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Curiosities abound at Maine museum

A blue marlin caught by Ernest Hemingway, and a double-wattled cassowary, the world';s second-largest bird. A blue marlin caught by Ernest Hemingway, and a double-wattled cassowary, the world';s second-largest bird. (Photos By Hilary Nangle for The Boston Globe)
By Hilary Nangle
Globe Correspodent / February 7, 2010

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HINCKLEY, Maine - Offbeat doesn’t begin to describe the L.C. Bates Museum. Displayed inside the Romanesque Revival, National Historic Register building is a surprising and intriguing trove of eccentric and eclectic natural and cultural treasures.

Where else in Maine, or New England for that matter, can you see a trophy marlin caught by Ernest Hemingway; a ceramic amphora recorded to have come from the ruins of the palace of Nebuchadnezzar, king of ancient Babylon; or a double-wattled cassowary, a bird found in New Guinea and Australia? All that and much more are inside this early-20th-century natural history and cultural museum on the campus of the Good Will-Hinckley School.

In 1889, preacher, professor, and social progressive George W. Hinckley opened the Good Will farm school for needy children, emphasizing faith, education, and work. He also acted upon a childhood dream and created a museum displaying his collections from the natural world. The museum, says Deborah Staber, its director, began with three rocks: a stalactite from a Kentucky cave, a fossil, and a lump of sulphur, all given to Hinckley when he was 8.

Hinckley encouraged donations to his fledgling museum, and the collection grew. Friends, fans, and even the Smithsonian Institute sent gifts such as taxidermy specimens and mineral collections. By 1904, in Hinckley’s own words, the museum owned “225 birds, 40 quadrupeds, and 650 specimens of minerals. Smaller collections illustrate entomology, botany, history, and foreign missions.’’

In 1920, Lewis Carlton Bates, former president of Paris Manufacturing in West Paris, Maine, financed the renovation of a former training center into a museum to house the growing collections. Little has changed since it opened; displays are simple and without technological improvements or enhancements. The result is a quirky collection of curiosities reflecting Hinckley’s fascination with the natural world and the curatorial techniques of the era.

Although Hinckley’s original three rocks were lost to a fire, the collection of rocks, minerals, and gems fills a downstairs room. Another is packed with oceanic treasures, including an 800-pound tuna and Hemingway’s marlin, as well as a claw from a 33-pound lobster. Cultural artifacts are in another room.

Most impressive are the mammal and bird rooms, home to 28 natural history dioramas created by American Impressionist painter Charles B. Hubbard. Hinckley, who died in 1950 at 97, commissioned the artist from his hometown, Guilford, Conn., to paint them between 1922 and 1924. Each depicts a Maine location that complements the period taxidermy specimens. When possible, Hubbard replicated the setting of where the animal was found or killed. Black bear, whitetail deer, moose, and even a bobcat are set in wooded habitats; shorebirds flock near Thunder Hole in Acadia National Park.

More surprises await elsewhere: circus memorabilia and models; ceramic pottery from Indians of Panama’s Chiriquí province; a diagram detailing the life history of a June bug; walrus whiskers; and insects gathered by Mattie Wadsworth, an amateur entomologist whose dragonfly collection is in the Smithsonian. Hinckley’s passion for nature reached beyond the museum’s door into its campus backyard, where trails lace acres of forest habitat. Nature guides and activity booklets are available free at the museum, and regular programming includes guided walks and tours, allowing visitors to seek outside the flora and fauna they spied inside - double-wattled cassowary excepted.

Hilary Nangle can be reached at hilary@hilarynangle.com.

If You Go

L.C. Bates Museum

Route 201, Hinckley, Maine

207-238-4250, www.gwh.org