Hill-Stead’s Mastodon Discovery
The workers had a big secret. They’d found something while digging a ditch on a grand estate in Farmington.
It was August 26, 1913. Connecticut was in a drought. The workers had been hired to dig a trench to drain water from a swamp into a small reservoir.
Fossil of lower jaw bone, 1913. Hill-Stead Museum. From “Mastodon Frenzy,” Connecticut Explored, Winter 2007/2008
At first, the workers thought they’d hit a tree stump. They tried to break it up. The story goes that either the estate’s manager or his son thought the roots looked like bone. They reported their suspicions to the estate’s owner.
Theodate Pope was one of our nation’s first female architects. She designed and built the estate, called Hill-Stead, for her parents. The large house, built in 1901, sat on a hill. It overlooked 250 acres of fields and forest. Her father’s art collection hung inside the house.
Pope decided to call an expert. Charles Schuchert was in charge of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven. He was a paleontologist. He studied and collected fossils.
Schuchert came to Hill-Stead. He was amazed by what he saw. The workers had found fossil bones of an ancient mastodon! It was a rare find. Schuchert sent scientists from the museum to look for more bones.
Mastodon bones found at Hill-Stead in Farmington, 1913. Library of Congress
Soon the secret got out. The Hartford Post ran a news story on September 5. Two days later, 800 people came to watch the scientists search for more bones. The Hartford Courant covered the discovery. Newspapers as far away as Colorado and Minnesota did, too. Guards were hired to protect the site and a fence was built. Over 2,000 people visited in one week.
Frederick Cook, son of Hill-Stead’s estate manager, with mastodon tusk, 1913. Hill-Stead Museum. From “Mastodon Frenzy,” Connecticut Explored, Winter 2007/2008
Most of the mastodon’s skeleton was soon found nearby. Then, in November, a tusk was discovered a short distance away. The skeleton was nicknamed “Old Longtooth.”
Mastadon americanus, Newburg Mastadon, 1900-1935. Mammoths, mastadons, and other large mammals from the Late Cenozoic were collected in Idaho and on display at the Smithsonian Institution, 1900-1935. Image taken from lantern slides found in the Division of Vertebrate Paleontology Records.
Later tests estimate the mastodon fossil bones were 12,000 to 14,000 years old. In 1913 it was the most complete mastodon skeleton found in New England. It isn’t the only mastodon found in Connecticut, though. Others have been found in New Britain, Sharon, Bristol, and Cheshire.
Today “Old Longtooth” is in storage at the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History. You could say it is now buried in storage. “Old Longtooth” waits for a time when it will once again draw big crowds.
This story is based on:
“Mastodon Frenzy,” by Elizabeth Collins, Connecticut Explored, Winter 2007/2008, http://ctexplored.org/mastodon-discovery-in-farmington/
“Radiocarbon Date of the Farmington/Pope Mastodon, Connecticut” by Matthew Boulanger and Brian Jones, Friends of the Office of State Archaeology, fosa-ct.org/Reprints/Fall2015_Mastodon.htm
“AMS Radiocarbon Date for the New Britain YWCA Mastodon,” by Matthew Boulanger, Archaeological Society of Connecticut News, September 2014, connarchaeology.org/ASCNews236.pdf
Drought a long period of dry weather
Estate a large country house on a large piece of land
Fossil the remains of a plant or animal of a past age preserved in earth or rock
Paleontologist a scientist who studies the history of the earth and its life especially through fossils
Reservoir an artificial or natural lake where water is collected as a water supply