Happy 165th Birthday to Althea Sherman!

Althea Rosina Sherman was born October 10th, 1853 to Mark Bachelor Sherman
and Melissa Clark Sherman in Farmersburg Township, Iowa. Althea’s home was built by her father in the middle of the prairie, where she and her four siblings would live for about 20 years until they decided to build a home closer to the up and coming village of National, Iowa. Soon Althea was enrolled in classes at Upper Iowa University in Fayette, Iowa. From there she went to Oberlin College, where she graduated in 1875 at the age of 22. She continued her education at Oberlin College and earned her Master’s Degree in 1882. After graduation, Althea worked as a public school teacher for about four years.

Althea Sherman IOU Newsletter
Althea Sherman in a studio portrait from 1916; Image from IOU Memorial Newsletter

Althea returned to school at the Art Institute of Chicago and at the Art Students’ League in New York City. From 1882-1887 she was a drawing instructor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Then, from 1892-1895 she was the supervisor of drawing for the city schools in Tacoma, Washington. Many of Althea’s personal works focused on her main interests in the fields of botany, ornithology, and mammalogy.

In 1895 Althea returned home to Iowa to care for her sick parents in their home. After her mother died in 1902, she decided to stay in Iowa. In 1907 she joined the American Ornithologists’ Union, but she would not be named a “member” until 1912, when she became the third woman to receive a membership. There were only 100 available “member” seats for women at the time. Aside from the AOU, Althea was a member of 14 other scientific societies, including the Iowa Ornithologist’s Union, who published a 20 page memorial newsletter in her honor in June of 1943.

Althea continued to live in her parents home with her older sister Dr. Amelia Sherman, and together they worked towards creating a bird sanctuary and dutifully tended to the landscape around the house. Althea built her chimney swift tower in 1915 so that she could better observe the nesting habits of the birds. The tower stood 30 feet high and had a winding staircase in the middle, wrapping its way around the fake chimney in the center of the tower. The chimney was covered in windows and peep holes which could be viewed from the staircase. Ornithologists came from all over to see the tower she had designed.

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Althea Sherman’s Chimney Swift Tower in National Iowa, photograph taken by Walter Rosene, August 10, 1928. MS 589 Box 17 Folder 3

In 1922 at the American Ornithologist’s Union convention in Chicago, three of her paintings were on display. Althea also conducted research on other fauna and flora, and in 1929 her article Summer Outings of Bats During Fourteen Seasons about the bats in the area was published in the Journal of Mammalogy  volume 10. The paper she wrote from her seven year study of Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds was read at the Thirty-first Annual Congress of American Ornithologists’ Union, in New York City in 1913, and was also published in Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution, and by the Avicultural Magazine of London. Along with her many published works, Althea was also listed in the American Men of Science and the Who’s Who of the Women of the Nation.

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Althea Sherman and her sister, Dr. Amelia Sherman on their front porch in August of 1923; Photo from IOU Memorial Newsletter

Althea went on to study of the world around her for the rest of her life. After the death of her sister Amelia in 1940, she continued to live in the home, where she stayed for the rest of her life, studying her beloved birds and sharing her home with the public until her death on April 16, 1943.

Althea left all her belongings and land to the National Cemetery Association, and in case they refused to honor her terms, the State of Iowa. She left behind detailed instructions on what was to be done with her land, including that the Sherman home was to be left in a condition that birds would still enjoy living in the area, that Screech Owls and House Wrens were not allowed to breed there, and that every year a professor who would spend time studying birds should live on the property. Her dream was that her home be turned into a bird sanctuary of sorts, however her instructions were not followed. Both potential heirs refused her conditions, and everything was sold off. The house and barn were both torn down, and the Chimney Swift tower was moved to Harpers Ferry, Iowa in 1962. The tower stood in Harpers Ferry for 30 years, and while there it fell into a serious state of disrepair. In 1992 the Songbird Project took possession of the tower and moved it to Iowa City, Iowa with the goal of repairing the tower. A group was formed from the Songbird Project to take over the massive restoration project called the Althea R. Sherman Project. The tower now stands after 20+ years in storage, at the Bickett-Rate Memorial Preserve near Buchanan, Iowa. The tower has been completely repaired, ready to educate visitors from near and far about the wonders of the Chimney Swift.

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