TURNER — Maxine Hinkley tugged open two drawers she’d never opened before and gasped.
Stacks of bird bodies piled one on top of another. Feathers as fluffy as the day they dropped out of the sky a century ago.
And around each ankle, a little ID tag: Pine Siskin, 1892. Bay-breasted warbler, 1890.
The unexpected drawer of birds joined a dozen-plus stuffed animals displayed around the room. And a pine cone collection. A bird nest collection. A snake and snakeskin collection. A dirt collection in carefully labeled glass bottles, one with Dust Bowl dust.
“People collected everything in those days and thank God they did,” said Hinkley, president of the Turner Natural History Club Museum.
The little rural club’s seashells are considered so extraordinary the American Museum of Natural History in New York City swung by to borrow 900 in 1997. The curator of zoology at the Maine State Museum calls it a “phenomenal resource,” maybe unique in Maine today.
Yet Hinkley’s pretty sure that for the last two decades nearly no one knew what, or where, it was.
“Museum” was just recently added to the name, along with a new sign, phone number and e-mail. In a real sense, the place is dusting itself off.
Their club dates to 1920, when members met once a month to listen to music, read poetry and show off collections comprised of things that cost little or no money. Hence dirt. Empty turtle shells. Neat jars stickered “Corn Products” from someone who apparently raided an old-time cereal cupboard (“Corn Kix,” “Shredded Ralston”).
Back in the day, it all made for a fun evening out. Membership swelled to 100, Hinkley said.
“Imagine the work people put into this,” she said. “It was their hobby; it was their thing to do. They didn’t sit around watching TV — there was no TV.”
Through an all-volunteer effort, they built the shallow white cape on 442 Turner Center Road as a clubhouse in 1930. Almost every room is lined with shelves or glass bookcases and taken up by something. As members died, they left the club intricate wood displays and hand-numbered envelopes stuffed with moss and lichen. Hundreds of rocks. Even a stuffed white baby seal.
The largest reserve is the seashells: Hinkley estimates the club has 50,000. Wing and pearl oysters. Tellins. Tun and fig shells. Janthina snails. Cowries.
A letter from the American Museum of Natural History that thanked the club for an indefinite loan of specimens like Hawaiian land snails said they would “greatly assist scientists around the world who frequently borrow such material for scientific research and education.”
The labels and attention to detail give the club a “time capsule feel,” said Paula Work at the Maine State Museum, who’s driven out to visit. It’s also a boon to those looking at issues like climate change.
“I was thrilled on two levels. One, that the center exists,” she said. Second, that through a new grant to survey science collections around the state, she’ll be able to offer some help.
“Those little ‘aha’ moments that are stored in drawers together, collectively, make these a phenomenal resource,” Work said.
Today the club is at 14 members and doesn’t meet monthly to read poetry and show off collections as much as to plan the future for the collections they’ve got, Hinkley said.
She’s been president since February. Her husband, Homer, has been a member for 50 years. She plans to ask the town for help going forward with operating costs. This fall, she’ll pursue grants. Next spring, she’d like to write its history.
On the group’s to-do list is preserving the largely pristine stuffed specimens: Barred owls. Louisiana water thrush. A pair of yellow and green budgerigars, parakeet look-alikes that look like they could come to life.
How’d they fare so well over the decades left in the open air, in an unheated clubhouse?
Maine temperatures helped, Work said. Without much activity in the building, there wasn’t much dust kicked up. And, it turns out, the liberal use of taxidermy poison provided an assist.
“Those birds are laden with arsenic, so they’ve become unpalatable to the insect world,” Work said. 

Weird, Wicked Weird is a monthly feature on the strange, unexplained and intriguing in Maine. Send photos, ideas or 20,000 yellow socks to kskelton@sunjournal.com

Curious? Check out the Turner Natural History Club Museum yourself.
What: Open house
When: July 4, 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Where: 442 Turner Center Road, Turner
Cost: Free, but donations accepted
FMI: turnat442@megalink.net; 225-3384
Visitors are also welcome on the last Thursday of the month at 7 p.m., during club board meetings.

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