Althea Sherman

Althea Sherman Collection. Special Archives State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines.

Althea Rosina Sherman, a self-taught ornithologist, was born October 10, 1853, the daughter of Mark B. Sherman and his wife Sybil Melissa Clark Sherman who came to Clayton County , Iowa, about 1843 and settled on the open prairie south of the small town of National, Iowa, along the present Highway 52 in Farmersburg Township. The first thing was to build a log cabin. In 1845 he built a frame house for his family to live in. Althea spent her early years here and attended school at National. In 1865, her father sold the farm and the family spent a year in Fayette, Iowa, where Althea and some of her siblings were furthering their education in preparation for college. In 1866, they moved into their new home in National, Iowa.

Althea and some of her siblings attended Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. She graduated from there in 1875. She also attended art school and received a master’s degree in 1882. She taught several years in National school and gave free art classes to interested students. She taught at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. She also studied art with the Art Students League in New York City and was supervisor of drawing at Tacoma, Washington public schools. Over time she taught about 20 years.

In 1895 she was called back to National to care for her aging parents. She also started devoting time to observing and studying birds and painting. Her sister, Dr. Ellen Amelia Sherman joined her in taking care of their parents and when the last one of their parents died in 1902, the sisters made the old home in National their permanent residence. Althea could now give all her attention to birds and painting. Her paintings were often of birds or nature.

In 1913 she went abroad for 10 months and studied birds in about 20 countries in Europe, Southern Asia, North Africa, Palestine and Greece.

In 1915 she had her famous Sherman Swifts’ Tower built for studying the chimney swifts. The acre of birds where she lived became her laboratory.

She was very meticulous in her study of birds and was truly a pioneer blazing the trail for others in the field of ornithology. She wasn’t satisfied with a job half done, she strove for correct answers and didn’t quit until scientific facts confirmed her theories.

She was a member of about 15 scientific societies to which she wrote articles about her bird studies and presented them. She was elected to membership in the American Ornithologist Union whose membership was limited to 100 persons. She was one of the four women members elected.

Althea Sherman Collection. Special Archives State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines.

She spent about 38 years in bird study. Her later years became limited as she struggled with arthritis. Her publishing career ended in 1933. Writing by hand became too painful and she did her later correspondence with help of a typewriter. Her physical disabilities kept her from finishing many of her projects and the demands of running the household were overwhelming by lack of any modern convenience.

She was saddened with the realization in later years that birds were not as plentiful as in her youth.

She passed away on April 16, 1943 and was laid to rest in the family plot in the National Cemetery. In earlier years it was referred to as Farmersburg Cemetery. Her resting place is within walking distance of her beloved family home, which she referred to as her Acre of Birds. A replica of her famous Sherman Chimney Swifts’ Tower now stands proudly in the old church yard adjoining the cemetery, inviting everyone to stop in. In the summer months the chimney swifts are once again raising their young just as Althea had envisioned.