Olive Gunnison’s world-class collection of curiosities is slowly evaporating in a dusty basement

How one housewife amassed a vast array of extinct birds, rare minerals, and one shrunken human head from Ecuador

The collection comprises thousands of birds along with their nests and eggs. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

As you drive along the twisty back roads of Pawling, New York, you can expect to see historic homes, mossy cemeteries, and the occasional white-tailed deer. What is, perhaps, less expected is your first glimpse of the Akin Free Library, an imposing stone building designed in the late Victorian style by architect John A. Wood.

The library’s copper cornice and clock tower have long oxidized to a color that vacillates between Statue of Liberty-green and nearly black, depending on the light. And—in what I later realized to be a fitting preview to the collection contained within—the four-sided clock stopped keeping time long ago.

The Akin Free Library is a Victorian stone building with a green copper cupola.
The Akin Free Library opened in 1908. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan
A moose looms over a bookshelf
The first floor is home to thousands of books. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

Charity, literature, and science

The earliest settlers to the area, located in Dutchess County near the Connecticut border, were Quakers—the Oblong Friends Meetinghouse, built nearby in 1763, still stands today. In 1880, Albert J. Akin founded the The Akin Hall Association with other members of the Quaker Hill community in the service of “charity, literature, science and mutual improvement in religion.”

The cornerstone for the library was laid in 1898, but it didn’t officially open until ten years later. Although the library’s thousands of books no longer circulate, its collection, including beautiful—but increasingly fragile—ledgers from local businesses, can be viewed and handled by request.

Old leather ledgers sit on a bookshelf
Ledgers from local business are fragile, but can be handled with care by request. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

The crown jewel of the library’s eclectic collection is easy to miss—you’ll have to descend into the basement (and go back about 70 years in the process) to see it. When you reach the bottom of a spiraling set of creaky, wooden stairs, the first thing you see is an entire case of colorful, taxidermied hummingbirds, lovingly posed on tiny twigs. To your left is a case of curiosities—four of the felt letters from its “extinct birds” label are long gone, but their impressions remain. The case does indeed deliver on its promise by offering modern viewers a rare glimpse of the passenger pigeon, last seen in the wild in the 1890s. They were extinct entirely by 1914, when Martha, the last captive specimen, died at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Visitors are encouraged to press a button that triggers a magic trick in a dimly-lit diorama, turning a plump snake instantly into a skeleton (a low-tech but impressive feat accomplished with mirrors). And this is just a tiny fraction of the curiosities that await you in the Olive Gunnison Natural History Museum.

A wooden case is labeled with felt letters that spell out "extinct birds"
The Gunnison Collection includes several now-extinct birds. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

One collector’s vision

As a child, Olive M. Gunnison collected insects, mice, and worms—anything she could find outside or fish out of a trap. When she was 12 years old, inspired by her father’s pinned butterfly collection, Gunnison used her allowance to purchase a horned toad, a tarantula, and a piece of red organ pipe coral, beginning a lifetime of collecting—the cumulative result of which is currently decaying in the lower level of the Akin Free Library.

“Someone once made the remark that people who have hobbies never go crazy,” Gunnison wrote in an essay about her collection. “The reply was, ‘Maybe so, but how about the people who have to live with them?’ In times of a prolonged illness, misfortune or sorrow there is no question but that hobbies do help make life more bearable for everyone concerned and I speak from experience.”

Gunnison got her start pinning butterflies. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan
A framed photo of Olive Gunnison hangs near the entrance
A portrait of the collector. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

Gunnison was by all accounts a traditional housewife and mother of three—albeit one with a growing collection of oddities that necessitated building a separate shed behind her home in Pawling. New specimens for this “chamber of horrors,” as her husband called it, were primarily acquired by Gunnison herself with the occasional donation from like-minded friends, including the writer, actor, and world-traveller Lowell Thomas.

“To be complete,” Gunnison wrote, “A museum of natural history should include every branch of interesting subject viz. animals, birds, insects, marine life, minerals, fossils, and other antiquities, artifacts and of course celestial bodies.”

