More than 30 people heard a story worthy of a British Victorian novel at a Center Point Historical Society program April 27 at the Depot Museum.
Historical Society vice president Dennis Schlicht shared the fascinating and tragic glimpses he and wife Linda have discovered so far of the life of gifted amateur entomologist/naturalist Lulu Berry (1874-1962) of Vinton.
The Schlichts’ interest started with a photo of Lulu’s farm seen in a scrapbook at the Porter House Museum in Decorah.
Bert Porter was a rich gentleman naturalist contemporary with Lulu who collected butterflies, in South America especially.
Dennis is co-author of “The Butterflies of Iowa,” published in 2007. His presentation on Lulu was illustrated with documents and photographs. Lulu, who never married, attended art school in Chicago, at one time taught at Fairview school in Benton County, visited art museums in France, and eventually subsisted on the 40 acres left of her father’s farm east of Vinton on the Cedar River. Lulu specialized in moths, co-authored papers in respected journals, and was well known in “the bug world” of the early 20th century, Dennis said.
School kids would take field trips to her house; she’d have snakes in the kitchen and varmints under the porch. “She often wore men’s boots, a man’s hat and trousers,” Dennis said, practical for a lady naturalist and farmer but decidedly improper for a lady of her era. She got a reputation of eccentricity. Then came charges of assault from a neighbor and charges of insanity.
In 1934 her very modest house burned down. Some suspected arson. Her insect collections, field notes and papers—40 years’ work–were destroyed. In October 1934, in a hearing at the Benton County Courthouse late on a Saturday night, she was judged insane and taken that same night to the Independence Insane Asylum. She was 60 years old.
She died in a Black Hawk County nursing home at age 88. Her grave in the Kiesling Cemetery west of Urbana was eventually marked with a stone that says: “Like the butterfly at last thank God I’m free.” Family and friends called her a lady ahead of her time.
Not many people around Vinton have ever heard of Lulu Berry, self-taught naturalist, but Dennis said sometimes when he asks about her someone will say, “Oh yeah, the crazy woman.”