Museum History

It started with a parakeet

In 1938, when Bob Spear was 18 years old, a stray parakeet flew into the woodshed on their Colchester, Vermont, farm and became the model for his first wood carving. He carved regularly for the rest of his 94 years.

Growing a Museum

The Birds of Vermont Museum exists because of a series of happy accidents. Bob Spear had a dream that was too big to fit anywhere else. He fell in love with Gale Lawrence, who just happened to have a workshop and the foundation of an old barn in her side yard. The land across the road happened to go on sale. Some friends were willing to donate money to the project. People volunteered to help out. And the rest is history.

The museum came together in bits and pieces. It’s hard to date when it first started, since the earliest carvings are from 1938 (the parakeets). At first, all the carvings fit in the workshop, but then Bob didn’t have space to carve any longer.

Some good friends made a generous donation, and Bob hired a crew and built a new barn on top of the old foundation in 1981. (Gale called it “the barn” long after he was calling it “the museum.”)

By 1987, Bob had carved 321 birds. That’s when the official opening was celebrated with champagne, although the place had been sort of open to visitors before then. Bob set up the Museum as a non-profit, asked some good folks he knew to become board members in 1988, and the Museum took flight.

Within a few years, he filled up the main floor of the new barn with carvings. So he finished off the downstairs. By 1992, the museum had acquired the viewing window, a real gift shop, a conference room, offices, central heating, and most importantly, bathrooms (so people didn’t have to keep running up to Gale’s house. Their relationship was in danger). Bob also needed a staff to run the place while he carved. And carved. And carved.

The outside grounds developed pretty much the same way, mostly by coincidence. Gale bought the land across the road. Someone had started to dig a cellar hole there once, but had given up when it filled with water. Bob turned the cellar hole into a pond. Trails happened. Sheds, bridges, and bird blinds were imagined then built, one by one. Most recently, a tree house sprang up beside the museum, thanks to more generous donors and some enthusiastic students at the Essex Center for Technology.

In the summer of 2013, just when the museum collection reached 500 carvings and everything was looking great, a devastating rainstorm hit Huntington and created a gaping chasm where the path from the parking lot used to be. The flood also caused a lot of damage throughout the property. Not long after that, Bob himself passed away.

Faced with a double tragedy, the people who love the museum never faltered. In 2016, a fine new bridge graced the entrance to the museum, surrounded by carefully chosen native plants. Additional carvers have stepped  in to fill the void, the staff keeps on creating and improving programs and exhibits, and visitors continue to flock in.

Bob Spear’s legacy is big enough to do anyone proud.

— Kari Jo Spear