Walter Breckenridge in the museum's taxidermy lab.

A Natural Progression

How the children of Walter J. Breckenridge continue their father's legacy

Published07/09/2018 , by Susan Maas

Growing up with Walter Breckenridge was an immersion in the natural world. Breck, as he was known, was a naturalist, conservationist, artist, filmmaker, and longtime director of the Bell Museum, which included being co-creator of its famous dioramas. His son, Tom, and daughters Barbara and Betsy enjoyed an enchanted childhood, and want to ensure that today’s and tomorrow’s children experience the same enchantment through the new and expanded Bell.

“I remember coming home from school and going down to the river. I’d get the turtle traps and bring the softshell turtles back, and he’d mark and measure them,” Tom says. “He built wood duck houses in their backyard and studied the incubation of their eggs to determine when the ducklings would jump. Anytime we’d catch a snake, we’d put it in the window well until he got home. He was always researching and creating art.”

Breckenridge family portrait, 1946

Breckenridge family portrait, 1946. (L to R: Dorothy, Betsy, Tom, Barbara, Walter.)

Tom recalls, “He had an art studio at home and he was painting almost every day: oil, watercolor, pen-and-ink, etchings.” And his sister, Barbara Franklin, loved to spend time there with her father. “Being out in the studio and watching him paint was really fun,” she says. “He was so creative; he could do anything.”

Today, Barbara Franklin lives in the house where she and her siblings grew up. “I’m sitting here now, watching the birds out the kitchen window. We had a bird checklist by the window. Every year you’d start off with a new list, marking off all the birds you saw,” she says. By year’s end, the family would have observed and identified over a hundred species.

When the Breckenridge children weren’t outdoors, they were often at the Bell. There, they saw countless other Minnesota children become captivated by birds, animals, trees, and wildflowers.

“My father instilled such a love of wildlife in people.” Barbara Franklin

One of those people was Pete Norum, who grew up attending Sunday lectures at the Bell with his family. “Unbeknownst to me was the fact that I’d [later] become part of the Breckenridge family,” Norum says. He was to marry Betsy Breckenridge, who died in 1993 and in whose memory he continues donating to the Bell.

Norum, an architect who worked on additions to the Bell – including the kid favorite Touch & See Room, a novel innovation when it opened in the 1960s at the museum’s former Minneapolis location, is delighted with the new Bell. He toured it twice before the grand opening, and is eager to return from his home in Arizona for a daylong visit.

Like nature itself, the museum has always been a work in progress, and the Breckenridge children got to watch its evolution up close. While Tom was in college at the University of Minnesota in the 1950s, he got to witness the creation of the now world famous wildlife dioramas. “I’d be there almost every day, watching them make all the wax flowers and leaves. It was just a thrill. We had the sandhill cranes in our garage for several days,” he recalls.

The museum continued to be an important fixture for the next generation. Visiting the museum with their children and grandchildren was, says Tom’s wife, Marilyn, “a way for them to get to know more about Breck and nature.” That’s why they’re committed to introducing new generations of children to the Bell through their financial support.

As climate change, species loss, and human population accelerate, it’s a crucial time “to encourage people to get out and experience their natural surroundings,” Barbara says. “It’s important for people to understand that the natural world is necessary to our survival. There is so much we rely on; all things interact.” The museum helps families connect those dots and inspires them to protect Minnesota’s water, land, and air.

“Our Dad opened up the world for so many people,” Tom says. “We want his legacy through the Bell to continue to inspire all ages to appreciate the intricacies and the majesties of the natural world.”