November 22, 2009
Earl Engebretson, Late in Life
When you gaze across the prairie in northwestern South Dakota, the land appears so empty that it comes as a surprise to find out that many amazing people have lived there. Earl Engebretson was surely one of them. According to my father:
“Earl was a hot accordion player. I remember playing for dances with him and Clarence Doan at the Victor Benson dance hall, when I was in high school [in the 1930's]. That isn't exactly what Earl was noted for, however. Out on his ranch near Chance, Earl built and stocked the most elaborate museum of natural history that I have ever seen. He had things as varied as a two headed Cobra, a two headed calf, and a bewildering assortment of animals and things which filled many, many buildings. I even bought a flat iron from Earl that one of his relatives had brought from Norway. I understand the entire museum was moved to Bison following Earl's death.”
Earl was born in 1914 and, except for service in the military during World Ward II, lived in South Dakota all his life. There is a great photo of Earl with his accordion in the book, The Veals of Chance, South Dakota, edited by Verla Lang. There also is a photo of the younger Earl attired in bow tie and a school boy's cap standing behind a table, proudly displaying some of his taxidermy specimens. Despite his skill, accordion playing wasn't what Earl was best known for. Earl was a skilled naturalist, taxidermist, and ran a museum that was a wonder for all who beheld it on his ranch outside of Chance for years.
Earl got started with taxidermy at an early age, taking a correspondence course in 1927 when he was just twelve. His taxidermy collection grew extensive enough that he opened a museum on his ranch in 1954. Most of Earl's specimens came from the area where he lived, although my father remembers seeing quite a few that were from much farther afield on his visits to the Engebretson place. Although Earl was something of a home-grown naturalist, he also attended college in Spearfish, where he received a teaching certificate. In fact, Earl taught school in the area until 1968.
Earl donated his taxidermy collection to the town of Bison in 1995, a year before his death. The collection lives on displayed at Earl's Museum in Bison, a special place that I intend to devote some time to in my next post.
Editor's Note—One of the sources I drew heavily on for this post was a story titled, “Earl's Museum,” by Jim Nelson. Jim's story appears in Lang, Verla (editor), The Veals of Chance, South Dakota, 2008.
Earl was a cousin of my mother, Martha Monserud. His mother was the sister of my grandfather, Peter Monserud. Pete was a farmer in the Chance area until the great depression. Then he became a carpenter.