs of the Pacheedaht First Nation, who are now using the digital images from Ned's slides to preserve their heritage. As Ned's slides are viewed by others, new discoveries will come to light, and new meanings will be derived from the images. I can't wait to learn what else Ned has preserved for us.

To make up for the time Ned's contribution to the history of botany at the University of Minnesota remained hidden, it is only fitting that Huff be given the final words on the project that uncovered him and his spectacular work:

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Monday Megalops

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Well, the time has come, June is here! This means that the Exploring Minnesota's Natural History grant project has come to an end. The final metadata has been sent to the University Libraries web developers, and the digitized materials from 13 natural history related collections preserved at the University Archives will slowly begin to trickle in to the UMedia Archive.

After a year since the Exploring blog launched, with over 200 entries posted, we would be remiss if we didn't share a few last important glimpses into the collections. First and foremost, the story of the Megalops must be told...

From "The 'Megalops'," by Henry F. Nachtrieb, Minnesota Magazine, 1899, pg. 18


"House boats are common things on the Mississippi River from Saint Paul down to New Orleans. Many are plain and simple, while a few are quite elaborate and very attractive. The best of them, however, never drew forth so much interest, questioning and varied comment as the little white, 'Megalops...'" :



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Ulysses Cox, of the Mankato Normal School, reported in the publication of the Annual Meeting of the Indiana Academy of Sciences his recollection of being called to Minneapolis by Professor Henry Nachtrieb, the Director of the Minnesota Zoological Survey, to devise a strategy to conduct further study of fish and other aquatic fauna of the state. Specifically, Nachtrieb suggested to Cox that "a houseboat, or rather, in this case, a floating laboratory, be built at Mankato to float down the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers, at least as far as the State line."


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In an era when our state rivers were not frequently trafficked by non-commercial vessels, that barriers natural and man-made (sand bars, bridges) would have to be passable, and considering, "just how large the floating laboratory could be made and still float and be manageable was a question."

Cox described the planning and construction of the boat in a paper given during the proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Sciences 15th annual meeting, 1899:

"It was finally decided to build the barge portion of the boat twelve feet wide, twenty-two feet long, two feet deep and with a flat bottom. It was estimated that a boat so built would draw, when empty, no more than five or six inches of water, which estimate proved later to be correct. On top of the barge was built a cabin twelve feet wide, fourteen feet long and six and one-half feet high. The roof of the cabin was covered with boards and then with canvas. At each end of the cabin door opened out on the platform, which was as long as the width of the boat, and four feet wide. On each side of the cabin there were two long, movable windows. In one corner of the cabin there was a well equipped darkroom for photographic work. Along the side of the room was a laboratory table fitted with drawers and shelves, and in another part were numerous shelves for specimen jars and dishes. A common cooking stove adorned one corner of the room and in the floor were two large galvanized iron tanks in which eatables were stored. Besides a complete cooking outfit, cots and bedding, we had various kinds of seines, gill nets, hooks and lines, microscopes, dissecting tools, injecting apparatus, and all other things needed for preserving any material that we might find. Besides a large number of jars and bottles, two large galvanized iron tanks served for storing preserved material."
"We guided our boat, which we named "Megalops," by means of two large oars that worked in oar locks placed on each end of the boat, and we found no difficulty whatever in directing the boat just where we wished, except when the wind was blowing."

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The crew of the Megalops first launched on the Minnesota River at Mankato on May 12, 1899.

Ulysses Cox to Henry F. Nachtrieb, May 8, 1899:

"Dear Mr. Nachtrieb, We succeeded in successfully launching Megalops Saturday evening and then brought her down the river about a quarter of a mile with 25 men on board. With this load she sank into the water but about eight inches. For the first day she leaked considerable, as was expected, but now this has about stopped and I think that she will be very satisfactory. "

Cox, Nachtrieb, and crew spent four months on field investigations, moving "a mile or so and then probably stop a day or two to investigate the ground, and would remain at one place as long as the collecting was profitable." From the Minnesota River, they navigated to Red Wing via the Mississippi River, where they concluded their trip "and did not meet with a single accident of any consequence." The party was comprised of Professor Nachtrieb, Minnesota Zoological Survey Director, Dr. D.T. McDougal from the Bronx Park Botanical Gardens in New York City, Dr. W.S. Nickerson of the Medical School of Minnesota State University, W.S. Keinholtz, J.E. Guthrie, and Charles Zeleny, University students, George Hinton, "the 'boy' and 'cookee,'" and Cox, "who was dubbed the 'captain.'"

