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The Fascinating Libby Museum

The Laker - June 21, 2017





By Kathi Caldwell-Hopper

I’m in love with Dr. Libby. From the first time I saw his piercing, intense, dark-eyed gaze and fancy, artsy Victorian clothing, I have found him a fascinating person. I admire his wife, Mrs. (Hattie) Libby, as well. In an age when most women – especially in a small town in rural New England – dressed with austerity, Mrs. Libby looks to have had quite a lot of style, from her jaunty little caps to the patterned embroidery that embellished her velvet jacket sleeves and collar.

If the reader fears I am about to launch into a flowery description fit for a romance novel, rest assured that is not the case. Instead, I am writing about the Libby Museum, that wonderful and highly unusual place located at 755 North Main Street near the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee in Wolfeboro.

If anyone understands my love of Dr. Libby (his full name was Dr. Henry Forrest Libby), it is Alana Albee, the new director of the Libby Museum. Spend just a few minutes with Alana, and you will find the time slips away and suddenly you have been chatting and exchanging ideas and listening to her descriptions of Scotland, where she lived for many years before returning to Wolfeboro.

Alana stepped into the job as director of the Libby Museum a bit by accident. She explains that she is a “local girl.” Her grandfather, Allen Albee, is well known to many locals and people who spent summer vacations at the Allen A Resort on Rt. 28 in Wolfeboro. (Mr. Albee built a resort that was anything but run-of-the-mill. “I have a photo of one of my grandfather’s circus animals – an elephant – bathing in the lake!” Alana laughs. She grew up near the resort and remembers very well the circus animals, the cabins, the dances and music at the Allen A Resort Quonset building (today the home of the NH Boat Museum) and much more.

For many years, Alana and her husband lived in Scotland and parts of Asia and Africa. She is modest about her work as an international diplomat with the British government, although it assuredly was a job that required being a people-person. She does, however, have plenty to say about the wonderful collection at the Libby Museum. She returned (with her husband) to Wolfeboro in 2014 and after settling in, decided she would like a part-time job.

While doing some historical research work at Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, Alana discovered there was a connection between the Academy and Dr. Libby. Off she went to the museum to do some further research and was approached to apply for the job of director of the natural history museum.

It is safe to say it was a perfect match. Alana has a lot of plans for the museum and is a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-the-job-done sort of person. One would assume Dr. Libby would be very pleased to hear about Alana’s plans and her caring for the vast collection he amassed so many years ago.

“The collection needs to be cared for,” she says emphatically. “This is a museum of museums. The building opened in 1912 and Dr. Libby wanted to share his collection with everyone.” Dr. Libby was born on a farm in Tuftonboro Neck in 1850 and he grew up loving the natural world. He moved to Boston at age 19 and worked for an itinerant dentist, later attending Harvard Dental School. Dr. Libby married Hattie and they had one son, Arthur. According to www.thelibbymuseum.org, “At age forty, in 1897, Dr. Libby changed his life’s focus returning to the Lakes Region to pursue his interest in the natural world. By then he had invented and patented calcined gypsum, critical to preservation and later to the building trade. He stated, ‘…life began anew for me, or rather the man I was meant to be was born… I began to see and feel the force and beauty of nature… from then on I commenced to collect things, study anatomy, sketch, draw and study.’ Dr. Libby turned his specimens into exhibits, and built the museum to house his, and others’ collections which we so enjoy today.” Dr. Libby lived until 1930, and his life was certainly a full one, with travel, a profession that helped others, and a lot of creativity.

Historically speaking, Dr. Libby’s dream was realized when he saw the museum completed and opened. Early postcards and photos show a building not so different from the one visitors browse through today. The structure’s architecture is a bit difficult to describe: the walls are tall, the roof unusual, the windows frosted (presumably to keep out damaging sunlight) and placed high up near the roofline. The museum’s main exhibit space is one very large, airy room with wooden floors. Glass cases line the walls and more cases in the center of the room house a most unusual collection, from early dental tools to a display of intricate Native American beading. And there are the mummy’s hands (yes, a real mummy!) circa the time period of Moses, a very, very long time ago.

