“Nothing Like It In The World”
May 1, 1893
The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago was billed as a world’s fair to surpass all previous world’s fairs. Conceived to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage to the New World, the fair became a triumphant celebration of America’s Gilded Age optimism and innovation. From May 1 to October 31 of that year, more than 27 million people visited the 633-acre exposition in Jackson Park alongside Lake Michigan known as “The White City,” (the appellation referred to the unpainted plaster-based coating used on most of the major structures).
They saw an extraordinary range of attractions in 14 main Beaux-Arts style exhibit halls and over 200 secondary buildings that housed mechanical marvels, artistic masterpieces, historical artifacts, and numerous amusements from the United States and around the world. A must-see on many fairgoers’ lists was the Kansas Pavilion, which attracted between 10,000 to 12,000 visitors a day. The main reason for this popularity was the Panorama of North American Mammals, a unique demonstration of the taxidermist’s art created by KU natural history professor Lewis Lindsay Dyche.
This unparalleled collection of 121 mammals included deer, elk, mountain goats, bison, a grizzly bear, two fighting bull moose, and a host of smaller animals. They were displayed in groupings and surroundings that mimicked the natural settings of several regions across North America at the time of early autumn. A separate exhibit featured the preserved remains of the horse “Comanche,” then considered the “sole US survivor of the Battle of the Little Big Horn.” Dyche’s work received rave reviews from many who saw it, including many of his peers in the field of natural history.
Scientific American contended the Kansas pavilion contained “one of the most remarkable exhibits to be seen at the great Fair… the work of a man who is recognized by naturalists as the best taxidermist in the country, if not in the world.” The publication concluded its encomium to Dyche and his work by noting “Artists and professional men from all over the world who have seen it say this is the finest group of mounted animals they have seen, and that there is nothing like it in the world.” Using similar language, the Book of the Fair, a three-volume souvenir guidebook, hailed Kansas for exhibiting “the best specimens of taxidermy displayed in the Exposition and one of the best in the world.”
Some Kansans, however, were less than thrilled with this presentation of Dyche’s artistry. With one-third of the available space in the Kansas pavilion given over to the KU professor’s animal collection, many Kansas newspapers editorialized against the exhibit because it had nothing to do with the Sunflower State per se, as Bill Sharp and Peggy Sullivan have noted in their 1990 biography of Dyche, The Dashing Kansan.
The Topeka Daily Capital grumbled that the best spot in the pavilion was devoted to a “huge display of dead beasts” that “does not even in the slightest particular represent the state.” In a similar vein, the Newton Republican contended, “Very few Kansas people want Kansas to be known to the world as the stuffed animal state.” The paper also took a personal swipe at Dyche, grousing “What we need at the great fair is to show the world how all men can make a living in Kansas, not simply how Professor Dyche makes a living.” And the Salina Republican wondered why there was any point to a taxidermy collection “when the parks will be full of the same animals living and in good health.”
This journalistic carping did not deter Dyche in the slightest. (Indeed, the Emporia Gazette pointed out that Dyche and his exhibit were gaining a great deal of publicity from the contretemps, and a Lawrence paper suggested the brouhaha might be part of a conscious promotional effort.) The Kansas Pavilion became a showcase for not only for North American mammals, but also for Dyche’s singular skill at taxidermy and display design.
Dyche had learned his craft from William T. Hornaday, chief taxidermist at the Smithsonian (then often referred to as the National Museum) in Washington, DC. Hornaday taught Dyche the art of the painted backdrop to best depict animals in their natural habitat. While Dyche was preparing the Panorama of North American Mammals for the Exposition, Hornaday wrote him advising “the proper amount of paint will give your exhibit an out-door and Wild West effect that will make it simply stunning.”
Dyche, a natural showman who was only beginning to come into his own, took Hornaday’s suggestion a step further. With the help of E.D. Eames, W.W. Wyland, and Charlie Saunders, he constructed a 20-foot-high wooden framework for a papier-mâché cliff for the mountain sheep and mountain goats he had collected in the Rocky Mountains. Because of problems with thieves lurking around the fair grounds, Dyche constructed living quarters inside the papier-mâché cliff with a “secret entrance” under the rocks so he could be on-site to protect his animals 24 hours a day. (On one occasion, his pregnant wife Ophelia even spent the night with him there.)
The Board of Regents got wind of this and took steps to encourage Dyche’s well-known loyalty to his native state. The Board determined – uncharacteristically, given its often parsimonious and short-sighted ways – that the value Lewis Lindsay Dyche could bring to KU and the state of Kansas would be worth whatever it took to keep him here. The Regents announced that the state of Kansas “owes it to herself to retain the invaluable services of Professor Dyche, and . . . to build up a natural history collection that can never be equaled in the world.”
Dyche remained at KU until 1909, when he obtained a leave-of-absence to serve as state game warden for Kansas, a position he held at the time of his death in 1915. Meanwhile, in 1902, his collection received a permanent home on the hill when Dyche Hall was built especially as the University’s Natural History Museum. A version of the exhibit that first wowed visitors in Chicago over a century ago still amazes the more than 100,000 people who annually visit KU’s most popular museum.
Department of History
University of Kansas