The party documented several new species of fish, which they collected and prepared for anatomical study. Cox reported, "There is no better way, it seems to me, to study the fauna and flora of a river than by such a floating laboratory, and I wish to strongly commend the plan to any persons who are considering plans for such study."

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In the spring of 1900, the Megalops departed on the Mississippi from Red Wing en route to Lake Pepin, where a large portion of investigations were conducted, before navigating along the Southern portion of the state to lay anchor for winter at Brownsville, MN. Lake Pepin proved to be an ideal location for zoological study. Cox reported, "There is water of various depths, marshes, clear pools and all the chief forms of aquatic vegetation that this region of Minnesota affords - in fact all the conditions that could be desired for an inland laboratory. The region abounds in breeding places for fishes, batrachians and reptiles; many species of mollusks are found in the lake, and the lower forms of aquatic life are everywhere abundant."

Those interested in the construction of the Megalops and its travels can consult the correspondence in the Henry Francis Nachtrieb papers, circa 1899-1900.

Exploring will post a proper goodbye at the end of this week...

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Puffing Adder

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Would you care for a Puffing Adder?


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- Puffing adder in hand, Crow Wing County, August 1939

(From the negatives in the Bell Museum of Natural History records)

Tuesday Tweet: Hanging in there...

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Posts on Exploring have been short and sweet lately. That is because like this Black-billed Cuckoo, Exploring project staff are hanging in there. We are clamoring down and racing to the finish. Another collection was added to the UMedia Archives today, and more are coming soon.


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- Black-billed Cuckoo, young, undated.

Monday Mystery: Lightning

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It is raining with lightning and thunder in Minneapolis today. Taking my cue from the weather, I'll share another mysterious "M" numbered negative from the Bell Museum of Natural History records:

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- Stub of Pine tree splintered by lightning, Itasca Park road, August 1902.

Minnesota Museums Month

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May is Minnesota Museums Month! Have you visited a museum yet? Why not make a visit to the Bell Museum of Natural History?

Marie Godfrey visited the museum in 1921 (when it was known as the Zoological Museum and housed in the Animal Biology building) and had a great time. If Marie enjoyed the exhibits, we're sure you will too!

Read Marie's letter to museum Director Thomas Sadler Roberts about her visit:

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(click on the image for a larger pop up version)

Wild Animal Wednesday: Croakers

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- Common toad croaking, 1937, Minneapolis

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- Swamp tree frog croaking, 1937, New Brighton

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- Swamp tree frog croaking, 1937, New Brighton

(From the negatives in the Bell Museum of Natural History records)

Mounted Monday: Roosevelt Ostrich

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- Roosevelt Ostrich in the National Museum, Washington D.C., undated.

The Smithsonian Institution Archives has a record of a glass plate negative taken of the ostrich family collected by Theodore Roosevelt on his African expedition circa 1910. However, on the record, I can't view the image! Can you?

Tuesday Tweet: Celebrating 99 years

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On page xv in Annals of the Museum of Natural History 1872-1839, Thomas Sadler Roberts, museum director and author of the publication, printed the following entry in the Log of the Museum for the year 1915:


May 6 - Thomas S. Roberts, M.D., appointed by the Board of Regents as associate curator of the Zoological Museum and professor of ornithology in the Department of Animal Biology, Henry Nachtrieb being superior officer in the museum.


Today, May 6, 2014, marks the 99th anniversary of Thomas Sadler Roberts's appointment to take charge of the Zoological Museum at the University of Minnesota. As we've learned while digitizing the records of the museum, which is known today as the Bell Museum of Natural History, this is a pretty important date in the history of the institution. Roberts took hold of the ill-organized collections accumulated by the early Natural History Survey and built one of the finest natural history museums in the world.

