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Big Bone Lick State Historic Site, celebrated by its Friends, revered by historians worldwide

By Mark Hansel
NKyTribune Managing Editor

An intimate group of supporters came together at the Cincinnati Museum Center’s Geier Center Thursday for the annual Friends of Big Bone dinner.

Big Bone Lick State Historic Site in southern Boone County is the birthplace of American vertebrate paleontology and has been designated as a National Natural Landmark.

Pat Fox, president of Friends of Big Bone, said the dinner provides an opportunity to tell the story of Big Bone Lick and of its historical significance.

“We always invite a variety of people who have expressed an interest in Big Bone or who need to know the story” Fox said.

“Once you educate people about the significance of Big Bone, then it’s easier for them to participate in projects such as the upgrading of the Visitor Center, which is our goal this year.”

Friends president, Pat Fox, speaks to the group (Photos by Mark Hansel)

Friends president, Pat Fox, speaks to the group (Photos by Mark Hansel)

Friends of Big Bone (FOBB) is a non-profit organization whose purpose is to promote, preserve, research, and memorialize the legacy of the Big Bone Lick Valley.

Big Bone Valley is revered among historians worldwide for its combination of salt springs and late Pleistocene bone beds, but many Northern Kentuckians know very little about it.

Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin are among those who recognized the significance of Big Bone.

In 1803 Lewis sent a box of specimens from Big Bone to Jefferson while on his way to join Clark on their historic expedition. Four years later, Jefferson sent Clark to Big Bone to conduct the first organized paleontology expedition in the United States.

Thursday Pat Raverty of Rabbit Hash recounted a visit to Jefferson’s Monticello plantation in Virginia, where the first thing she saw was an artifact from Big Bone.

The tour guide asked if anyone knew where the piece came from and Raverty, a Friends of Big Bone member, replied, “Yes, and we want it back.”

Mammoth, mastodon, ancient bison and the Harlan ground sloth are among the ancient creatures that once roamed the grounds of Big Bone Lick. The park is still home to a small herd of buffalo.

Fox said educating the public is the key to raising the money to preserve Big Bone, but that can be challenging.

“I look at this event tonight as a bit of a fundraiser to raise awareness about the park,” Fox said. “Once people know about the park and its historic and prehistoric significance, then hopefully they will want to support it.”

Glenn Storrs of the Cincinnati Museum Center shows off primitive tools unearthed at Big Bone by William Clark during an expedition in 1807.

Glenn Storrs of the Cincinnati Museum Center shows off primitive tools unearthed at Big Bone by William Clark during an expedition in 1807.

Big Bone supporters are currently focused on a project to repurpose the Visitor Center from an informational building to an interpretive and engaging space.

Improvements will include a new central display, the overhaul of casework containing fossils and artifacts and the extension of an existing wall mural into a three-dimensional diorama. The inclusion of a timeline, highlighted by the skeletal reconstruction of a giant ground sloth, will help visitors understand the history and significance of the park.

Phase I of the renovation was made possible because of a $70,000 grant from the R.C. Durr Foundation. The Foundation is also providing dollar-for-dollar matching funds up to an additional $70,000 to allow for completion of the revitalizing project.

“I got a $200 donation tonight, which is really $400,” Fox said. “So it’s important for people to understand that right now, their donations go a lot further.”

Dinner guests were also treated to a tour of the Geier Center, by Glenn Storrs, associate vice president, collections and research, Cincinnati Museum Center.

The Geier Center, which Storrs described as the “attic of Cincinnati,” is the library of objects for the Cincinnati Museum Center. It contains between three and four million objects, including many artifacts uncovered at Big Bone.

“I’m not a native of the region, but I’m one of those people who knew about Big Bone before I came here,” Storrs said. “My mission now is to make sure that the people who live in Northern Kentucky and the Greater Cincinnati area are aware of just how significant it is.”

One of the more significant discoveries at Big Bone, Storrs said, was the ability to demonstrate the concept of extinction.

A mastodon tooth unearthed at Big Bone

A mastodon tooth unearthed at Big Bone

“This was unknown to people at that time and it was very important in the early discussion of climate change,” Storrs said. “Ben Franklin presented a paper to the Royal Society of London about fossils from Big Bone and suggested that the climate must have changed because you don’t find elephants in Kentucky today.”

Ossana Wolff, park program services supervisor at Big Bone, said there are still opportunities to unearth more secrets from the valley and add to the collection.

“I’m almost embarrassed sometimes when people ask if everything on display is from Big Bone and I have to tell them it is not,” Wolff said. “So, for that reason, the more really cool stuff we can find from Big Bone, the better.”

While much of the fascination with Big Bone focuses on history and prehistory, the Friends of Big Bone are using 21st century methods to raise awareness.

Last year the group hired Sarah Phipps to develop social media platforms that would engage a wider audience.

“Right now we are going to focus on Facebook because it’s an easy place for people to share common interests,” Phipps said. “Driving people to the actual website might not present as many opportunities. Facebook is easier to update and provides more exposure.”

Big Bone Lick State Historic Site and the Friends of Big Bone have scheduled an open house for Thursday, June 11. The event is open to the public and visitors will have an opportunity to see Phase I of the renovation project, the newly installed thematic cases.

For more information about the event or Big Bone Lick Historical Site, go to Big Bone Lick Facebook page or Kentucky State Parks.

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One Comment

  1. Will Ziegler says:

    Very impressive article. The Durr Foundation was pleased to provide the impetus for the regeneration of Big Bone.

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