Book Cover

Extended Entries to the ASDM Scrapbook

Early Days at ASDM

When Bill Woodin became the second Director of the Desert Museum just two years after its opening, his title carried a degree of prestige, but bore little relationship to the tasks he performed. This was true also of the other early employees. Money was in short supply, employees were few, the future uncertain, and everyone simply did what needed to be done.

"I always tried to get out there a little early each morning," said Bill, "in order to make a fast tour around the grounds to pick up any litter on the grounds. I got to be very fast with my forceps, particularly with cigarette butts."

Bill had a closet-sized office immediately off the entry way to the Small Animal Room. It had a Dutch-type door, divided in halves, and while the bottom portion was often closed, the top half remained open. Bill and his office often served as an information desk and first aid station. Bill wrote most of the labels and daily drove his station wagon from his home on the east side of Tucson to the Museum, stopping along the way to pick up employees who rode with him. And there were times when he, like all the other employees, filled in and cleaned the public restrooms.

During an early financial crisis the staff was reduced first from 12 to 9, and then to 5, and all, including the Director, received the same reduced salary.

In the earliest years Merv Larson was building small exhibits, but he was also feeding the large animals and cleaning their cages. There was one person, only, David Carswell, handling the education aspect of the Museum. Merritt Keasey was a one-man reptile, insect, and small mammal department. Lew Walker and his wife Melanie lived on the grounds and Lew was always on call for emergencies, special projects, and as host almost every summer evening for photographers who came to use the wildlife blind which he had built not far from the present education building.

One day off a week was the usual arrangement for employees; this usually taken during the week as weekends were busy times at the Museum. Families of Museum employees took needy, orphaned animals, such as mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, jaguars, beavers, badgers and others into their homes to nurse back to health or raise. Small sons of employees armed with B-B guns collected lizards to be frozen, then used as snake food, and employees raised masses of mealworms in a room in the old Mountain House stables. In another stable room a volunteer organized donated books into a beginning library.

Some large animals were often treated almost as pets. Mountain lions were occasionally led on leashes about the grounds, and keepers played with them through the chain link fences or entered their enclosures. At different times two mountain lions and one skunk wrote a very well received weekly newspaper column about museum happenings. The births of animal babies were usually welcomed by staff and certainly by visitors, and the young were displayed until homes for them were located. Eventually a popular animal nursery with public viewing was built.

In those days, before the establishment of animal rehabilitation centers, employees often answered the calls of distraught homeowners and made house calls to collect an injured or orphaned animal, or what the callers considered dangerous rattlesnakes or Gila monsters. And two cooperative service stations in town served as drop off points where Tucson's citizens could leave snakes or other animals for the Museum. These, as well as the employees, were picked up daily by Bill or the day's designated car pool driver. A weekly stop was also made at the local slaughterhouse to pick up a supply of blood for feeding the vampire bats, once they were displayed at the museum.

When new animals were needed for exhibit, employees usually collected them on their own time using their own vehicles. Rudy Johansson, the Museum's carpenter and versatile jack-of-all-trades brought most of his own power tools from home for Museum use. In the beginning there was no food concession, then a converted bus was set up in the parking lot by the Hogans to dispense soft drinks, hot dogs, and hamburgers.

The employee living in the small house by the stables was for many years the informal and only night watchman. There was no admission charge until 1954 when, after some rather passionate rhetoric, a charge of 50 cents for adults was instituted. Donation boxes appealed for, and were successful in raising funds to build a prairie dog enclosure, followed by one for the coatis.

The weekly television program was informally hosted by Hal Gras and sometimes generated surprises when a visiting animal failed to cooperate and nipped the host or guest, slithered out of sight under the furniture, or bolted into the rafters of the station while being filmed.

The road over Gates Pass was unpaved. There was no telephone service. In the meantime a radiophone was used, but reception and transmission behind the Tucson Mountains was often impossible. More than once the phone was driven to the top of Gates Pass where a call could more easily be completed. Also, some obscure rule stated that the phone was to be kept in a vehicle. Bill Carr respected the rules, so sometimes it was kept in the Museum's beat-up, old station wagon, but often it resided in a small red wagon (a four-wheeled vehicle of sorts) on the Museum grounds.

Water reached the Museum through a small diameter pipe from two tanks located near the Gil Ray Campground. The supply was limited and sometimes erratic so that occasionally it had to be trucked in. And at the Desert Museum, located in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, there was but a single, public drinking fountain.

In looking back on the first twenty-five years of the Museum's history, Carol Cochran wrote, "Despite the lean days and the hard times, nearly everyone who worked for the Museum in the beginning spoke of the work as a labor of love."

There have been many changes at the Desert Museum since those early beginnings, but one thing has not changed. That is the personal pride in the institution held by all — staff, volunteers, members, Trustees, and others, who have been involved in its phenomenal growth.

Bill Carr expressed it many years ago, when he wrote, "The Museum has progressively improved to the extent that it is now foremost in its field — known throughout the world. This fact is largely due to the frequent sparks of creative, innovative genius and plain hard work of its dedicated staff under outstandingly imaginative leadership.