Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Brief History of the Exhumation of the Harriman Mastodon, by R.W. Smith

A Brief History of the Exhumation of the Harriman Mastodon, by R.W. Smith (1957)

The Harriman Mastodon is housed in the Natural History Building at Museum Village in Monroe, NY. The following is a transcription of a typewritten draft of a narrative about the exhumation and subsequent re-assembly of the Harriman Mastodon skeleton from the archives at Museum Village. In our effort to gain intellectual command of our holdings that are both impressive in their quantity and quality, we are bringing to light after many decades these wonderful documents that provide insights into the museum's development and the origins of the collection.

The mastodon bones were found June 15, 1952 in a little black dirt meadow in back of on Route 17M at Harriman on land owned by Mrs. Edith Loostron by contractors Garcia and Leinweber of Warwick when they were cleaning and widening a drainage ditch with a gasoline engine driven shovel or loader.
From left to right: Harry Langlitz, Christian Schmick, and John Leinweber with the Harriman Mastodon that they uncovered while excavating a gas line. This photo was given to me by Bill Schmick, former Road Superintendent of the Village of Warwick, at the Village Hall one day shortly after I took on the position of director of museum operations at Museum Village. 
The ditch was originally dug by hand shovel many years before and had gradually filled with sediment or dirt. The gas shovel had a wider bucket than a shovel and the bones were so close to the old hand made ditch that their scoop or shovel threw out one-half of the lower jaw, two leg bones and a rib. These were picked up and washed and taken up to Arden House, owned and used by Columbia University and shown there. No particular interest being shown, they then took them home to Warwick. The Warwick Dispatch photographed them and published a short news article and picture of the bones.

About fifteen minutes after the bones were found, I learned of the find and on June 21, 1952 I made arrangements with Mrs. Edith loostron, owner of the meadow land, to dig for bones and to have all found. Of course great interest was shown by the people of the Village and especially by the school children who flocked to the scene and all wanted to dig for mastodon bones. Night and day watchmen were employed to protect the area and digging for bones and photographing commenced immediately.

The American Museum of Natural History was contacted and told of the find and asked if they could furnish an expert to supervise the excavating and taking out [of] the bones. Mr. W.E. Fish came immediately and digging started. The entire skeleton was unearthed at a depth of about four feet on a clay bottom. It was difficult to keep the children from digging and finally we let them do so and paid them small amounts for bones found by them. The excitement was great, and it was soon discovered that several children were finding and hiding bones nearby in the bushes and afterward taking them home or giving [them] away or selling them.

Orange County [NY] has long been noted as the home of mastodons because of the large number of bones being found in various parts of the county. Seldom have more than a few scattered bones been found, and we are told it is because of the Ice Age scattered them as the ice caps moved down the valleys.

The particular spot where this mastodon was found was in a low place with higher ground surrounding the site and the bones stood where the animal fell and all were within an area of about 25' x 30' square.

I tried to be on the spot while digging was under way, and it turned out to be very fortunate that I was there because I soon found that quite a number of bones of the mastodon had found their way to nearby homes and to Central Valley, Oxford, Greycourt, Sugar Loaf and to antique shops in Newburgh and New York City. The children kept informing me of bones being found and clues of their whereabouts. It was evident that the children were trying to make it a free-for-all, and it was almost impossible to prevent the pilfering of bones.

In fact the digging was so easy in the soft black dirt that sticks were used by children to move earth, and a number of bones were taken before it was found out through more honest children whispering bone information to me. These clues were all immediately run down and the bones secured, one being in an antique shop in Newburgh, and I paid $5 for it.

Several vertebraes [sic] were traced to a workman's car at the nearby hamlet of Sugar Loaf. They were being carried around to exhibit them. We secured them without difficulty. One bright boy, spreading his hands far apart to illustrate a long bone, asked what I would give if he found such a bone. I told him that all the bones were mine, as I had paid for the privilege of digging and securing them but I would pay something for any bone found. This did not satisfy him, and he asked the question several times. Of course, my curiosity was aroused by his persistence, but I did not realize that he had already found the bone and had taken it to his home on the old Hance place about a mile away.

I have already mentioned of being told by some of the children who had seen bones taken by other children, and it again happened in this particular case. A boy told me that this boy had found this bone and taken it to his home. I also learned that he was told that he could get $25 for it if he took it to New York City. Of course I immediately started for this boy's home. I stopped the car in front of the house and walked around the corner toward the back door. There he was on his knees with a scrub brush and pail of water scrubbing the mud off a large leg bone. Of course he was quite surprised to see me, and I picked up the bone and took it to my car. I offered him a $5 bill but he would not take it so I went home with the bone. A few minutes later I drove again to Sugar Loaf on a lead or tip for more bones and found some in an apartment on the second floor of a home occupied by the boy's sister. The boy had just arrived from his home in Harriman, and I told him I had given the money to his brother. Quick as a flash he said, "What-you gave the money to my brother! He will spend it before I can see him." He asked to be taken back home immediately and on arrival he found that his brother had actually spent the money.

During the entire digging for the bones we took pictures in order to show the bones as they were being uncovered. There were many spectators standing around the fenced in area watching the digging progress. Excitement was at a high pitch as the digging uncovered the end of the tusks, leg bone and continued along the tusks. I was also watching the progress as the American Museum expert, Mr. Fish exclaimed, "There is the head, " and so it was. The head was carefully uncovered by use of trowels and immediately swathed in plaster paris dipped burlap as the pictures show. It was completely swathed or covered and carefully placed on a heavy wood platform as shown in the pictures and pulled up an incline timber track with a power winch to the truck body and transported to our home garage as also were the other bones. Shortly afterward they were moved to the basement of our home where work benches were installed and the work of cleaning and restoration commenced by Mr. Fish and an assistant from the American Museum of Natural History during their vacation time.

Shortly afterward the restoration work on the rest of the skeleton was done by Mr. Charles Lang, a retired American Museum of Natural History expert who did part of it in my basement and the major part in his own shop at Fairlawn, NJ. His work was very expertly done, and I wish to express my appreciation to him for his great assistance.
The forging of the iron frame work to support the mastodon bones was accomplished by taking sections of the animal's bones to the American Museum of Natural History workshop [ where materials were fitted to size.] As the framework was completed for a section of bones, another section was taken down and the completed section returned to Museum Village where it was erected on....1955 by Mr. ...and an assistant came to Museum Village and erected the complete skeleton where it has been viewed by many thousands of museum visitors.

R.W. Smith

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