Over 30 years ago, two Central Texas men discovered a large bone eroding out of a creek bank about six miles from the Baylor University campus. Wondering what it might be, they took their find to Baylor's museum staff. Today, the site of their original find is on the brink of joining the National Park System, but the steps that have taken Baylor and Waco from then to now have been a mammoth undertaking.
In 1978, Paul Barron and Eddie Bufkin were prospecting for arrowheads and fossils when they came across a large bone protruding from the side of a ravine. Recognizing that the object was too big to be a cow bone but unsure of just what their find really was, they took the object to Baylor's Strecker Museum to see if someone there might be able to identify its origin.
The Strecker Museum's technical staff assistant, David Lintz, BA '69, "was the person who identified the bone and began the initial investigation," says Dr. Ellie Caston, director of Baylor's Mayborn Museum Complex. Lintz organized a volunteer crew to see what else might be found in the vicinity where Barron and Bufkin had discovered the mammoth bone, and over the next two years, the crew spent hundreds of hours excavating the site before inadequate funding ended the work in 1980.
In 1983, Calvin Smith was named the Strecker Museum's new director. A year later, having secured funding from the Cooper Foundation, Smith reopened the dig. Since no arrowheads, spearheads or other evidence of man have ever been found at the site, researchers deduced that the animals they found (23 Columbian mammoths have been uncovered to date, plus a camel, a tooth from a juvenile saber-toothed cat, and one unidentified animal) died as a result of a single catastrophic event, such as a flash flood.
But in 2004, a Baylor graduate student working on a master's thesis discovered that the soil surrounding the bones suggests the animals died in two or perhaps three separate events.
"Over the years, we've relied heavily on Lee Nordt and Baylor's geology department to help us understand the environment that the mammoths were in," explains Caston. "One of Dr. Nordt's students, John Bongino, MS '07, did a thesis on the mammoth site and used a new dating technique, optically stimulated luminescence. The method measures how long it has been since the minerals in the soil around the bones have been exposed to light. If the soil beside the bone is 68,000 years old, then that tells you approximately when the bone was buried."
Based on Bongino's work, the mammoths are believed to have died between 53,000 and 73,000 years ago--long before humans migrated into North America, which explains why nothing manmade has been found among the remains.
His work also suggests that 16 of the mammoths (plus the camel) died in a single death event at the site, as a nursery herd made up of females and juveniles was trapped in a channel and drowned by flood waters from the Bosque River. One of the juveniles' remains was found on the tusks of an adult female, suggesting that the adult was trying to lift the juvenile above the water. The rest of the animal remains are thought to have resulted from either a single later event or multiple events.
"This is the truly dynamic aspect of the site," says Caston. "The more we study and employ new scientific methods, the more we learn about the mammoth herd, how they lived, and perhaps someday, exactly when and how they died."
For the first 18 years after the mammoths were discovered, the archeologists and paleontologists were essentially digging in someone else's yard. That continued until 1996, when Sam Jack McGlasson donated nearly five acres around and including the site to the City of Waco. The terms of the agreement stipulated that the city must use the property for research, educational and/or tourism purposes and enter into an agreement with Baylor concerning the maintenance of the property.
"It was really pretty smart the way he did it, because he indicated that he wanted to have Baylor involved on the academic side," says Waco City Manager Larry Groth. "That land gift to the city really started the formal relationship between Waco and Baylor on the site's future development."
In 2000, gifts from Buddy Bostick, BA '39, and Don and Pam Moes allowed the University to purchase 55 acres of land connecting the dig's location with the Bosque River. A year later, with an additional gift from Bostick, Baylor purchased another 50 acres to extend the buffer zone around the excavation site.
Around that same time, local excitement about the find was beginning to grow. The City of Waco formed a development plan to create a regional park around the Waco Mammoth Site, and U.S. Representative Chet Edwards took things a step further, introducing legislation to conduct a special resource study to look into the site's feasibility as part of the National Park Service (NPS). That legislation passed in December 2002.
"Congress did not appropriate any money at that point; in fact, the funding for the study wasn't made available until 2005," recalls Caston, who three years earlier had followed Smith as director of the Strecker Museum (now the Mayborn Museum).
The next year, the City of Waco and Baylor jointly chartered the Waco Mammoth Foundation to formalize oversight of the mammoth site, with each group appointing members to the foundation's board.
"Its primary function is to shepherd the process, but as a non-profit it also serves as a method for the community to give funds in a tax-deductible manner. The city is then the contracting agent, with the Foundation supplying funds as needed," Groth explains. "The Foundation also has a great group of folks on our advisory committee who are really the fundraisers. Gloria Young is the chair of that, and she's done just a fantastic job."
Edwards paved the way for the Foundation to receive a $200,000 federal Save America's Treasures grant that kick-started the fundraising. The City of Waco and Baylor (through the Baylor/Waco Foundation) each donated an additional $100,000 to match the grant, and in a very short time, the Foundation was able to raise $3 million, thanks primarily to what Caston calls a "pivotal gift" from Paul and Jane Meyer.
"It's pretty remarkable that we were able to raise the money to do this at a rather difficult time in the economy, and it really does show a tremendous community interest in this. People really, really want to see this become part of the NPS," says Caston.
