This Natural-History Museum Digs into Maine’s Prehistoric Past

Caribou's newly reopened Nylander Museum of Natural History is home to 50,000 minerals, prehistoric fossils, and mollusk shells.

exhibition cases a the Nylander Museum of Natural History
Photo courtesy of the Nylander Museum of Natural History
By Virginia M. Wright
From our February 2024 issue

In 1938, Canada’s top paleontologist penned a letter to Caribou naturalist Olof Nylander, praising his report on the strata and fossils of Square Lake township. “I have known of your good work in Maine so long that I could almost believe that you have been there ever since the ice cap left,” he wrote.

A self-taught geologist, paleontologist, botanist, and conchologist, the Swedish-born Nylander excited scientists around the world with discoveries that altered theories about the ancient past of northern Maine and other regions in the U.S. and Canada. In 1939, Caribou officials built a museum for the 50,000 minerals and prehistoric fossils and mollusk shells Nylander had collected over 50 years and hired him to be its curator. After Nylander died, in 1943, the city declined offers from the Smithsonian Institution and other organizations that wanted to acquire his artifacts.

Photos courtesy of the Nylander Museum of Natural History

The Nylander Museum of Natural History has long been a favorite field trip for school and community groups, who’d marvel at rarities like Madawaska Lake Poseidon balls (hard spheres that formed in rock) and a prehistoric starfish unknown to science until Nylander found it in New Sweden. But programming and visitation waxed and waned, so when the museum shut down during the pandemic, city counselors hired Caribou Public Library director Peter Baldwin to boost foot traffic. Baldwin reopened the Nylander in October with two fully booked live-owl presentations, then turned to resuming school tours. His favorite task: introducing visitors to his predecessor — a life-size wax sculpture of the white-haired, mustachioed Nylander at his rolltop desk, surrounded by his artifacts.

Open Saturdays and Sundays, 10 a.m.–1 p.m. 657 Main St., Caribou. 207-493-5943.

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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