Visitors to the museum often ask where our collection of birds came from. With 560 on view in our ornithological gallery and another 2000 or so in storage, the answer isn’t simple especially considering that records of our earliest collections are spotty by today’s standards. Today we continue a series that will profile the cast of characters who worked together over the course of nearly 100 years to put together the Everhart’s massive inventory of birds.
A chance meeting of two hunters in 1904 forever changed the life of Scrantonian Michael J. Kelly (1881-1959). Kelly was a 22-year-old mine worker hunting in Elmhurst when he encountered Dr. Isaiah F. Everhart (1840-1911), a 64-year-old physician. The pair struck up an unlikely friendship that resulted in many hunting trips together and lasted until the older man’s death. “We often rode out to Rattlesnake Pond together in a horse and buggy and after a day in the woods, we’d go to a farm house nearby for a woodchuck dinner with winterberry pie” (The Scrantonian, November 3, 1958), Kelly recalled many years later. When Dr. Everhart opened his Museum in 1908, Mr. Kelly was given a lifetime position on staff.
Though having no formal schooling in the subject, Michael J. Kelly became something of an expert in the field of natural history, working alongside and learning at the feet of such scholars as R.N. Davis and the renowned ornithologist Dr. Benjamin H. Warren. From 1916 on, Mike served as Museum taxidermist, a skill he learned from Dr. Everhart. Many of the birds in the Museum’s collection are his work. In 1921, he joined the museum’s expedition to Panama and though he suffered from “tick fever” (The Scrantonian, November 3, 1958) on the trip, it remained a highlight of his career. The caciques and oropendolas in the case at the center of the Everhart Ornithological Gallery were among the specimens brought back from Panama.
In his later years, Kelly served as an examiner for local chapters of the Boy Scouts of America, quizzing scouts on subjects pertaining to the natural sciences before they could earn their merit badges. “Maybe I can interest some of these young fellows in some of the wonders of nature,” he remarked in 1957. Michael J. Kelly saw the Museum through two World Wars, the Great Depression, and beyond. He remained an Everhart employee until his death at age 80.
The case in the center of the Everhart’s ornithological gallery contains several examples of caciques and oropendolas and their pendulous nests that were among the many items collected on the museum’s Panama expedition. The capture, taxidermy, and installation of these specimens were all performed by Mr. Kelly.
Written by Michael Wisneski, Gallery and Collections Manager.