Cedar County bird observatory upright again

Once used by iconic bird watcher Althea Sherman, tower had been in storage for 21 years

Orlan Love
Published: May 8 2013 | 12:38 pm - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 3:05 pm in
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The historic Althea Sherman chimney swift tower stood upright Tuesday for the first time in 21 years.

“There were many times I thought this day would never come,” said Barbara Boyle of Williamsburg, shortly after a crane lifted the 6,500-pound tower onto a concrete foundation at a 560-acre nature preserve along the Cedar River near the Cedar County town of Buchanan.

“It has been 98 years since the tower first went up, 77 years since Althea Sherman last used it, nearly 21 years since it last stood,” said Boyle, a member of the Johnson County Songbird Project who has championed the effort to preserve the memory of Sherman.

“Your devotion has paid off,” Dan Daly of Iowa City, a member of the Songbird Project’s board of directors, told Boyle.

“No one knows more about Althea (than Boyle),” Daly said. “This project will help popularize the work of a very important woman scientist of the early 1900s who seemed doomed to oblivion.”

Althea Sherman, a self-taught ornithologist, built the ingenious tower in 1915 in the Clayton County town of National to aid in her study of chimney swifts.

The tower’s artificial chimney attracted nesting swifts, which Sherman observed through windows and peepholes accessible from a circular stairway. Her groundbreaking bird study methods and meticulous observations attracted renowned ornithologists to National.

Born in 1853, Sherman lived most of her life in National, where she conducted painstaking studies of birds that nested near her home. Many of her observations were recorded in “Birds of an Iowa Dooryard,” a book published after her death. In 1912, she became only the fourth woman to be named a member of the American Ornithologists’ Union.

“The more I read about her, the more that woman amazes — a self-taught woman rising to the top of a then-male dominated field,” said Bob Anderson, director of the Raptor Research Project, whose Decorah eagle nest cam has set the modern standard for bird observation techniques.

As soon as swifts settle in the tower, Anderson will set up a nest cam that will enable Internet users to see what Sherman saw though her peepholes.

After Sherman’s death in 1943, the family property in National was sold and the tower was moved to Harpers Ferry, where it stood until the Songbird Project acquired it in 1992. The 28-foot-tall, 9-foot-square tower has since been in storage.

The site is the Bickett-Rate Preserve and the partner is the farm’s owner, the Cedar County Historical Society.

“I think we’ve got something special here. History is coming back alive,” said society president Sharon Lynch-Voparil.

The tower stands next to Edgewood Hall, a rambling 1836 farmhouse listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The preserve has seldom been open to the public since it was bequeathed to the historical society in 1994, but that will change when restoration of the tower and of Edgewood Hall is complete, Lynch-Voparil said.

“It will be a combination historical site and bird refuge. We should not be hiding something like this,” she said.

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