A different experience awaits you at the Pember Museum in Granville, New York, about 10 miles from Poultney. Whereas the Birds of Vermont Museum in Huntington has the appearance of “just another barn” you could easily drive by, the Pember Library and Museum stand out as an eminent edifice on Main Street. Etched glass panels over the front door beckon you into the first floor library with its elegant fireplace of marbleized slate. Spiral-turned banisters course up the staircase to the second floor museum room, with its dark woodwork and vitrine cases displaying the large natural history collection made by Frank T. Pember over a 50-year period.
Pember was born in South Granville in 1841 and grew up on a prosperous family farm. After attending a nearby one-room schoolhouse, he enrolled in the science program at a college prep school in Fort Edward, New York. His professors channeled his natural science interest, and by age 21, he was already a hunter, trader and taxidermist.
Pember was also an astute businessman. He began with a plant nursery while maintaining a profitable farming and cheese making business at his Granville home. He later added a fur trade business with offices on Broadway in New York City. Success came quickly as he bought furs from all over the U.S. and Canada and exported them to Europe. He also traded birds’ eggs and in 1883 published a catalog offering 400 kinds of eggs.
He also bought acreage in Riverside, California where he planted thriving cirtus groves, and he invested in oil-rich land near Findlay, Ohio.
In 1902, he built the Pember Opera House, and at age 66, he offered to build a museum and library in Granville.
Pember collected in the Granville, Hebron, Pawlet and Wells area and wherever his business ventures carried him. Out of 75 North American bird families, Pember’s collection holds representatives of all but five. Many specimens are in male and female pairs. In contrast to the Birds of Vermont Museum’s discrete cases for each species, the Pember’s birds are aligned along glass shelves. Still the specimens are well organized by family. Although you’re not seeing the live bird, the museum experience is very beneficial. You are viewing the bird up close with enough time, without the bird flitting around and away, to carefully study the color and feather variations, and anatomy, and compare them to similar species, on a nearby shelf, with which they may be easily confused in the field. Certainly guidebooks are useful for this, but 3-D specimens are more realistic.
There are also birds from other continents, since Pember requested specimens from other collectors. He did much of his own taxidermy and was a noted ornithologist of his time. In the 2nd volume of the Birds of New York, published by the New York State Museum in 1914, Pember is cited as a reference form knowing the breeding sites of a Golden Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Pigeon Hawk and Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.
He was also a member of the American Fern Society and collected and mounted hundreds of specimens of flowering plants, ferns and sea weeds. However, few of these are on display due to potential damage from light exposure.
The visitor might first look over the peripheral tall cases containing all the birds and many mammals. Centrally, there are standing horizontal cases with birds’ nests and eggs, butterflies, dragonflies, beetles, seashells, and minerals. Beneath, on the floor, are laid out huge skins of polar and grizzly bears and various African ‘cats.” Frankly, I have to admit, I found the exotic birds and animals the most fascinating. Confronting the life-size “next to real” thing is astounding, better than a flashy photo in National Geographic.
Admission is free. Hours: 1-5 p.m., Tuesday through Friday; 10-3 p.m. Saturday; 1-4 p.m. Sunday. This would be a nice rainy day or cold season activity. But then again, although a sizeable collection, it’s not the Field Museum, and could provide a nice few hours at any time of the year.