The Bird Village

Ernest Harold Baynes with his wife Louise Baynes seen in a pre-1919 photograph taken in Meriden.

Ernest Harold Baynes with his wife Louise Baynes seen in a pre-1919 photograph taken in Meriden.

The Kimball Union, June 1910

“An Unique Movement Ernest Harold Baynes, the noted naturalist, has suggested a novel and very interesting work for the students of Kimball Union Academy, it is the work of protecting and helping the birds.”

Baynes, while living a few miles from Meriden village in Corbin’s Park, a 28,000-acre, fenced-in, nature reserve on Grantham Mountain, following his great interest in wildlife, studied its deer, elk, wild boar, buffalo, and birds. At his 1910 lecture to the KUA community, he relayed his great hope to interest schools and academies across the country in his lifelong passion for the protection and care of birds. To encourage the interest of the class of 1910, he told them they would be the first school in the country to help him in this great movement. He was certain, he said, that all future graduating classes would continue a tradition started by them to “put up a certain number of bird houses, feeding stations, or bird fountains, marked with the class numerals. …”

One of many, this “Meriden” martin house was located just beyond KUA’s Duncan House.

One of many, this “Meriden” martin house was located just beyond KUA’s Duncan House.

With much enthusiasm, the seniors became engaged in Baynes’ dream and gave $25 from their class funds towards new “. . . bird-houses and helping the start of this movement.” Although they did not give directly to the school, it was a gift, the class was told, they would be forever proud of as a “. . . gift to the whole country. It is a great opportunity to make Meriden a famous bird resort, and one which people will come hundreds of miles to see . . . .” Baynes ended his lecture with his “. . . wish that a society would be formed in Meriden for the purpose of feeding and attracting birds to that place.”

Because of the great response, the Meriden Bird Club, the first-ever in America, was organized on December 7, 1910, in Baxter Hall Chapel. “Its objectives were: The increase and protection of our local wild birds, the stimulation of interest in bird life, and the gradual establishment of a model bird sanctuary.” The next morning, KUA students were seen enthusiastically scattering seed across the church green and hanging bags of suet in its trees. A month later, Baynes, the General Manager, called to order the first meeting of the Meriden Bird Club in Baxter Chapel. Headmaster Tracy was voted treasurer and teacher Frank M. Howe, President of the club with other positions filled by the villagers. Committees were set up, among them, one to draft a constitution and bye-laws and one to draft a plan for bird study in local schools. Another was “to consider construction of a martin house at the Academy in keeping with the architecture of the Bryant Dormitory . . . .” At a second meeting in January, membership fees were established: “Associate Members $1; Life Members, $25; Patron, $100; Junior Members (under 14) 10 cents.” The class of 1910, as original donors, were made charter members.

To gain further interest in the club, Baynes organized photography and essay contests. The contests and prizes varied from a $25 Century camera for the best 1,500-3,000-word essay on “Birds to be Seen Within Ten Miles of Meriden” to one “for the best essay on ‘Bird Feeding in Winter’ by any student at Kimball Union Academy.’” Another was a pair of field glasses for the best six photographs of birds that illustrated “bird protection in Meriden.”

Involvement in the care of birds was seen throughout the village and outlying farms. At KUA, “The student girls scattered food on the roofs and porches of their dormitory . . .” and knitted suet bags. Locally, barn doors were left open for bird access and people constructed a variety of birdhouses to be placed around the village including ones made from flour or sugar barrels, ceramics, and tree limbs.

According to Plainfield’s history book, Choice White Pines and Good Land, there was an attempt by club members to curtail the natural activities of squirrels and cats; the squirrels ate the birdseed and the cats ate the birds. Although Baynes disliked killing animals, “. . . for the protection of the birds, he accepted a gift of a .22 caliber rifle . . .” and joined the local hunt for the miscreant squirrels and cats of Meriden. Cat owners were not happy. It was perhaps fortunate that the motion for Article XVII at the 1919 Town Meeting did not pass as it was “To see if the town would vote to adopt a cat ordinance in the village of Meriden.”  

The Meriden Bird Club museum, now a private home, and the entrance gate featuring a sign designed, painted and donated by Augustus Saint Gaudens of Cornish, NH.

The Meriden Bird Club museum, now a private home, and the entrance gate featuring a sign designed and donated by Maxfield Parrish of Plainfield, NH.

The chance for Baynes’ further dream of a bird sanctuary came in April 1911, when the Meriden Bird Club, thanks to the initial generosity of Helen Woodruff, purchased a farmhouse and 32-acres of land in the village for $1000. The land was ideal for a sanctuary as it included “. . . a pine grove, a tract of hard wood, swamp and tillage land that could be developed into a park . . . ” and the house, into a nature museum. The dedication of the Meriden Bird Sanctuary was held in the staging area on September 13, 1913. The ceremony included, Sanctuary: A Bird Masque, written by poet Percy MacKaye, a friend of Baynes from Plainfield, NH. President and Mrs. Wilson were among the many distinguished guests. Their eldest daughter, Eleanor, had a leading role in the masque and their daughter, Margaret, sang the opening song, The Hermit Thrush.

The birdbath placed on the church green for the enjoyment of birds, students and visitors to Meriden.

The birdbath placed on the church green for the enjoyment of birds, students and visitors to Meriden.

KUA’s trustees agreed to Baynes’ idea of placing a birdbath on “campus” (the church green) for the enjoyment of students and summer visitors staying at the Bird Village Inn (old Dexter Richards Hall). Headmaster Tracy suggested using a large boulder for the birdbath. One, weighing between three and four tons, was found on a hillside farm about a half-mile from the green; before it could be moved, men had to loosen it with crowbars. Once free of the earth, the stone careened down the hill crushing a tree and plowing its way through a stonewall before coming to rest. Two teams of oxen and some powerful workhorses brought the “great boulder” on a “drag” to the church green. The top was chiseled out for the bath, followed by a hole drilled through the stone to connect to the local water system. The birdbath, taken care of by KUA student Heraclito Alvarez ’12, was a great success for birds and visitors alike. Three other birdbaths were installed in the sanctuary. They included a second boulder brought in by four teams of oxen, a large shell birdbath from the Philippines, a gift from Baynes, and a bronze bath called the “Overcus” designed by Mrs. Louis Saint-Gaudens.

This June it will have been 104 years since Ernest Harold Baynes appealed to the Class of 1910 to join him in the protection and care of birds. The Meriden Bird Club, still strong in the care and enjoyment of birds, no longer owns the museum house, but the land, located behind the Meriden Town Hall, is still a place of sanctuary for the birds of Meriden and the enjoyment of its people.

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