History: Plaque to be unveiled for McGlashan butterfly collection

Heidi Sproat / Special to the Sierra Sun

The McGlashan Butterfly Collection is now housed in the Truckee-Donner Recreation & Park District Community Center, 10981 Truckee Way. 

At 10 a.m. Saturday, July 9, the Truckee-Donner Historical Society, together with representatives of the McGlashan family, the Town of Truckee, and the Nevada County Historical Landmarks Commission will unveil a plaque that was mounted above the collection which has been dedicated as Nevada County Resource NEV20-05 under Resolution No. 20-528 by the Board of Supervisors.

The McGlashan Butterfly Collection is all that remains of at one time, a collection of 20,000 lepidoptera – that is butterflies, moths and beetle specimens – that Charles Fayette McGlashan and his daughter Ximena McGlashan collected over time. Best known for his definitive History of the Donner Party – A Tragedy of the Sierras – Mr. McGlashan started collecting butterflies in the 1870s and at first displayed his ever-expanding Collection in the original enclosed Rocking Stone Tower in 1893. The Collection is a rare, irreplaceable display of lepidoptera.

Young Ximena in yard with jars.
Truckee-Donner Historical Society

Although formally trained as a teacher, when young Ximena McGlashan expressed frustration with the teaching profession, her father encouraged her to find some other avocation to which she could apply herself.  Collecting, displaying, studying, educating and eventually selling her butterflies appealed to the young Ximena, then in her early twenties. The Collection was completed in 1912.

Ximena, with her father Charles, also started a monthly publication known as The Butterfly Farmer. In this journal, Ximena strove to educate readers about how to cultivate a butterfly farm and how to engage in a butterfly business. Ximena was highly successful and was then often referred to as The Butterfly Princess, managing the country’s first butterfly farm. 

Although the publication only ran from 1913-1914, newspaper reports from as far away as the east coast reported that young Ximena propagated and sold 6,200 mounted butterflies in just six weeks and averaged about $50 a week in earnings – a far cry from the teaching profession income. Reports encouraged other “enterprising girls” could likewise follow suit.

In addition to The Butterfly Farmer publication, and The Butterfly Farm Truckee business, Charles, Ximena and another daughter Leonora submitted at least four patents for entomological specimens. Ximena stopped the butterfly business and in 1914 enrolled in graduate school, graduating from Stanford University with a degree in Entomology and Bionomics in May 1916. The Collection, now over 100 years old, is a unique lepidoptera Collection, some from around the world, mounted on display boards with identification labels in patented wooden frames.

McGlashan family in front of the Collection when it was moved to TDRPD.
Greg Zirbel | Provided

When the McGlashan family home on High Street adjacent to the Rocking Stone Tower burned in 1934, Nevada County purchased the site in 1938 to construct a Veterans Memorial Building. In spite of the strenuous objections of Truckee residents and the Truckee Chamber of Commerce, the Collection was moved to the Nevada County Courthouse, Nevada City, in December 1938 for “temporary safekeeping.” James McIver, Jr. (WWI Veteran), who then served as chairman of the Veterans’ Committee at that time, was assured by the Nevada County Board of Supervisors that the Collection would be returned to Truckee upon completion of the Veterans Memorial Building. Unfortunately, that promise was never kept. The Collection remained in the Courthouse in a dimly lit obscure corridor hallway and was partially hidden by cardboard storage boxes. The Collection remained in Nevada City for almost 60 years.

When the now “old” Emigrant Trail Museum was completed in 1962, and after a series of 1996 negotiations among the McGlashan Family, the Nevada County Broad of Superiors, the Sierra District California Department of Parks and Recreation, and the Truckee-Donner Historical Society, a Memorandum of Understanding was agreed upon providing that the Collection was to be maintained and kept on exhibit at the Museum in Truckee, and that the Collection was not to be removed from Truckee. In short, Nevada County returned the Collection to the McGlashan family, who gave it as a gift to California State Parks to be exhibited at the Museum.

When the new Donner Memorial State Park Visitors Center was opened in June 2015, the Collection needed to be moved yet again. This time, a new Memorandum of Understanding was agreed to move the Collection to the Truckee-Donner Recreation & Park District where it is housed today. This is the only butterfly Collection in Nevada County, represents the dedicated business and philanthropic efforts of a respected Truckee family, and today is recognized for its historical integrity and connection to the Town of Truckee.

A close-up photo of the Butterfly Collection.
Greg Zirbel | Provided

After being bandied about several different locations after the Rocking Stone Tower, the Collection was starting to degrade, and subject to the vagaries of time and microorganisms, and sadly to vandalism, Truckee is privileged to be able to house the remains of the McGlashan Butterfly Collection displayed in a public area for all to see. 

Charles F. McGlashan discovered the rare butterfly of the Truckee Basin, Euphydryas chalcedona Macglashanae.

About the Author:

Heidi Sproat is the Truckee-Donner Historical Society Webmaster, editor of the TDHS bi-monthly email newsletter, responsible for the TDHS image collection and a volunteer researcher.

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