This May 30th will mark the 112th anniversary of the opening of the Everhart Museum. The modest dedication exercise was kept brief at the insistence of the Museum’s donor, Dr. Isaiah Fawkes Everhart, as “he does not approve of any stiff programme and is quite anxious that the ceremony shall be as short and void of pomp as possible” [Scranton Republican, Feb 24, 1908].
The ceremony was tied into Scranton’s annual Memorial Day celebration, which for some years had been held at Nay Aug Park, centering around Lake Everhart, the man-made body of water that Dr. Everhart had donated in the fall of 1898. The thousands of people drawn to the park for this celebration are nearly unimaginable today unless one keeps in mind that Scranton was then a city with a population of 130,000.
The Museum dedication program had five speakers. The first was Colonel Ezra H. Ripple, a hero of the Civil War turned successful businessman and politician, who, on behalf of his close friend Dr. Everhart, handed the gift of the Museum over to the city. Accepting the donation was Scranton Mayor J. Benjamin Dimmick, who presented Dr. Everhart with a framed engrossing―a calligraphic embellished document―of the resolutions of City Council accepting the gift. The crowd’s reaction to this moment was such that Dr. Everhart felt compelled to make some brief, unplanned remarks, “Words fail to express my feeling for this unexpected demonstration of regard. All I can say is God bless you one and all, young and old, and may this building, this institution, add to your pleasure and instruction. I thank you.” [The Scranton Truth, May 30, 1908] The engrossing given to Dr. Everhart that day is still in the Museum’s collection. Former Lieutenant Governor Colonel L.A. Watres spoke next, praising the gift of the Museum as unparalleled in the city’s history and Dr. Everhart as “the generous, the broad-minded, the unselfish giver.” [The Scranton Truth, May 30, 1908] The President Judge of Lackawanna County, Honorable Henry M. Edwards, a newly-minted trustee of the Museum’s endowment added praise to the donor: “All honor to Dr. Everhart. May he live long to watch over the Museum.” [The Scranton Truth, May 30, 1908]
Finally, Reverend Thomas B. Payne offered food for thought to the crowd, highlighting the citizenry’s role in receiving the gift, “[Dr. Everhart] turns [the Museum] over to us, and asks us to take it and in the coming years complete it. Do we understand it? And are we ready to receive it in that spirit? I hope so; I trust so; I believe so. Well and good, we enter, then, today upon the work of a great trust and its responsibilities. From this hour its interest, burdens and labors must rest upon our hearts and minds. We have undertaken a great work.” [The Scranton Truth, May 30, 1908]
Surprisingly, the Museum that was turned over to the City that day was empty. Dr. Everhart suffered a number of health problems since he announced his gift in February of the previous year. The race to erect the building and present it to the City in time for its donor to live to see it may have contributed to this soft opening of the Museum. On the Monday that followed the weekend of the dedication, work began filling the structure with Dr. Everhart’s vast collection of Natural History specimens. At this time, the plan for the Museum was to build three near-identical structures in Nay Aug Park, one building for each of the three disciplines of the Museum. This plan was eventually scrapped in favor of enlarging the first structure by building a wing on either side of it. That the first of the three proposed buildings completed was dedicated to Natural History speaks to the fact that this subject was nearest to its founder’s heart. By the end of the Summer of 1908, Dr. Everhart, along with his trusted assistants George Friant and Michael J. Kelly (who remained employed by the Museum until his death in 1959), had completed the work of arranging his collection of birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, wood and seeds that it had taken him 45 years to accumulate. By September, the Museum was reporting 5,000 visitors each Sunday between the hours of 2:00 and 5:00 PM.
Written by Mike Wisneski, Gallery and Collections Manager.