Way Before the Cowboy Era…


Last month I had an amazing experience at our local Fossil Discovery Center, and while this topic goes a bit beyond my usual era, I wanted to share.  Especially for those who may live near my area and haven’t made the trek out to the fossil museum–you shouldn’t miss this! The center is fairly new, the one-year anniversary of the center is on the 13th of this month (National Fossil Day), and is located adjacent to the site where the fossils were found,  one of the largest fossil beds in the country–which also happens to be the Madera dump. Anyone remember the headline news from about ten years back when mammoth fossils were discovered in a California landfill? The mammoths were just the tip-of-the-tusk. Because this was a working landfill paleontologists had to cast and excavate fossils as fast as the massive machinery uncovered them. No time for  meticulous sediment removal and identification. They have enough fossil casts (plaster jackets) waiting to be opened and examined to keep paleontologists busy for the next twenty years–and they are nowhere near done excavating. They’ve already uncovered 39 different species, from snails and rodents to the large predators like the saber-tooth cats. I had no idea, and it’s practically in my backyard. I’d heard the Fossil Center was in our county but had no clue it was only ten miles away!

If I hadn’t been looking for a social/learning/volunteer outlet for my boys, I likely would have remained clueless. A huge benefit to homeschooling my teens–which, sadly, is NOT loads of writing time–is how much I learn in the process. One major drawback to their independent study program is a lack of social interaction. Not wanting to encourage the total hermit lifestyle I happen to revel in, getting my kids involved in a public program was important and I thought a fossil museum/discovery center would be perfect. I called and was told, “Sure, bring them out and we’ll put them to work.”  While visions of uninterrupted writing time danced in my head, my teenagers met that news with enthusiastic responses of, “Seriously? Do we have to? This is so stupid. Why are you punishing us?” Enjoying that chipper chorus all the way to the museum, I started to worry this great idea was going to go up in flames.

The paleontologist staff turned their grumbles into wide-eyed interest within ten minutes of stepping through the doors. Their enthusiasm for their work radiates like a palpable energy, and I think we were all a bit mesmerized by that energy and the massive scale of information and exhibits on display. After getting the grand tour, my kids were shooing me out the door, proclaiming four to five hours a few days a week would be great. A few weeks into it, they are just as enthusiastic, if not more so now that they are being trained to give tours and working with groups of elementary school kids who visit for field trips. My sixteen-year-old was telling me last week how he got the best feeling when a little girl running out to the bus stopped at the door and shouted back, “Thank you, Ethan!” Probably close to the happy feeling I got when he shared that with me–a moment that reminds you all your time and energy spent is worthwhile 🙂

I definitely recommend a visit to the Fossil Discovery Center or perhaps a similar facility in your area.  I was surprised to learn the fossil bed covers more than 40 acres, one of the largest. The fossils are from the last Ice Age in the San Joaquin Valley, the Middle Pleistocene Epoch, and are as old as 780,000 years. Little has been uncovered about this time period, making the site extremely valuable, and it’s rare to find a location with so many species available, giving a clear picture of life in their natural environment. The most common fossils found on this site are herd animals; ancient horses, camels, mammoths and giant ground sloths. The exhibits are definitely something to see!

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13 thoughts on “Way Before the Cowboy Era…”

  1. I LOVE this stuff!! I’m so jealous of your teens, Stacey. What an opportunity! Wish I lived closer the Fossil Discovery Center just looks amazing.


  2. Stacey,
    This is just GREAT! Man, you must have been so thrilled to have this opportunity to get your boys involved in this. Here in Ok City, there is a science museum who “hires” kids that are really too young to work at real jobs–middle schoolers on up(they have to be at least 12). They don’t get paid anything, but they have to fill out a job application and go through the interview process and kind of learn how to answer to a “boss” and start taking on responsibility. My kids both were involved in that program and loved it. Neither one of them really wanted to do it at the beginning, but as you were saying, the excitement of the people working there was very contagious and within a few minutes, they were excited, too. I am so glad to know that programs like that are in existence–that’s what opens doors for kids and makes them want to learn about things, I think. You are a GREAT MOM!
    Cheryl P.

