Many famous people have resided in Montgomery County. Among the most noted is the internationally-recognized artist and naturalist John James Audubon, who lived in an impressive 14-room mansion overlooking the Perkiomen Creek from 1803 to 1806.
The mansion, Audubon's first home in America, is now a well-organized museum -- situated on 175 pristine acres of woodlands and meadows -- that illustrates Audubon's life, particularly his widely-admired paintings of birds and other wildlife. It is called the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, on Pawlings Road in (you guessed it) Audubon.
Audubon was more than a painter. He was a conservationist, writer, scientist, innovator and explorer whose accomplishments are admired around the world.
As a boy in France, Audubon developed a love of nature and drawing. At 18, Audubon was sent by his sea captain father to the family-owned property along the Perkiomen Creek, to supervise the estate and its working lead mine.
But rather than seek a career in business, the young Audubon spent countless hours exploring the nearby woods, becoming fascinated with its wonders, particularly the 175 species of birds identified in the area.
During his stay at Mill Grove, Audubon blossomed, creatively and in his personal life.
"Three important things happened to Audubon while he was at Mill Grove," said Mill Grove Communications Coordinator John Hartman. "He developed wire armature; he did the first banding in North America; and he met his future wife, Lucy Bakewell."
Wire armature is a technique, using wires and pins to pose dead birds, Audubon developed to make his subjects appear alive and natural. Many believe this process put Audubon years ahead of his contemporaries.
Through bird banding -- tying strings around the legs of nestlings --- Audubon learned much about the habits of numerous species.
After leaving Mill Grove, Audubon spent considerable time traveling the country, continuing to explore and paint birds.
Audubon's diligence and artistry are well-represented in Mill Grove.
Prominently displayed is a huge open book, a rare volume of "The Birds of America," featuring 435 prints of Audubon paintings of birds in each four-volume set.
Subscribers purchased 200 sets in the 1820s and 1830s. Today, the 100 sets still in existence are priceless, Hartman said. Approximately 40 original prints of "Birds of America," from sets that were broken up, hang on the walls of Mill Grove, along with other nature art.
The volume displayed at Mill Grove is elegantly bound in leather, is 27 by 39 inches and weighs 50 pounds.
Audubon, with a collaborator, also wrote "Ornithological Biographies," describing the habits of each of the many species of birds depicted in "Birds of America."
Audubon, with the help of his son John Woodhouse Audubon, also compiled a volume with paintings of mammals entitled "The Viviparous Quadrapeds of North America." One of these rare works is also displayed at Mill Grove.
The huge stone mansion, built in 1762, is impressive when viewed from outside: an ivy-covered three-story stone structure sitting atop a grassy hill bordering the Perkiomen Creek.
Virtually the entire museum inside the mansion is dedicated to Audubon's and others' nature art.
Reception area and gift shops are located on the first floor.
The second floor has two galleries, one with a permanent art collection and the other a changing collection; a drawing room; and a recreation of Audubon's bedroom.
The third floor features a Victorian-style taxidermy display and a room offering a detailed look into the history of Mill Grove.
Mill Grove was sold to the Montgomery County Commissioners in 1951 and designated the Mill Grove Museum and Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary.
In 2004 the National Audubon Society, through a partnership with the county, assumed management of the site, which is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
Mill Grove is a fitting tribute to a notable figure. "Audubon was truly an amazing individual, with tremendous talent and creativity," Hartman said. "And you must remember," Hartman added, "he never had any formal training in art. He was self- taught. So what he accomplished is incredible."
Mill Grove accommodates people of all ages. It features nature trails to traverse; beautiful scenery to enjoy; history to absorb; and volumes of art to appreciate.