Before citizen science was a thing, there were people like Ezra Day, a guy who lived in what used to be called Hunter, Utah, and indulged an insatiable curiosity about the world around him.
He came home from fighting a bloody war in Europe a century ago, and made his living as a postal worker, but made a life as an insect collector insects and nature observer. By the time of his death in 1980, his collection included 5,000 specimens and numerous notebooks that took up an entire room of his family’s home in what would become part of West Valley City.
“It was like he had this reverence for life. He just loved learning and recording everything he learned,” recalled Day’s granddaughter Becky Rueckert on Saturday at the Natural History Museum of Utah, which has incorporated Day’s bugs into its holdings.
“My earliest recollection of my grandpa was the bug room,” Rueckert said. “One whole wall, floor to ceiling, was these file cabinet drawers. On another wall it was this long desk. It had magnifying glasses on it. It looked like the mad scientist room because there were boards, we weren’t allowed to touch anything, that had little pins that were setting out his bugs. He had jars the smelled funny.”
Rueckert and her family were at the museum participating in the annual “Behind the Scenes” event, where staff displays hidden gems from the vast collections. In recognition of museum’s 50th anniversary, Behind the Scenes this year highlighted some of the earliest specimens added to the museum’s collections, such as the partial skull of a long-extinct musk ox discovered in 1871 near the corner of what is now North Temple and State Street in downtown Salt Lake City.
At the time, the discoverers figured the horned skull was from a bison. Because of its scientific value, the muck ox skull wound up at the University of Utah, where it joined many other objects that were accumulating in cabinets and drawers scattered around campus decades ago.
These included Native American artifacts, plants, mammals, birds, fossils and minerals.
In 1969, the university established its museum in what had been the main library on Presidents Circle, providing a home for these objects under one roof. The museum got its current state-of-the-art home, known as the Rio Tinto Center, in 2011.
But a half-century ago, a dedicated repository for artifacts and fossils was key to ensuring objects recovered in Utah stayed in Utah.
In the first half of the 20th century, countless specimens extracted from Utah soil were hauled away to big East Coast museums. One Utah scholar who helped reverse that trend was Byron Cummings, who led trips in southern Utah and northern Arizona to gather pottery, tools, clothing left by the Anasazi, who occupied the Colorado Plateau canyon country 1,000 years ago and left a remarkable record of their civilization.
A U. professor and former football coach, Cummings was one of the first to be awarded a permit to collect Native American artifacts under the new Antiquities Act, enacted in 1906.
One of Cummings’ early expeditions in 1908 visited southeast Utah’s Alkali Ridge and Montezuma Canyon east of Blanding, according to Michelle Knoll, one of the museum’s archaeology curators. The pieces he recovered were among the first to join the museum’s collections.
Also filling the museums are hundreds of thousands of biological samples, many gathered by amateurs like Day who helped create a record of Utah’s living landscapes that is proving invaluable today as scientists discover how the environment has changed.
"Understanding the distribution of life requires historical records," said Nick Orton, a museum intern who works with the entomology collections. "Ezra is the only person that we know who was actually collecting in the western part of the Salt Lake Valley during that time. So the records that he provides actually create a much better picture of what lived where and when."
According to Day’s notebooks, he gathered his insects between 1927 and 1979.
"It takes a lot of time to prepare these things for preservation. So it's a labor of love and we are very grateful for it," Orton said. "What's even better is he kept data on everything."
As tedious as scientific protocols may seem, Day clearly found joy in observing nature and passing on what he learned, according to Rueckert, who fondly remembers time spent with her grandfather in the woods and deserts of Utah.
“In my eyes, he just knew everything. Going with him was like a living classroom,” she said.
The museum’s Behind the Scenes event continues Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 301 Wakara Way. Standard admission applies.