One month at the 'coolest' museum in Maine
The L.C. Bates Museum in Fairfield, Maine, is a natural history museum that contains thousands of taxidermied animals, including squirrels from Maine and a double-watted cassowary native to New Zealand.
I spent this past January researching and writing about the history of the L.C. Bates Museum, which is to say I spent almost the entire month huddled over an electric heater. There were four of us crowded into a small office that—despite the heater’s best efforts—was never quite warm enough. When the space started to feel claustrophobic, I’d wrap myself in my warmest jacket and step out to explore the surrounding rooms.
The L.C. Bates Museum of Natural History and Culture is a large brick building situated on top of a hill in Fairfield, Maine. Inside the castle-like structure, tall display cases made of dark wood line high-ceilinged rooms that are too expensive to heat during the winter.
When my friends asked me about my experience at the L.C. Bates Museum, I told them about how I had to wear tights underneath my jeans so I didn’t freeze. “It’s also really dark inside,” I told them, “and sometimes the cabinets make these really strange creaking noises. It feels like you’re on the set of an old horror movie.” I told my friends that they should come visit me. I suppose I’m not surprised that none of them did.
But while I might not have done the best job advertising it, the L.C. Bates Museum really is one of the coolest museums in Maine—and not just temperature-wise.
The L.C. Bates Museum houses one of the most diverse collections I’ve ever seen—everything from old spinning wheels, to sparkling geodes and taxidermied animals—but it is the type of place that you will never understand until you visit.
For my project, I spent hours searching through dozens of boxes and binders full of newsletters and correspondences dating back to 1889, picking out information relating to the museum’s founders and the stories behind its artifacts in order to piece together some sort of comprehensive museum history.
The L.C. Bates Museum was created in the late 1800s to serve the students of the Good Will School–a school for orphans and underprivileged youth. It began with three rocks that a geologist in Guilford, Conn. gave George Walter Hinckley, the school’s founder, when he was just a young boy.
The collection has grown since that first humble donation to include toucans from South America and pottery from the pre-Columbian era. Mounted on the far upper wall of the marine room is a seven-foot-long marlin that Ernest Hemingway caught. And every item—the marlin included—has a story.
The story goes that Hemingway caught the giant fish off the coast of Maine and then sent it to a taxidermist in Bangor, but when he didn’t have enough money to pay for the completed product, the taxidermist sent it to the museum instead.
Perhaps what I love most about the L.C. Bates Museum is how it showcases seemingly mundane items alongside extraordinary ones. Only a couple of rooms over from Hemingway’s marlin, a glass case displays a bobcat that a lumberjack shot less than two miles from the museum when it attacked his dog, and in the room next door there’s a hawk that was attacked by birds on the front lawn of the museum and left blind in both eyes.
The L.C. Bates Museum also has its share of more eccentric artifacts, including a wreath of human hair that hangs in a frame in the main hallway. According to an old letter I found, the wreath is made out of hair that Hinckley plucked from the heads of his relatives, both dead and alive, and then wove together in an intricate design.
Having learned from my previous attempts at publicity, I’m probably not going to mention the wreath to my friends when I tell them to visit the museum, but I am holding out for warmer weather, when I can shuttle a group of them over to the old brick building on top of the hill and they can form their own opinions about why it’s awesome.