Bessie (Miss Bessie, Miss Bess) Heard, founder of the Heard Natural Science Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary, daughter of John Spencer and Rachel Caroline (Wilson) Heard, was born at McKinney, Texas, on May 26, 1886. Her father, a native of Van Buren, Arkansas, had moved to McKinney after the Civil War. With his brother, S. D. Heard, he started the Heard Mercantile Company and other Collin County enterprises. Bessie had four sisters, two of whom died in infancy. She attended McKinney Collegiate Academy and, from 1903 to 1906, Mary Baldwin College in Stanton, Virginia. At the age of thirty she entered Parson's School of Interior Design in New York City. After graduation she worked for a few years for Hallaby Galleries in Dallas.
Bessie Heard was a charter member of the McKinney Art Club, the Delphian Society, and the McKinney Garden Club. She was a member of the First Presbyterian Church in McKinney. In later years she was a life member of the National Audubon Society and belonged to many other conservation organizations. In 1916, as a young lady, she organized a birdhouse-building contest for local children, with prizes for the winners. She also conducted a tree-planting project around the town square. In 1937 she obtained a charter for the McKinney library and helped raise funds to buy books and purchase a building. She helped form a McKinney chapter of the American Red Cross during World War I and was active in it through World War II.
Miss Bessie collected nature prints, including lithographs by John James Audubon, Chinese art, butterflies, rocks and minerals, and sea shells. She kept her collections in a room at home and would often invite groups in to see her collections and hear her talk about them. In her middle seventies, upon the advice of John Ripley Forbes, president of the Natural Science for Youth Foundation, Atlanta, Georgia, she founded her own museum, using her collections as a nucleus. In 1964 she set up a charitable foundation, purchased 207 acres of land south of McKinney, and, in her eightieth year, began building the Heard Natural Science Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary. The facility opened to the public in 1967 and grew steadily afterward. In the 1980s the museum building comprised 25,000 square feet, with exhibits of natural history, nature art, and live native animals. By 1993 the wildlife sanctuary had grown to 273 acres with nature trails and a constructed wetland area. It attracted more than 75,000 visitors annually and carried on a variety of educational programs for all ages.
Among many honors, Miss Heard was named McKinney Citizen of the Year (1966) and an honorary life member of the Texas Congress of Parents and Teachers (1971); she received the Founder's Award of the Natural Science for Youth Foundation (1973) and the Emily Smith Distinguished Alumna Award from Mary Baldwin College (1975). She died at her home in McKinney on March 22, 1988, just a few weeks short of her 102d birthday.
The Handbook of Texas Women project has its own dedicated website and resources.