"Bringing that Foundation team together was critical because when the National Park team came in, they had a lot of questions," she continues. "So we started pulling all our information together and going through this study with the National Park Service. The NPS folks were so impressed with the community's attitude. Evidently, such support is unusual. They were overwhelmed that everybody loved it, and that Baylor and the city were able to work together so well."
"I think the Baylor-Waco relationship is critical," Groth echoes. "Everybody has always known how important the University is to the city, and likewise how important the city is to the University. I think we're at a time in our history that people are recognizing more and more how important that relationship is, and that each of our successes is intertwined. We're not going to be successful unless we're both successful."
Even with everyone working together in such an efficient manner, NPS representatives warned Caston early on that it would probably take 10 years to complete the entire process and provide the critical protection necessary for the site's future.
"When we heard 10 years, we knew we couldn't wait that long, that the bones would be seriously disintegrated in another 10 years. We had a tent over it, but every time we had heavy rains, we'd go out and just hope that it hadn't taken out a tusk or something," Caston remembers. "So the foundation, the city and Baylor began a simultaneous development plan alongside the National Park Service, and we started raising money to build the protective shelter. All along the way, everything we did, the National Park Service was in on it. They approved everything we did, with the idea that when they come in they won't have to redo anything."
Besides the unique nature of the site's natural history and the exceptional collaboration between Baylor and the city, the NPS was also wowed by the ongoing work done at the dig.
"The National Parks team was very impressed that one university has overseen and done all the work out there, and was very impressed with how well it was cared for. I think our alums can be proud that the work done here was good science," Caston says.
This past July, the House of Representatives passed a bill sponsored by Edwards that would make the Waco Mammoth Site a national monument under the National Park Service. The next step is to pass the Senate; at press time, the bill (sponsored by Texas Senators John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison) was still being studied in a subcommittee.
"It started out just pushing for what was really a simple dig structure that was more permanent than the tent, just to protect." says Groth. "As we got into it, the community was very, very generous, and we were able to raise significant funds to not just have a simple dig structure but a really nice visitor's experience that would not only protect the existing excavation where some of the remains are exposed, but also give visitors an opportunity to walk through in a comfortable setting.
"I feel confident the Senate will pass the bill, and we will become a unit of the National Park System."
Still to be determined is just how the site will be run once it becomes part of the system.
"I believe it will still be a partnership between the city, Baylor and NPS," says Caston. "It's very expensive to run these things, and I think the days of the National Park Service coming in and taking things over 100 percent are probably over."
Several management models have been proposed, with Baylor, the City of Waco and the NPS shouldering varying responsibilities, depending on which model is finally selected. Whatever the final solution, the likely arrangement will still have Baylor housing the specimens at the Mayborn Museum (where they have been since the museum's opening in 2004), with Baylor taking care of and researching the specimens and providing access to outside researchers.
The University also will likely be involved at some level in the educational interpretation, helping develop the visitor's center and school programs and training volunteers--the "educational/scientific end of it," as Caston puts it. For now, the City of Waco will run the park, providing operational management--supplying security, selling tickets, scheduling tours, etc. When the site becomes part of the NPS, their staff will then provide input and assistance in each area.
"The neat part is that the national parks brings their expertise, Baylor still has their expertise to contribute, and we'll contribute ours for the long term," Groth notes.
Of the models put forth, Caston's favorite has the NPS running the central five-acre dig site, with the surrounding 100 acres becoming a city park.
"There could be recreational aspects to it. The property goes all the way down to the river, so there could be the river taxi, nature trails, all kinds of really fabulous things--another river park, basically," Caston says.
Until the NPS makes its final decision, however, the City of Waco and Baylor will operate the park, which is scheduled to open to the public in early December. Initially, the Waco Mammoth Site will be open Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., and Saturday from 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; eventually, Caston expects those hours to expand as newly hired staff gain experience and the attraction grows in popularity.
"I know we're gonna be covered up with people," she says. "People are going to be fascinated by it, excited by it. They're dying to see it."
Visitors this winter will begin at a small visitor's center where they can purchase tickets. A pathway leads into the wooded area, where after turning a corner the building housing the dig comes into view for the first time.
"The building is quite wonderful. At one point, we were talking about basically putting a pole barn over the dig site, and instead we went really first-class, and it's beautiful. It fits into the environment, and it's functional," Caston says.
Inside, a catwalk leads visitors out over the dig, where they can look down 10 feet and see the exposed bones of the bull mammoth and camel, among others, inside a climate-controlled, purposefully-lit building.
Future plans call for a much larger visitor's center to include interpretive exhibits and perhaps even a space where the visiting public could look in on paleontologists working to clean and study specimens already removed from the ground. Beyond the current building, however, such possibilities remain on the drawing board until the level of National Park Service involvement is finalized.
Regardless of that decision, it's clear that both scientific discovery and an important local partnership have been bolstered through work at the Waco Mammoth Site.
"Baylor could not have afforded to do this alone. The city could not have afforded to do this alone," Caston sums up. "It really is the perfect example of a partnership, of true collaboration at its best."