  3. What a fascinating blog, Stacey. And what a great experience for your kids. We have a lot of dino discoveries here in Utah, too, with Dinosaur National Monument in the NE corner of the state. And there are two great museums with dino skeletons and exhibits within 30 minutes of me. But I don’t know what they have in the way of kid programs. Sounds like you and your teens found a great one.
    I so admire anyone who home schools their children (which I didn’t). Lots of time and devotion involved but the rewards can be worth it. My hat is off to you.

  4. Hi Stacey,
    How great that museum sounds. You are just over the mountain from me. When I lived in Bakersfield, we would find shark teeth all over the hills, while hiking. That was our big find. One of these days I’ll have to return to the San Joaquin Valley and visit this museum. It sounds like an amazing place. Tip of the Hat to your boys, too.

  5. We have a fossil site not far from out home in NE TN and there is another site about 50 miles or so away in VA. The TN site was found when they were cutting a road bed not far from a high school. They have built a nice visitors’ center and are expanding with an educational wing/lecture hall. It is an extremely rich site and its discovery was rather unexpected. The fossils range from frogs to giant ground sloths to saber-toothed cats. It has a partnership with the local university and also has many volunteer opportunities. My grandson is also home schooled and I will be discussing with he and my daughter to see if he is interested in volunteering in the near future, he is only 13. We can both volunteer a day or two per week. I know I will enjoy it.
    The facility in Virginia is about the wooly mammoth.

    We always visit this sort of place on our travels. We have found some nice facilities, both large and small, around the country. Thanks for reminding me how much we enjoy them and giving me one more to visit.

  6. Me too, Kirsten 🙂 It’s hard to guess at teens reactions to new situations but this went better than I’d hoped. Which really had everything to do with the welcoming and encouraging attitudes of the staff. Sounds like more and more sites and centers are popping up–you might get one in your backyard too 😉

  7. THANK YOU, Cheryl! It’s great to hear about other programs. I was really impressed by the staff’s welcoming attitude. I’m thrilled my kids are getting the chance to work in a positive, respectful work environment. Everyday they meet new and interesting people. There is definitely a lot for youth to gain through this kind of apprenticeship experience. We’re looking around at other occupational interests for my older son to see if we can find something similar in airplane mechanics.

  8. Oh wow, you live in my favorite state, Elizabeth 🙂 We keep saying if we ever transplant, it will be to Utah. Hard to beat those amazing canyons and dinosaur digs 😉 I was really leery of taking on high-schoolers, but when the local high school starts sounding more like a prison yard, it’s time to change things up. My oldest has been in an independent study program for the past two years, he’s graduating this year, and it’s been great for him. He turned 18 yesterday–still can hardly believe it. It’s shocking how fast it’s all gone. He still has college so I’m hoping we’ll get to keep him for another couple years before he flies the coop 😉 He has a “day job” that comes with a paycheck, but having programs like the discovery center available helps, all of us, to see beyond our little circle of living 😀

  9. Great project for your sons, or anyone! I vaguely
    recall hearing something about this fossil find
    in the news some while back. Texas has a few such
    areas, especially up in Glen Rose. These areas
    would be great for Scouting trips. Thanks for the

    Pat C.

  10. Wow, Patricia, that site in TN sounds exactly like the one here, the accidental discovery, the involvement of the local university and range of fossils from frogs to giant ground sloths to saber-toothed cats. I was shocked at just how HUGE those giant ground sloths were.

    I’m sure you and your grandson will enjoy working at the center. I know the staff was thankful to have volunteers available in the mornings when they had large groups of students visiting for field trips. Next week they have groups of kindergarteners coming in–that should be interesting for my boys 🙂 They enjoy the chance to guide others through the museum and have even gotten to work in the lab with newly opened fossils. They also sweep and dust, which I think is great 😉

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