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Returning a fossil home

The Reporter's Notebook


Last updated 1/9/2019 at 9:42am

A fossilized leg bone of the Hagerman Horse will soon be on its way home.

It has been in my possession for 60 years, and it will soon rest where it had been for thousands of years before I dug it up in 1958.

The bone has been with me in Nampa, Boise, Othello, Lynnwood, Woodinville, Bothell and now Electric City.

I am told that the Hagerman Horse (equus simplicidens) was killed off some 50,000 years ago, and I will be happy when the bone is finally returned to the Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument, at Hagerman, Idaho.

I dug the bone out of a coarse, sandy hillside overlooking the Snake River in 1958, some 30 years before the site became a national monument.

I, along with another reporter and a photographer, from the Idaho Free Press, a five-day daily paper in Nampa, Idaho, went to the site after learning about fossils found there. We scouted the area on one weekend and then returned the next to do some digging. That’s when I turned up the fossil leg bone.

I started excavating on a sidehill made up of coarse sand and small rock that was packed tightly.

It took a while to get under the overhang, and the farther I got, the colder the sandy material became.

I started to panic when only my feet were hanging out and I asked my reporter friend Richard Martin to come and hold my ankles in case the hillside caved in on me.

That was about the time that I found the leg bone, and carefully worked around it until it came loose.

Martin and the newspaper staff photographer returned to the site several times later.

After the site became a national monument, I returned there several times to visit with staff and told them of my find and that I intended to return it. I’m afraid I was pretty slow in getting it back to Hagerman.

By that time, the monument displayed a skeleton of the famous horse, and later while at Toronto at a newspaper convention, I visited a museum there that featured the bones of a complete skeleton, and it was easy to identify the bone I had.

It was stated that the quarry horse was more like a zebra without the stripes, and is often referred to as the “American zebra.”

I have read that the Smithsonian had dug five complete horse skeletons from the site and that it is known that 10 have been excavated there. The official Smithsonian dig returned some three tons of specimens to its collection.

Anxious to finally follow through with my plan to return the bone, I called the monument site and told the person who answered what I wanted to do. There answer was, “I can’t talk to you now because of the partial government shutdown.”

So I am on hold for a few more days, or, as the president said, maybe months or years.

Still, I am determined to return the bone.

The fossil bone has adorned every room in the house, and I don’t know how many times that I have had to explain what it was and how it came into my possession.

At the time that I dug the bone, there were no restrictions on digging at the site, for there was evidence that a number of people had done so. It wasn’t until I visited the monument shortly after it was established that I felt that I had disturbed something that should be left alone.

The site was discovered in 1928 by a rancher named Elmer Cook, and the horse quarry was later designated by the Idaho Legislature as the state fossil.

Hagerman is located about 100 miles east of Nampa along Highway 30. The headquarters office is located in the town of Hagerman, and the quarry site is a mile or two from there.

The fossil leg bone will soon be on its way home.


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