Lewis Lindsay Dyche started off humbly enough. As a young boy growing up in the Wakarusa Valley of Kansas, he refused to attend school, preferring instead to spend his time outdoors with his father or at a nearby Native American village. While Dyche did not learn to read during these early years, he did master the art of identifying wildlife with impressive accuracy.
As Dyche matured, however, he became dissatisfied with his own illiteracy and decided to pursue an education. After attending the state normal school at Emporia, he went to the University of Kansas and received classical training. But this did not suit him, either, so he followed this course of study up with one in natural history. Here he discovered his insatiable passion for taxidermy.
Dyche developed his taxidermy skills under the supervision of William T. Hornaday, the chief taxidermist at the National Museum (now the Smithsonian) at Washington D.C. It was from Hornaday that Dyche learned about the use of painted backdrops to display mounted specimens at their best.
Dyche began a taxidermy collection for the benefit of the University of Kansas. While modern readers may be staggered at the number of animals killed to provide this exhibit (121 mammals alone), to Dyche his project was an effort in conservation. He believed that the relentless hunting to which most of the species were subject at the time would soon drive them to extinction. Preserving them as mounts would allow the public to enjoy them forever, a far better option than letting them disappear without a trace.
As the display progressed, its impressive scale caught attention. It was quickly decided to ship the animals off to represent Kansas at the Chicago’s World Fair of 1893. Surprisingly, this move met with a great deal of resistance.
Political wrangling in the state legislature, embroiled in controversy over Populism at the time, left Kansas without an appropriation for the Chicago World’s Fair. This meant that everything to be displayed in the Kansas Building had to be obtained through private enterprise, making the taxidermy exhibit vitally important.
About one third of the space allotted to Kansas was to be occupied by taxidermy, and yet the exhibit was known as the “Panorama of North American Mammals”—not specifically Kansas. Deer, bison, and other native wildlife would share space with mountain goats and polar bears. In the words of The Leavenworth Times:
If they were all Kansas animals there might be some point in occupying space with them, but as it is, the world will either come to think this is a wild country or will wonder why these stuffed animals are made our chief exhibit.The Leavenworth Times, January 8, 1893.
While Lawrence newspapers were largely ecstatic, other sources around the state groaned in unison. When Dyche’s animals were unloaded onto the fairgrounds at the end of 1892, The Wichita Eagle complained:
About a week ago there was unloaded in Jackson Park, Chicago, several car loads of stuffed animals from the Kansas State university, which were given space in the Kansas state building, and today people know more of this absurd exhibit than know of the fact that Kansas last year raised seventy-five million bushels of wheat, and other crops in proportion, and, in fact, had better general crops than any state in the Union.
Thus it is in every case. If anything sensational happens in connection with Kansas it comes to the front and is persistently kept before the public, while that which is substantial and of worth is overlooked.“Only of Kansas,” The Weekly Eagle, December 30, 1892.
Likewise, The Leavenworth Weekly Times objected:
What we need at the great fair is to show the world how all men can make a living in Kansas, not simply how Prof. Dyche makes a living. Very few Kansas people want Kansas to be known to the world as the stuffed animal state.“The Stuffed Animal State,” The Leavenworth Weekly Times, December 22, 1892.
Dyche’s exhibit was certainly striking for the sheer number of animals on display. However, the display included some features that were rather revolutionary at the time. For instance, the 360-degree presentation was unique, as was the attempt to provide a background that represented with at least some degree of accuracy the native haunts of the various species. For this purpose, the animals were grouped together by region, although the regions were unified by an early autumn theme made particularly brilliant by a glass roof, which allowed sunlight to illuminate the exhibit below.
While Dyche borrowed the concept of painted backdrops from his mentor Hornaday, the Kansas taxidermist added a touch of his own—3D natural scenery. For instance, Dyche dragged in logs pulled out of the Kansas River and constructed paper mâché cliffs to showcase the Rocky Mountain specimens. (The cliffs had the added advantage of providing a hidden location where he could live during the fair and guard his exhibit from thieves.)
Another feature was the attempt to give the stuffed animals interesting, lifelike poses, rather than arranging them neatly on pedestals. Deer stood at attention with upright ears. Bull moose locked antlers in combat. Mountain lions approached each other with snarls. All animals were portrayed with particular attention to their natural musculature, Dyche being noted for his care in reproducing this feature by padding the animal’s skeleton prior to stuffing it. Another detail in which Dyche excelled was in producing lifelike eyes for his specimens to enhance their expression.
A Surprising Success
Toward the beginning of the World’s Fair, the El Dorado Republican took it upon itself to utter this dire prophesy:
Kansas is not in it; not in it a little….The Kansas building is not noticed and will not be. The Kansas stuffed animal show catches a few children, but that is all.T.B.M., “A Week at the Fair,” El Dorado Republican, June 23, 1893.
But, then, T.B.M., whoever he might have been, was not particularly impressed by the rest of the fair either, describing it in the same article as “walk, walk, walk, tramp, tramp, stand and look or gawk by the hour; no place to sit down, no stopping place.”
Although there was plenty of other taxidermy at the fair, Dyche’s exhibit was easily the most highly acclaimed. An estimated 12,000 people filed past the Panorama of North American Mammals every day. Chances are, the taxidermy display attracted many to the Kansas Building who otherwise might have passed it by.
While Kansas newspapers continued to grumble, the presses of numerous other states lauded the Kansas Building for its miniature train (courtesy of the Santa Fe Railroad) and most especially for the taxidermy. As just one example:
Kansas has a unique exhibit in the State Building. One end of the building is given up to the display of stuffed animals native to the State….There were so many of these animals and their attitudes and appearance are so fine and natural, that it is hard for the visitor to remember that he is gazing at a piece of still life….[T]he scene is filled with representatives of wild game, making study worth a lengthy inspection.“World’s Fair Notes,” The Tallapoosa New Era (Dadeville, Alabama), August 10, 1893.
Even the Book of the Fair, the official souvenir printed for the occasion, hailed the exhibit as “one of the best in the world.”
Perhaps the positive press the exhibit received induced a little softening throughout the state, for eventually the newspapers began to remark on the quality of the display. Even the El Dorado Republican unbent itself enough to concede:
The stuffed animal display, viewed from a distance, is a work of art, but is emblematic of what the state was rather than what it is.F.L. Black, “A Glimpse of the White City,” El Dorado Republican, September 1, 1893.
The Subsequent History of Dyche’s Display
After the fair was over, several buyers approached Dyche with offers for his magnificent exhibit, but he declined them all. At the same time, a proposal circulated in Kansas to move the entire Kansas Building to Topeka, along with the taxidermy exhibit. When this plain failed, the Lawrence Daily Gazette could not resist the urge to take one more jab at the exhibit in a list of things for which to give thanks on Thanksgiving:
Lawrence people should be thankful that the World’s Fair Kansas building stayed in Chicago.“Over the Turkey,” Lawrence Daily Gazette, November 20, 1893.
In 1902, Dyche Hall was built at the University of Kansas to house the taxidermy exhibit. The Panorama of North American Mammals is still on display to visitors today.