Ralph Bird Award Recipient 1986
Henry Isaak is a biology teacher in Winkler, Manitoba, and the founder and director of the Morden and district museum. He is an amateur naturalist who has made an outstanding contribution to natural history in Western Canada through superior observation and collections of fossils of marine reptiles. These collections have provided specimens for major Canadian museums and have been the basis for the founding of the Morden museum.
In 1972, Henry, who was then a student at the University of Manitoba, became involved in the collection, preservation, restoration and display of the fossils of prehistoric swimming reptiles, through a chance remark made during a canoe trip.
A local farmer had mentioned that some fossils had been found in a nearby field. Quite skeptical, Henry and a local teacher, Don Bell, went out to the site. Although most of the bones had already been removed by local people, they did find some bones, which they took to Dr. George Lammers of the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature, who informed them that the bones were part of a flipper of a large prehistoric swimming reptile.
They returned to the site – a bentonite mine, talked to the workers who told them that they regularly found fossils, but that nobody was particularly interested in collecting them.
They continued to go back, finding more and more fossils until they had filled up Don’s basement and Henry’s garage. They needed a new place to display. At that time two rooms in the old Morden post office building were being used to display some pioneer artifacts. They added their fossils to the display area. Soon they had filled up that space as well as the basement of the old post office, and again needed display space.
The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, whom they contacted for assistance, provided a great deal of valuable assistance, and also helped make them aware what a valuable find fossils were. The Royal Ontario Museum encouraged them to apply for a grant from National Museums Canada in order to build a museum in Morden to house their very fine collection of fossils.
The museum opened in July of 1982 to coincide with the Morden Centennial. Since then people from throughout Canada and the United States have visited the Museum. Scholars from the University of Kansas, the Royal Ontario Museum, and the Tyrell Museum of Alberta, have come to the museum to study the collection. The Morden Museum maintains close affiliation in particular with the University of Kansas, since the land mass of Kansas was once part of the same inland waterway and had similar fossil deposits.
Henry continues to serve as curator of the Morden Museum. Over the years, the Museum and Pembina Mountain Clays, who run the bentonite mine where the fossils were uncovered, have worked out a system of co-operation that helps ensure the preservation of the rich fossil storehouse. When the mine workers uncover fossil materials, they inform Henry and the students from local universities work there each summer. The miners work around them while the students remove the fossils.
Henry’s goal is to double the size of the local museum in order to include larger sections for native and local history displays.