If you want to see a huge, opened-mouth alligator, this is the place to come. A taxidermist did his job well years ago when preserving the very long, scaly alligator now encased under glass. The alligator sends a shudder through many visitors, with its dead-eyed stare and open mouth full of pointy teeth. If you are a fan of reptiles, check out the varieties of snakes including the native to NH rattlesnakes that may have lived on Rattlesnake Island on Winnipesaukee!

I found the intricate and colorful beading on the Native American moccasins and other objects quite beautiful. Surely Dr. Libby put a lot of care into collecting every piece in the museum and it takes one’s breath away to imagine the time it took to thoughtfully display it all.

There are Revolution-era rifles, stuffed birds of all kinds, a Polar Bear, a fairly new and according to Alana, very popular moose in the collection as well.

“If you are a history buff or natural science lover or a child who wants to see some different things, this is the place to come,” Alana adds. The town of Wolfeboro, she says, has stewarded the property and collection since the 1950s and they, along with the Libby family honor Dr. Libby’s wish to have the many items cared for and the museum open to the public every summer to enjoy.

The town of Wolfeboro is working toward the goal of becoming known far and wide as a museum destination town. After all, Alana says, there are five wonderful museums in Wolfeboro (the Wright Museum of WWII, the NH Boat Museum, Clark House Museum, the upcoming Railway Museum and the Libby Museum) and not many towns can claim such a collection.

Among the plans the town has for the Libby Museum is a new fan system and perhaps going back to the building’s original ceiling. Work was completed a few years ago on a nature trail and at present, trees have identification signage. “Dr. Libby’s dream was to have two species of every NH tree on the property. The trail is a way to honor his wishes, with many old and spectacular species,” Alana explains.

What is Alana’s personal hope and dream for the Libby Museum? Her eyes light up as she shares, “I want to have a steamboat like the one Dr. Libby had (‘The Mohawk’).” She gazes from the front door to the sparkling lake directly across the road as she explains, “I would love for the museum to have a boat like his, with the canopy. It would be charming and a strong visitor attraction. After all, we do have a dock…” she trails off as she dreams of future plans.

Those plans include speakers and programs from children, an exhibit section in the museum featuring New England photographers and artists (a dream that is becoming a reality with some wonderful exhibits planned for this summer and fall) and more ideas she has brewing.

That is what makes Alana a perfect match for the Libby Museum. She welcomes ideas and says people have called or stopped by to chat and share great ideas. (One idea has become a reality and will see School of Forest expert Chris Russell teaching a weeklong course in outdoor skills for ages 11 to 14. “It is a five-day course, and was the suggestion of an area resident,” Alana explains. “There aren’t many programs for kids in that age group, and we hope people will sign up their kids. It will be August 15 to 19.”

As we browse the collection, we stop to admire a display of old photos of Dr. Libby, Mrs. Libby and their friends. My favorite is a large black-and-white photograph of the Libby’s sitting in easy chairs on the deck of their steamboat. Mrs. Libby wearing a jaunty little hat and Dr. Libby wears gentlemanly boating attire. His dark eyes can just be seen in an almost side view, and one can imagine their conversation as they discuss the museum, the family, books they are reading…and life on the lake.

If you want a memorable experience, the Libby Museum is the place to go. It will amaze and delight with its vast, unusual collection of objects from all over the world.

And maybe, like me, you will fall in love with Dr. Libby as well. His vision to share this collection with others has given us a museum among museums. I think he would approve of Alana to watch over his collection and I think Mrs. Libby would approve as well.

The Libby Museum is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 am to 4 pm and Sundays from noon to 4 pm; closed Mondays from June 1 to Sept. 1, and then weekends to Columbus Day. Call 603-569-1035 for information. Visit www.libbymuseum.org for a schedule of summer programs and children’s events. 

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