I am 6th generation Iowan and having an interest an Iowa history, I flatter myself I have a better grasp on it than the man or woman on the street so when I discover something entirely new about Iowa history, especially an accomplished Iowa woman, I immediately want to share it so others won’t miss it too. This discovery I owe to Maeve Clark who posted about visiting the Tower on Facebook. I had never heard of Sherman or her tower. I immediately dug into finding out more.
Who is Althea Rosina Sherman?
Sherman was an Iowa woman who is best known for her later life, second career in ornithology or birding. She was born in National, Iowa, near McGregor. She got her Masters Degree in Art from Oberlin College in 1882 and taught. (Oberlin was a very liberal institution in the best 19th century definition of the term and had a strong effect on Iowa with several Iowa towns being founded by Oberlin graduates and at least one college in Tabor, Iowa being modeled on it. It was the most liberal college in the country at the time, allowing both men and women and blacks and whites to all attend the same classes.) Sherman returned to National in 1892 to help take care of her elderly parents and started her meticulous study of the birds around her home.
Her careful observation, records, and reporting earned her biography a place in The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science among other such publications and her work was widely published in scientific journals of her time.
Sherman’s paintings of the goldfinch helped convince the Iowa state legislature to chose that bird to be Iowa’s official bird, leading to a pairing of it with the beautiful wild rose, our state flower, which has lead to lots of beautiful artwork intertwining the two.
Sherman Built a Tower
Sherman designed a tower to let her more closely observe Chimney Swifts. Her study of them would consume 18 years and over 400 pages of journals. Her tower built in 1915 by local Iowa carpenters, was soon well known by birders the world over and tourist came from around the country and even abroad to see it. Never content to just go along with popular opinion, Sherman insisted on finding out for herself. Her work led to new discoveries about several species and she was just as determined and straightforward in her comments stirring up controversy in the birding community with her outspoken beliefs.
Best Laid Plans
Sherman and her sister had been systematically buying up property around National with the purpose of creating a bird sanctuary. Sadly she wished to live on the grounds herself and resisted actually forming the sanctuary and turning it over until after her death, leaving her will to oversee things. This is NOT a good plan. She left it to whichever of two institutions she named would take over the property to form the sanctuary and run it to her specifications. Neither was willing to do so and after their refusal it reverted to the estate and was eventually broken up and sold. (Which is a warning, if you have anything you really want to go somewhere in particular, do it while you are still healthy enough to personally oversee that it happens.)
What Happened to the Tower?
After successfully avoiding demolition because of its historical importance in the 1960s, the tower was once again forgotten. In the early 1990s it was donated to the Songbird Project and brought to Iowa City for storage. A collection of Sherman’s papers also made the journey. Now they’ve successfully relocated the tower to the Bickett-Rate Farm which is managed by the Cedar County Historical Society. If you are unfamiliar with their work, while they have had some recent upset over the moving of their museum and getting everything re-established they are now in nice new permanent quarters and have always turned out historical publication second in quality to the publications of the State Historical Society of Iowa about Iowa history. I’m glad to know they have a hand in the on-going preservation of the tower. However, for the time being access is limited to the tower and you need to contact the historical society and get permission first.
I feel in someway I’ve made a new friend. I haven’t gotten a chance to read much of Sherman’s own words yet, but the highlights that I have read have impressed me a great deal. I love a no nonsense woman who takes charge, ignores what others say can’t be done, and finds a way to do it. I hope that Althea would have liked me too and I have a couple of her books sitting in my Amazon cart as we speak.
Learn More About Althea
Biographical Dictionary of Iowa
Palimpsest article on Sherman (Called best introduction by project)
Iowa Bird Life – Althea R. Sherman Memorial Issue
The Althea R. Sherman Project
Finding Aid for Sherman Collection at Iowa State University
Birds of an Iowa Doorway by Sherman available for sale by University of Iowa Press
Paper by Sherman available for sale from the Library of Congress