Photo: Sherman’s Chimney Swifts’ Tower



The Althea R. Sherman Project












Meet Althea...

Althea Rosina Sherman (1853-1943) was an illustrator, educator, ornithologist, and writer born in National, Iowa. After studying art and earning her Master’s degree from Oberlin College in 1882, she taught illustration for a number of years.

But in 1895 she returned home to National to care for her ailing parents. During this time Althea began a second, self-taught career in ornithology. She became a pioneer in the life studies of specific bird species and kept meticulously-detailed journals of her observations.

Sherman published more than 70 articles in the scientific and ornithological journals of the day. Her research on several species was used by Arthur Cleveland Bent in his Life Histories of North American Birds series. She was elected a “Member” of the American Ornithologists’ Union. In addition, she was selected for inclusion in Who’s Who of the Women of the World and American Men of Science.

Her background in art helped her create realistic illustrations of her subjects. Sherman’s paintings of the American Goldfinch inspired the Iowa Legislature to adopt it as the State bird.

Photo: Althea R. Sherman 1925-1930 Oberlin College.

Althea R. Sherman (circa. 1925-1930).

© Oberlin College Archives. Oberlin, Ohio

...and her Chimney Swifts’ Tower...

Photo: Althea (left) and Amelia (right) and friends in front of the Tower.

Althea Sherman (left), Amelia Sherman (right) and friends in front of the Tower.

© Oberlin College Archives. Oberlin, Ohio

In 1915, Sherman hired local carpenters to build a 28-foot-tall, 9-foot-square wooden tower, from her own designs, to attract and observe nesting Chimney Swifts. A staircase wound from bottom to top through three floors and enclosed a 2-foot-square artificial chimney.

Doors, windows, and peepholes into the chimney allowed Sherman to be the first person ever to witness and record the entire nesting cycle of these birds. Her Chimney Swift Journals, covering 18 years and more than 400 pages, form the cornerstone for all subsequent swift research. They may offer the most extensive study of this species in existence.

The original Chimney Swifts’ Tower drew hundreds of visitors from this country and abroad.

...then, and...

Although the swifts continued using the Tower after Sherman’s death in 1943, the homestead was eventually sold. The house was torn down but the Tower was saved and moved to Harpers Ferry, Iowa in 1962. It fell into disrepair over the next three decades and was to be razed.

In 1992, The Songbird Project accepted responsibility for the Tower and moved it to Iowa City, Iowa. A significant collection of Sherman's hand-written manuscripts and published materials was also donated.

Due to the extensive scope of relocating and rehabilitating the Tower, a separate committee was formed—and the Althea R. Sherman Project was launched.

A site in Iowa City had been chosen at that time. The plans suddenly fell through, leading to a site search which explored (but ultimately rejected) scores of possible sites over the next 17 years. The Tower remained in protected storage.

The Sherman Project partnered with the Cedar County Historical Society in 2009 to site and restore the Tower on their 540-acre Bickett-Rate Memorial Preserve near Buchanan, Iowa, six miles west of Tipton. A bird sanctuary reflective of Sherman's living laboratory, museum space inside the site's Edgewood Hall house and an environmental education center are also planned for the site.

In 2010, the State Historical Society of Iowa, Historic Site Preservation Grant Program, awarded the Project an $87,750 matching grant for siting and restoring the Tower and for landscaping the site.

A fundraising campaign was launched and a Preservation Architect, contractor, and crew were hired. On May 7, 2013, the Tower was lifted by a crane, placed on its new foundation and stood for the first time in more than 20 years. By June 30, 2013, the total rehabilitation was complete!

Photo: Tower at Andy Mountain in 1992.

The Chimney Swifts’ Tower as we found it at the Andy Mountain Campground in Harpers Ferry, Iowa.

© Barbara Boyle, 1992!

Photo: Tower at Edgewood Hall, Buchanan, IA

The Tower as it stands now, near Edgewood Hall House at the Bickett-Rate Memorial Preserve, in Buchanan, Iowa.

© Janet Ashman, 8/13/13

The original Chimney Swifts' Tower stands ready to fulfill its original purpose and function as habitat and research facility for Chimney Swifts.

It will be available in the future for docent-guided tours for scholars, school children, and the public.

People will be able to enter and see how Althea Sherman carried out her pioneering research on this fascinating species.

Bob Anderson, Director of the Raptor Resource Project (Decorah Eagles) will be installing web cameras and microphones inside and outside of the Tower to live stream the intimate details of Chimney Swift nest life.

For more information, perhaps the best introduction to Althea and her life was written by Sharon E. Wood, and published in The Palimpsest, Iowa’s Popular History Magazine, vol 70, Number 4; Winter 1989.

Here’s How You Can Help

Help us bring this unique Iowa historic resource to the present

and save it for the future.

We gratefully accept contributions in any amount.

Donate Now by Check or Online!

We are a 501(c) (3) organization and your donations are tax deductible to the fullest extent of the law.


Photo: portrait of Althea R. Sherman

Althea Rosina Sherman

© Oberlin College Archives

Contact Us
1033 E. Washington St   •   Iowa City, IA 52240-5248
319.668.1838   •

updated        11.16.18
Grafic: pen and ink drawing of Sherma’s Chimney Swifts’ Tower by William J. Wagner, AIA

Sherman’s Chimney Swifts' Tower

© William J. Wagner, FAIA (1965)