Archived Story

Finding really old bones in Freeborn County

Published 10:36am Friday, November 12, 2010

Ed Shannon, Between the Corn Rows

Not long ago local historical researcher Kevin Savick found a 1952 Tribune article based on prehistoric animals living in Freeborn County.

According to this article, elephants, mammoths, buffalo and even a critter called an ichthyosaur once roamed around the area’s prairie land. We’ll explain what that last critter was later on. Anyway, proof that these animals were once in the county has been proven many times through the years with the creation of gravel pits, ditch drainage systems and the digging of basements and foundations for buildings. That’s when their bones and even complete skeletons have been discovered.

The elephants mentioned in this article and an even earlier Tribune article were much larger than the type we now see in zoos, circuses or in films about Africa and Asia. An article written by Dr. J.R. Nannestad in the Sept. 30, 1932, issue of the Tribune said he found elephant bones in a local gravel pit. He added, “It was not so long ago that elephants did live around these parts. We have plenty of evidence that such was the case. I have myself seen some eight or 10 such bones.”

However, there was a much larger version of the elephant that once lived in the county and provided many of the old bones found during the past 150 years. Dr. Nannestad wrote, “What kind of animal was this mammoth? If you met him you would say at once he was kind of an elephant, but he was larger and heavier. He would probably weigh about 6,000 pounds. He stood 10 feet or more in height and was 16 feet long. His tusks were eight to 10 feet long and nicely curved,. His stout trunk was six feet long.”

Proof that these ancient critters and even buffalo once lived in what’s now Albert Lea and other parts of the county is based on the finding of their bones. For example, Dr. Nannestad explained in his 1932 article that an elephant’s tusk weighing 16 pounds was found in the “city gravel pit west of the country club.” The 1952 article had details about mammoth bones and teeth found during several excavation projects around the city. One place was the present site of the Shoff Building (formerly the First National Bank). Another find took place over a century ago when the American Gas building on East Clark Street (now site of the City Center) was being constructed. The mammoth vertebra found by the workers at this lakeside site was sent to the University of Minnesota.

What could have been the most significant fossil find in the county is the complete skeleton of a mammoth from a million years or more ago which came from what was a former marshland near Hollandale. Just when this discovery took place is a detail I haven’t yet found. Anyway, this huge skeleton was sent to the Science Museum in St. Paul.

Partial proof that this area may have been a part of an ancient sea 10 million years ago was the finding of the fossilized vertebra of a ichthyosaur or fish lizard. This odd item was found in a local gravel pit during the 1920s. Just where it ended up is unknown.

For folks who would like to see some of these reminders of the really olden days, I suggest that a visit to the Freeborn County Historical Museum on North Bridge Avenue could be worthwhile. A special display case contains a bison, or buffalo, skull, mastodon and mammoth teeth and a mammoth tusk 12 feet long found north of Albert Lea. Also in this case are part of a mammoth vertebra found at the former Wilson & Co. site, a buffalo skull found at Grass Lake near the Iowa line and an elk antler discovered near Manchester.

Will there be more fossil remains of critters from the past found in the city or county? Let’s just see what evolves or gets dug up in the future.

Now here’s an added detail for my article about smokestacks in the Oct. 24 issue. One of the city’s present smokestacks I overlooked is at Thorne Crest Retirement Community. This tall brick chimney or smokestack was originally built for St. Mary’s Junior High School on Garfield Avenue. Somehow, my attention was focused on the more prominent smokestack at Hawthorne Elementary School just a block to the south.

Ed Shannon’s column has been appearing in the Tribune every Friday since December 1984.