For one family, a Friday visit to the Sternberg Museum of Natural History turned into the surprise of a lifetime.

Ashley Cooper and her family received a free lifetime family membership to the museum, 3000 Sternberg Drive, when Cooper became the 1 millionth visitor since Sternberg relocated in 1999 from the Fort Hays State University campus to a domed structure across town that was originally a health club.

Cooper, who lives near Lincoln, said the family comes to Sternberg at least a couple times per year. Friday, they were looking forward to seeing The Prairie Ocean: Long Time, No Sea exhibit featuring the work of Kansas fossil hunters Chuck Bonner and Ray Troll.

“The shark is what we’re really excited about today because back in our area is where the shark was found,” Cooper said of one the fossils.

“The kids love to come out, so it will definitely get used,” she said of the membership.

Aiden, Adam, Arron, Alexander and Adalyn — ranging in age from 11 to 1 — were excited too, playing with the confetti that fell around them in the lobby as the staff celebrated. The family also received a gift basket of Sternberg items put together by Brad Penka, manager of member services.

The family visited the museum Friday as part of a homeschool group tour. Cooper said she likes to work visits into what her children are studying.

“When we are studying certain things and we know they have something pertinent here we definitely come. It’s hands-on. I love bringing that to life for them. It makes it a lot more interesting,” she said.

It was Penka who alerted Director Reese Barrick the museum was nearing that milestone back in July, Barrick said.

“Then as we got closer and closer, we started trying to track a little bit so we can have a good idea of is it this month or next month,” Barrick said.

“It’s been a lot of fun. We have a staff meeting every Monday, and that’s one of the first things we go over,” he said.

In fact, the museum had expected to reach the 1 million mark last weekend.

“And then the Chiefs went into the Super Bowl and killed our attendance,” Penka said.

January is actually a slow time of year, Barrick said, but the attendance count showed the museum would reach the mark with the homeschool group’s scheduled visit on Friday.

The museum’s high points in attendance were in its first two years at the dome — 100,000 in its first year of operation, Barrick said.

In early 2001, the museum was one of 20 to display “A T. rex Named Sue,” an exhibition by Chicago’s Field Museum featuring a life-size cast of the largest, best preserved and most complete Tyrannosaurus rex ever found.

The two months of the exhibit brought in more than 105,000 visitors, according to an HDN report after the exhibit’s conclusion.

Today, the museum sees about 40,000 visitors a year, Barrick said.

That’s a far cry from an eventual 350,000 annual visitors predicted by FHSU’s Docking Institute of Public Affairs prior to the museum’s opening, but still an increase from when the museum was on campus.

Named for the famed family of fossil hunters, the museum was organized on the first floor of McCartney Hall on campus in 1926. George F. Sternberg — who is depicted in a display at the current museum uncovering the world-famous “fish-with-a-fish” fossil — served as curator for many years.

On campus, the museum averaged about 20,000 visitors a year, according to an Aug. 25, 1996, Hays Daily News article. Many of the museum’s 3 million specimens and artifacts were never displayed, however, due to a lack of space.

Moving the museum to a larger, off-campus space started to take shape after then-FHSU President Hammond told a group of state legislators about the plans during a tour of the western part of the state in October of 1991.

Built in 1986, the domed building in northeast Hays near Interstate 70 had housed a health club and office space. Its owners later declared bankruptcy, and the property was taken over by Chrysler First Business Credit Corp., which donated its interest to the university.

But with almost $484,000 in back taxes owed, the property was put up for a tax foreclosure auction in December 1991. FHSU’s Endowment Association — now the FHSU Foundation — was the sole bidder for the property, paying $1 plus an $8 records fee. The property at the time was valued at $4.5 million.

The same day as the sale, FHSU alumni Darrell and Marilynn Seibel donated more than 22 acres just west of the property to the university.

A fundraising effort quickly began for the renovation of the dome and adjacent structure to house the museum, eventually raising $11 million. The museum’s progress dominated headlines through the 1990s.

An original opening date in 1996 was set back due to construction delays, partly dealing with designing an adequate sprinkler system.

The museum’s official opening of March 13, 1999, was almost derailed by a blizzard that brought 11 inches of snow to Hays. While then-Gov. Bill Graves and Lt. Gov. Gary Sherrer and Board of Regents Chairman Bill Docking couldn’t make the dedication, about 300 people did.

Updated 3:35 p.m. Feb. 7 with history of Sternberg Museum.