“In times of a prolonged illness, misfortune or sorrow there is no question but that hobbies do help make life more bearable.”

—Olive M. Gunnison
A taxidermy bob cat seems to growl at visitors
A true cabinet of curiosities, the collection is full of taxidermy and other oddities. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

The Gunnison Collection, donated to the library in 1960, fills four rooms, split into two sections: a natural history collection and a cabinet of curiosities. True to Gunnison’s qualifications, the collection comprises a wide range of specimens far too vast to list, but notable items include a shrunken head from Ecuador (whose donor wished to remain anonymous), the footprints of a dinosaur captured in stone, uranium ore, shards from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a mammoth tooth.

A shrunken human head from Ecuador
A shrunken human head from Ecuador. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan
A taxidermy ivory-billed woodpecker is in a diorama with other similar birds
The ivory-billed woodpecker. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

The best part of the collection might not even be the specimens themselves, but their descriptions, yellowed with age, composed and typed by Gunnison herself. “I was never content to simply put a label on an exhibit without telling something about it,” she wrote.

Ivory-billed woodpeckers have a fascinating enough backstory—they are officially listed as critically endangered despite the absence of a confirmed live sighting since the 1940s—but Gunnison’s is better: “This is the boss carpenter of the bird world, the biggest, handsomest and rarest of American Woodpeckers. This bird has astonishing strength and vigor. Often beneath a diseased tree which it has attacked in quest of boring beetles or insect larvae, huge piles of bark, slabs of wood are found which give evidence of its power as a feathered axman.”

A specimen in the cabinet of curiosities section. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan
A glass jar containing metal objects, mostly spoon handles, removed from the stomach of a woman
A collection of metal removed from the stomach of a woman residing in a nearby hospital. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

It would be impossible to pick a favorite, but Matthew Hogan, Akin Hall Association Executive Director, makes sure that we don’t miss an exhibit that may fall outside the natural history qualification but more than makes up for it in its strangeness: a glass jar containing metal objects (primarily spoon handles) removed from the stomach of a woman residing nearby in a psychiatric hospital. Gunnison wrote: “Woman appears to be in good condition and is still swallowing metal objects.”

An uncertain future

In addition to crafting her colorful descriptions, Gunnison prepared all of the wet specimens herself, often using whatever jars she had on hand. (I wonder how Hellman’s would feel knowing that one of their large mayonnaise jars has been helping to preserve an alligator for the past 70 years.)

Gunnison was college-educated and always interested in the “ologies,” as she called them: zoology, botany, geology, and meteorology. But chemical preservation processes have evolved and due to a combination of her homemade approach, aging materials and environmental factors, many of the specimens in the collection are in dire need of preservation or in danger of being lost entirely.  

A taxidermy display of two birds fighting sits atop a glass case containing bird eggs
Just a fraction of the thousands of birds estimated to be in the collection. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

“The wet collections pose a challenge for several reasons,” says Hogan. “Many of the specimens are desiccated or on their way to drying out due in large part to metal lids—the formaldehyde rusts the metal lids and thus the fluid evaporates.”

Hogan, who has great respect and enthusiasm for the Gunnison collection, knows that saving it will take time, care, and, of course, money. He estimates that it will cost at least $50,000 to rehab the specimens that haven’t already desiccated—incidentally, it would also be costly to trash the collection entirely, so its future remains in limbo. “Today, the challenge is care-taking the collection and physical environment, further interpreting the objects, and bringing in local school groups and others,” says Hogan. “We are seeking contributions and experts to help guide the preservation and conservation efforts.”

Gunnison’s husband may not have understood why his wife spent her time preserving a one-headed, two-bodied kitten instead of a nice jam, but when President Herbert Hoover visited the collection in the 1930s, he declared it “the finest private natural history collection in the country.”

As a woman interested in science and all things curious, Gunnison was probably used to people not taking her seriously, but when visitors would ask her why she collected so many different things, her reply was simple: “It wouldn’t be a museum of natural history otherwise.”

If you go:

Akin Free Library is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m on Sundays between November 1 and April 1, then Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Donations to the library can be made here.

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