At Indiana Landmarks’ 1865 Morris-Butler House in Indianapolis, Indiana, we’ve had our share of animal sightings inside the house over the years. Every year when the weather cools, there’s always at least one small critter who finds their way inside and expires. We’ll come into work one fine fall day to discover (as we call it) the “stench of death” in the basement, usually around the elevator shaft and/or HVAC pipes/vents. It’s not just water that can find its way into our historic basements! Perhaps some of you can relate?
My (Kelly’s) animal sightings are relatively tame compared to my colleagues’ encounters – I’ve found bats. The first bat had unfortunately already died when I found him. The second was definitely alive. I was eating my lunch in our staff kitchen when I hear a noise coming from the trash can. Looking inside, I saw a small bat trying to climb his/her way out of the trash can. After taking one very large step backwards in surprise (okay, maybe several steps backwards), we used the trash can to take the bat to a better life outside.
But these are just the tip of the iceberg of animal visitors to Morris-Butler House. Most of the really good stories predate my time at the house, so I’ve invited my colleague, Gwendolen Nystrom, to share her recollections about other unexpected—and endangered—historic house guests.
My (Gwendolen’s) experience with unexpected guests are usually endangered. It seems fitting for endangered species to find our historic site. They must somehow know that we support preservation efforts!
One Saturday several years ago, a colleague was giving a tour when she heard shrill shrieking coming from inside the chimney. People always ask if the house is haunted, and after hearing the shrieking, this was one tour group that just didn’t believe her when the answer was “No!” After the tour group left, we went upstairs just as a tiny “chimney swift” bird came tumbling out of the chimney… and then another… and another. Because these birds are an endangered species in Indiana, it was illegal to take any actions to remove them. Knowing that these birds are endangered, the kind-hearted staff in consultation with professionals moved the displaced birds to a local shelter who could help relocate them. The rest of the bird family eventually migrated. Once they were gone, we promptly had the chimney recapped to prevent further house guests.
The most unexpected encounter with endangered species house guests went something like this: One day, I was sitting at my desk when a normally calm and reserved docent came in and in a very shaky voice while wringing her hands said, “Gwendolen… um… there are BEES …in the parlor….” Expecting to see a few errant bees dive-bombing tour guests, I went up to the parlor and found not one or two bees, but an emerging colony of honeybees covering EVERY artifact and the floor in the room! What do you do next? RUN! And shut the doors. The bees had gotten into the walls from a crack in the mortar between the bricks on the outside of the house, built a nest, and emerged through a hole in the plaster. Perhaps it was because they were intrigued by the docent’s tour? Once the endangered honeybees were safely removed by a trained beekeeper, we repaired the holes in the plaster and mortar.
The overarching lesson learned here is that it’s important to keep up with your historic house’s maintenance to prevent unexpected house guests. Despite proper maintenance and planning, even an endangered Indiana brown bat may find its way into the basement anyway… like one did this week! I’m sure Morris-Butler House isn’t alone in attracting animal visitors. What are the strangest, or most exciting, animal encounters you’ve had at your historic site?
Gwendolen Nystrom is Director, Indianapolis Volunteers and Heritage Experiences. Kelly Gascoine is Heritage Experiences Manager. Both Nystrom and Gascoine work for Indiana Landmarks. Indiana Landmarks is a statewide historic preservation nonprofit with a mission to revitalize communities, reconnect people with their heritage, and save meaningful places.
Want to write for AASLH? Learn more and submit a blog post here.