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‘Bird Masque’ Returns

Ernest Harold Baynes initially came to Meriden in 1910 to study the bison in what is now called Corbin Park. But his lasting legacy followed a lecture he gave at Kimball Union Academy on bird protection. At the time, wild birds were widely exploited, treated as a bottomless resource long before the conservation era sparked by Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring.

In response to Baynes’ efforts, Meriden residents began to install birdhouses, formed the Meriden Bird Club and in 1911 established a bird sanctuary. At Baynes’ request, Percy MacKaye, a poet and member of the Cornish Art Colony, wrote Sanctuary: A Bird Masque, a musical play about bird protection that proved to be hugely influential. President Woodrow Wilson’s summer White House was in Cornish, and his daughters had leading roles in the play’s first production on Sept. 12, 1913. The play traveled widely, leading to the formation of 125 bird clubs around the country. Wilson later signed into law key measures protecting migratory birds from commercial hunting.

A series of events this weekend commemorates the first production of Sanctuary. The play will be performed at Woodstock’s Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park on Saturday afternoon at 2, and at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish on Sunday afternoon at 2. The performances are free and feature Hamilton Gillett, a Woodstock native who had a long career as an actor in New York, costumes and musical direction by Fern Meyers, who researched the original production at Dartmouth’s special collections library, and direction by Kevin Fitzpatrick.

In addition, Meriden’s Aidron Duckworth Art Museum opens “Service to the Birds: Meriden’s Bird Story,” an exhibition that illuminates the village’s role in fostering protection for birds, with a reception on Saturday afternoon from 3 to 6. Material for the exhibition was drawn from the collections of the Meriden Bird Club, Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park, Woodstock History Center, the Hood Musem of Art and the historical societies of Cornish and Plainfield.

— Alex Hanson