To mark this occasion, let's celebrate with - you guessed it - BIRDS!

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- Catbird, circa 1898

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- Young Cuckoo, back view, on finger, Waconia, June 16, 1898

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- Franklin's Gulls, group of chicks, Heron Lake, Jackson County, June 16, 1916

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- Loggerhead Shrikes, young in nest, Long Meadow Gun Club, June 5, 1900

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- Mallard Duck hiding, Moose River, July 19, 1900

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- Prairie Chicken (Pinnated Grouse), taken at Big Island Game Farm, Lake Minnetonka, 1916

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- Young Robin, undated, Waconia

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- Screech Owl, large young owl captured at Brook Lodge, Lake City, June 1904.


Monday Mystery: The Stillwell baby - solved!

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It is time once again to share images from the "M" numbered, or "Mystery," negatives in the Bell Museum of Natural History records. This installment is about three images from the negatives in drawers 51-56 of the 6,918 glass plate and film negatives present in the collection. Do you remember what is contained within drawers 51-56? The first 50 drawers are filled with negatives that are sequentially ordered and well captioned. Drawers 51-56 contain a grab bag of negatives that are in no discernible order, contain little to no caption information, and the majority are labelled with a number that is preceded by the letter "M." I am happy to report that three of these images are no longer a mystery.

A few weeks ago I shared the story of the construction of the Bell Museum's beaver diorama, the specimen for which was obtained in Itasca State Park in the summer of 1917. While reading through incoming museum correspondence from that year, I came across a letter from James A. Stillwell, Superintendent of Itasca State Park, to Thomas Sadler Roberts, dated July 27, 1917, in which Stillwell described the process of mailing a registered letter to the park. He closed the letter with the following sentence, "I was very glad to know that the baby picture came out all right as I was a little afraid of the sun shining in his face would have a tendency to spoil the picture."

My mind immediately went to the mystery negatives in drawers 51-56. I remembered that a handful of the negatives contained images of children. Thomas Sadler Roberts was an obstetrician, so I assumed that the images were of children that he delivered. I keyword searched my metadata spreadsheet for "Stillwell," and sure enough, there were three records - three glass plate negatives contain images of the Stillwell baby.


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- "Stillwell baby, Roberts"

The envelope enclosures for the negatives state only, "Stillwell baby, Roberts," and each one has a different number recorded on it - 3, 5, and 11. No date. No location. Such information results in some pretty light metadata records. But now that I know that Roberts photographed James A. Stillwell's baby in 1917 while at Itasca State Park, I can add information to the date field as well as geographic location information (GPS coordinates for Itasca State Park: 47.1974579; -95.2019642) on the digital records.

There is one more level of detail that I can add - a name! A baby in 1917 would likely be three years old in 1920, a census year. The 1920 United States Federal Census for Lake Hattie, Hubbard County, Minnesota records John A. Stillwell, 46, as living with wife Francis S.,39; son Warren A, 17; daughter Ida W., 15; and sons Forest M., 10; Arthur T., 9, and Johnnie Stillwell Jr., 3.

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- Johnnie Stillwell, Jr., son of John A. Stillwell, Superintendent of Itasca State Park, summer 1917

I may have also found a lead on Roberts's numbering system. After straining my eyes and diligently sounding out each word (Roberts had notoriously poor penmanship), I was able to partially transcribe a letter that Roberts wrote to John A. Stillwell on July 20, 1917 regarding the baby photos:

7/20/17

Mr. J.A. Stillwell
Itasca Park

Dear Mr. Stillwell,

I am sending inclosed one print from each of the negatives of the baby taken by Mr. Richardson just before we left July 19. There is a number on the back of each picture and I have the negatives numbered to correspond. If you will write me the neg you... best by indicating by number I will have made... printed... out and send them to you. If you want some of all, all right but I think they not all... good. I am glad they came out so well.



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- Johnnie Stillwell, Jr.