"Remembered for her unusual skill "
Leora J. Simpson
"For many years there lived in Gagetown," began historian Marianne Grey Otty in one of her vivid reminiscences about that village, "three sisters who will long be remembered for the impress their lives made upon the community." Gagetown locals knew these women collectively as the "Misses Simpson" of Front Street. While each in her own way contributed to the life of the community through impressive public service, all of the Simpson sisters shared a commitment to the benevolent work accomplished by their (Methodist) church women's groups, just as they all shared a genius for producing "pie with pastry of fairy-like lightness, and cakes of truly swansdown texture." Ida, the youngest of the four, was a graduate nurse who spent several years in charge of the Stillman Infirmary at Harvard University. Her older sister Ella served for a time as Gagetown's postmistress and Methodist Church organist, earning a reputation for holding her own work to a lofty personal standard, a character made manifest in her famously "beautiful handwriting." Perhaps the most extraordinary occupational profile however, belonged to Leora, the second eldest of the four, who was at once Gagetown's longest serving postmistress, and a busy taxidermist.
During and after the period that her widowed mother ran their home as a popular boarding house known as the "Simpson Hotel," Leora performed a record-setting 44 years' service in the post office located there. A Silver Jubilee medal from King George V in 1935 rewarded her long service, which began in the era of horse-and-carriage mail delivery and continued well after the completion of the railway in 1918. The vagaries of nature floods, storms and snow often conspired to keep the mail from arriving on schedule, while hot, dry summers carried the threat of forest and chimney fires, one of which nearly claimed the Simpson home and post office in 1921. But time brought steady improvement, and by 1936 Leora worked from a new post office building made of brick and cement, supported by a reliable mail delivery system and serving an ever-expanding constituency.
As early as 1891, Leora also pursued an a very different occupation. The census for that year identified her as a "taxidermist," a professional preparator of animal skins in life-like form. Taxidermy mounts became wildly popular as decorative items in the late Victorian era. Queen Victoria herself avidly collected stuffed birds, and families all over the British Empire displayed "stuffed" animals in their parlours, occasionally even their own deceased pets! It is not known whether Leora Simpson produced any taxidermy mounts for sale and profit, or whether she met requests from local sportsmen the chief clientele of many taxidermists to preserve their wildlife trophies. There were other, more scholarly motives behind the taxidermist's pursuit. Naturalists and artists sought taxidermy mounts to create accurate colour plates for animal or bird identification manuals when their living subjects wouldn't stand still for a portrait. Natural history museums eagerly accepted mounted specimens to augment their study collections of local and exotic fauna. Housed in schools and museums, taxidermy specimens provided valuable information about interspecies variation, migration habits, and distribution patterns to turn-of-the-century scholars, and because many specimens were so thoroughly preserved, they remain available to scientists today. From century-old animal mounts we can track the effects of climate change, monitor the impact of pesticides, and obtain DNA samples for genetic analysis. It would seem that Leora Simpson had just such an educational role in mind for her taxidermy mounts.
While several of her turn-of-the-century bird and small mammal mounts are now part of the zoological collection at the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John (see the bottom four images in the right column), most of Leora's birds remain closer to home. This is because Leora arranged to have the greater part of her extensive collection over one hundred specimens in all pass to the Gagetown School after her death. In its new home, this remarkable collection of local and sea birds silently conveyed natural history lessons to students and teachers alike for over 40 years. In the late 1990s, concerns about storage capacity precipitated the relocation of the birds to the Queens County Courthouse Museum in Gagetown, where they continue to fascinate visitors with their vivid and authentic figures. There you can find a seagull presiding with wings extended over the courtroom balcony, giant seabirds and tiny sparrows occupying the many display cases, and researchers working under the unblinking watch of a very stately snowy owl.
Not far from the Courthouse, in the Grace United Church (Old Methodist) Cemetery, you can also find the graves of Miss Leora Simpson and many of her family members. Leora was a dedicated member of the Methodist (later United) Church and served on many of its action committees, including the Women's Missionary, Ladies' Aid and Bible Societies. She lived her entire life in the Village of Gagetown, passing away in 1951 at the age of 95.