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Moose on the loose
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Moose on the loose

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For generations of visitors, Bruce the Moose was the face of Oregon State University’s Horner Museum. Now he's coming out of mothballs — literally — to play the same role for the new Benton County Historical Museum that will break ground next month in downtown Corvallis.

The $9.5 million project has been a long time in the making — it’s been 18 years since the society acquired the former Copeland Lumber property at Southwest Second Street and Adams Avenue — but now it’s entering the homestretch. The group still needs about $2 million to complete the project, but it expects grants and state appropriations to provide most of the money.

The remaining $250,000 or so will come from a public fundraising campaign, and Bruce will be its mascot. Starting next week, you can expect to see the big guy’s image plastered on yard signs, shopping bags, stickers, lapel pins, refrigerator magnets and coffee mugs as the society makes its final pitch for donations to the community.

Among the campaign’s many slogans are “You say museum, I say mooseum,” “A moose is a terrible thing to waste” and, of course, “If we build it, they will come.”

And once the new museum is open — which should be late 2018 or early 2019 — Bruce the Moose will resume the place of pride he occupied during his glory days with the Horner.

“He’s going to be prominently displayed in the lobby,” said Irene Zenev, the society’s executive director.

To appreciate what that means, you need to know some of Bruce’s backstory — parts of which remain shrouded in mystery.

For instance, no one knows his exact age, although it appears to be somewhere around the century mark.

According to the historical society’s records, Bruce was shot in Saskatchewan by an unknown hunter, then stuffed and mounted by a taxidermist. By 1925 he was the property of a Monmouth resident named O.P. Calef, who brought him to be displayed at the new museum that had been established by professor John Horner on the campus of what was then known as Oregon Agricultural College.

“But it appears to have been a loan, because Bruce disappears,” said Mary Gallagher, the society’s collections manager. “He shows up in the Moose Lodge in Corvallis, and then in 1939 the Moose Lodge donates him.”

According to an article in the Feb. 1, 1939, edition of the campus newspaper, Bruce was believed to be the second-largest stuffed moose in the U.S. at the time. And, in fact, Bruce is a fine figure of a moose, measuring 7 feet, 9 inches from tail to snout. He stands an impressive 6 feet tall at the shoulders and a downright imposing 8 feet, 1 inch from the ground to the tip of his mighty antlers, which spread 4½ feet from side to side.

For many years Bruce was one of the star attractions of the Horner Museum and was, in the literal sense, a campus landmark. From the mid-1950s to the mid-1990s, when the museum was housed in the basement of Oregon State University’s Gill Coliseum, Bruce stood watch at the Horner’s entrance. In those days registration was held in the arena, and uncounted numbers of OSU students got to know Bruce from their first day on campus.

“They would go through the Horner Museum on their way out,” Zenev explained, “and they would pet the moose for good luck.”

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After the museum closed in 1995, however, Bruce and the rest of the Horner’s 60,000 artifacts were all but forgotten. By the time the Benton County Historical Society took possession of the eclectic collection in 2008, time had taken a heavy toll on Bruce.

The biggest problem was the lack of humidity and temperature controls in the bowels of the old arena (in at least one instance, the basement actually flooded). The fluctuating temperature and humidity levels literally pulled Bruce in every direction, according to Tom Fuller, a museum conservator who contracts with the historical society.

“He’s been humidified and dried, humidified and dried so many times that the skin has shrunk,” Fuller said. “He was bursting at the seams.”

Bruce’s sutures — the places where the taxidermist had stitched his skin together after stretching it over a frame — had come apart, allowing some of the stuffing to spill out.

“They were gapping pretty bad,” Fuller said. “They were so unsightly, I wasn’t sure that rehumidifying the skin would work.”

In May of 2015, Fuller began the painstaking process of restoring Bruce to his former glory.

Slowly, carefully, he applied small amounts of moisture to relax the skin, then gently stretched it back into shape. He replaced the lost stuffing by applying layers of Japanese tissue paper, adhering the parts back together with wheat starch paste.

He used adhesives to fix a crack in Bruce’s snout and, when necessary, undid the work of previous artisans.

“In the neck suture, they had jammed a bunch of plaster up here and shoveled the hair back in,” Fuller said. “All I could do was chisel it out.”

He gave Bruce a good cleaning (“the antlers were filthy”) and used special brown paint to touch up the spots where overly friendly museum visitors had rubbed all the hair away. Finally, he installed a new base underneath Bruce’s wooden pedestal to allow the big galoot to be wheeled around using a pallet jack.

The whole job took 11 months and cost the society about $15,000.

“He’s not a moose anymore,” Fuller said. “He’s an artifact, a made-up thing.”

Maybe so. But Bruce the Moose is an artifact with personality, and one that Zenev believes will grace the society’s new Corvallis museum for generations to come.

“He’s going to outlive a lot of us,” she said.

Reporter Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.

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