The History of the Stephens Museum
Brimming with the worlds of archeology, cultural anthropology, biology, geology, and paleontology, The Stephens Museum is one of Central's most prized possessions and the third oldest museum in the state. The Museum originated in 1875 when Central College Curator Lawrence V. (Lon) Stephens gave $5,000 to buy a brick residence on the edge of the college, in which the museum was originally housed.
The collection began to grow, boosted by the efforts of Central's Professor J. W. Kilpatrick. When he died in 1904, Kilpatrick had been preparing to retrieve a collection of fossils and minerals from the Scarritt Bible and Training School in Kansas City. T. Berry Smith secured the items for the museum; and since then, students, alumni, and friends have added to the collection.
Dr. Kenneth P. Stephens, head of the college's biology department in the 1930's is credited with doing much of the systematizing and arranging of the Museum. Later curators included "Doc" Farris Woods, Mary Ellen McVicker, Dr. Joe Geist and Professor Tom Yancey. From 1998 until his retirement in 2012, Dr. Dan Elliott held the reins. The museum comprises historical artifacts, natural history, and a mammal collection.
Meeting Ourselves in History
The historical component of the museum includes memorabilia and artifacts from World War I, African tribes, Native American tribes, and the Methodist heritage. However, the museum is most noted for its artifacts of the Civil War and 19th Century life. The museum has a very good collection of original issue Civil War goods from Jordan Coller, a Union soldier who settled in Fayette after the war. Coller donated the land where the public library sits, and for years his Civil War relics resided there. The items - including a Union soldier's uniform, two Civil War military caps, knapsack, bedroll, rifle, leather belt and bayonet, drinking cup and canteen, and various historical documents - now have a permanent home in The Stephens Museum.
There is also a comprehensive mid-nineteenth century tool collection that is significant, notes Dr. Robert Wiegers, CMU professor of history. Samples of weaving utensils, folk paintings, early photographs, arrowheads, and pottery from central Missouri fill display cases, as well as paintbrushes owned by artist George Caleb Bingham. Next to the History Room are the original tombstones of Daniel Boone and his wife, Rebecca. The two markers, given to the college in the late 1800's by descendants of Daniel Boone, bear the names "DANIEL BOON" and "REBECCA BOON," both with the "N" reversed. This is a-one-of-a-kind set that no one else will ever have.
Birds and Bees
The natural history room teems with "life" of a different kind. Natural history objects and animal specimens include a bobcat, a snowy owl, a nine-banded armadillo, a small alligator, fossils, minerals, shells, primate skulls, and numerous large bones of Ice Age mammals. However, the museum is best known for its bird collection, more than 300 avian species.
Most of the specimens were donated in the 1900's. Whooping cranes, Birds of Paradise, tanagers, owls, eagles, and hawks peer down at visitors, glassy-eyed. It can be a little intimidating, especially for youngsters. Alumni and friends have contributed many items, including Gordon Alexander (at Central in 1919); natural history student J. Clark Salyer; Luther T. Spayde who donated his grandfather's collection; and Max Nickerson, world-renowned herpetologist. During the early years, someone developed an association with the St. Louis Zoo. "When birds died of old age or natural causes, they weren't destroyed," Dr. Elliott explains. "They were, in fact, stuffed and passed on." Hundreds of birds in protective bird tubes can be handled by students without damage. "We also have mammal skins and bird skins that we use for mammalogy and ornithology classes," said the late Dr. Harold Momberg, professor emeritus of biology. "That's what students use when they need to know what animals look like. Then they can go out in the woods and find them."
Foremost among the museum's bird collection are two highly prized specimens of extinct species - the passenger pigeon and the Carolina parakeet. The passenger, at one time, had been described as the most abundant bird ever. There were literally billions of them in the early 1800's. They were shot because they tasted good. The only native parakeet, however, was driven to extinction for another reason, the birds were shot because they ate seeds. They weren't killed because of their pretty feathers; they didn't taste good. They were killed into extinction because they ate farmer's seeds. The presence of these two extinct birds in The Stephens Museum is powerful incentive for people to visit. Dr. Elliott sees them as perhaps the most significant properties of the museum. "God's not making any more of those," he points out. "They're gone forever."
One of Dan Elliott's favorite items in the museum is a large chunk of rock in which is a clear outline of a dinosaur footprint. Another is a rare 350-million-year-old starfish fossil he found along the Missouri River in 1997. "The big flood of 1993 washed a lot of bones out of the loess cliffs along the Missouri River," he hypothesizes. Although it has been visiting the Smithsonian Museum for some time, the fossil has recently come home to the museum.
Big Game Hunt
Perhaps the most exciting donation for The Stephens Museum is a collection of mammals donated by veterinarian Dr. Jack Stephens and his wife, Vicki. Their friendship with Trustee Bruce Addison and wife Jan facilitated the bequest. Over six years, Central Methodist University received over one hundred specimens of wild animals from all over the world. The first group that arrived in December 2001 included a full body musk ox, two Alaskan wolves, a mountain goat; and head and shoulder mounts of African hoofed mammals. Dan sees the value of the entire museum in the access it provides to all kinds of patrons - Central students, public school classes, historians, artists, and buses of tourists.