Tucked in the lower level of the Saranac Lake Free Library is “the finest collection of Adirondack animals ever gathered in one place.” These animals are not wild anymore or even tame for that matter. The Charles Dickert Wildlife Collection is a one-room museum dedicated to the works of taxidermist, Charles Dickert.
My daughter stands in the entranceway with her jaw dangling open. She has seen mounts before but these are pristinely cared for and arranged and overwhelming in number. We quickly note that not all creatures are indigenous to the area. We ask our son to look for the elephant lamp in the display that we see in an old picture from the Guggenheim camp. He discovers that the black ducks flying in V formation above his head are also in old photos on display. He marvels at the colors of the wood ducks and is curious about the leopard rug.
Taxidermy began as a tool by prehistoric man to attract animals to hunting grounds. It evolved into an invaluable study aid for the naturalist and a hobby for huntsmen and fishermen.
These collected works of over 250 specimens were donated by the Charles Dickert family and Edmond Guggenheim. Yes, Guggenheim of the one-time Lower Saranac Great Camp Rock Ledge, Guggenheim Dental Clinic, Guggenheim Copper Mine… the list goes on. This collection is a wonderful representation of what an Adirondack great room would have held at a traditional Adirondack Great Camp.
Guggenheim closed his camp, Rock Ledge on Lower Saranac, leaving it to the Catholic Diocese of Ogdensburg. The Diocese turned it into Camp Guggenheim, a nondenominational summer camp for teenagers to experience the Adirondacks.
According to the Saranac Lake Free Library website, the 135 mounts created by Dickert were originally housed at Camp Rock Ledge. In lieu of disbanding the collection, Guggenheim presented it intact to the Whiteface Mountain Museum in Wilmington. In 1968 the collection moved to its current home at the library to a wing donated by Guggenheim. During that transition the museum grew to include the personal works of taxidermist Charles Dickert. Now the room is updated and environmentally controlled with glass cases protecting the fragile pieces. Each animal is labeled with interpretive signs along with historical elements weaving together the area and its significance to various mountings.
We point out the vicuña rug and discuss endangered animals. That leads to a lively chat on hunting, trophies, and what endangered means. My children are older now and know that this was also one way people studied animals, by preserving them with taxidermy. My daughter has difficulty imagining a time before TV or a digital zoom. A time when someone wanting a close view couldn’t just stop life by pressing the pause button on the television.
The Charles Dickert Wildlife Collection is free and open to the public during regular business hours. Call 518-891-4190 for more information.
Photo courtesy Diane Chase.