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History, hiking and the 'crazy housewives': Mastodon State Historic Site

By Tom Uhlenbrock

Missouri State Parks

KIMMSWICK, Mo. – Marilyn King is the last of the four women who fought for the founding of Mastodon State Historic Site, which tells the story of the Ice Age animals, and people, who once roamed what is now suburbia.

When developers sought to buy the important archeological site, the four ladies – King, Dorothy Heinze, Hazel Lee and Rita Naes  - organized a fund-raising effort to match their bid. They succeeded and the land was purchased in 1976 and turned over to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. It became a park and is now a state historic site that is an oasis of green space amid the subdivision sprawl at the southern tip of the St. Louis area in Jefferson County.

In an interview at the site, where she still works as a volunteer, King recalled how the women refused to give up, pestering state officials until the land was secured.

“They’d say, ‘Oh no, here comes those crazy housewives again’,” said King, who is now 76. “Dorothy died in 2002, Hazel passed away in ’81. Rita died in 1976, she got to see the sign put up that said it was a state park.”

The four were united in their belief that what was known as the Kimmswick Bone Bed should be preserved for future generations. Archeologists, both amateur and professional, had been digging at the site since the early 1800s, recovering the bones of animals that lived more than 11,000 years ago. Most of those early finds were long gone.

The importance of the site recently was recognized when Chicago’s Field Museum put together a traveling exhibit, “Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age.” The exhibit’s creators borrowed four objects from the collection of the Mastodon State Historic Site for their display, which came to the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis.

The objects included two spear points that were excavated after the four women had won their battle to preserve the land. The points were next to mastodon bones, giving hard vidence that mastodons were hunted by humans. That relationship was confirmed later at other archeological digs, but it came first at the Kimmswick Bone Bed in 1979, earning the site recognition on the National Register of Historic Places.

“We were the first location where they proved people – the Paleo-Indians known as Clovis – were hunting mastodons,” said Ken Smith, the natural resource manager of the state historic site. “They found two Clovis points in relation to mastodon bones. One point was touching a bone and the other was within 3 inches.

“This was a kill site. The water, the ponds, the mineral springs were drawing the animals here. When their heads were down, they were getting killed. They have found various parts of at least 30 mastodons.  Just body parts, they were butchering them.”


Answering all the questions

The state historic site is home to a handsome museum, with a central diorama that features a replica of a full-size mastodon skeleton standing near the figures of three Paleo-Indians. Exhibits describe the various prehistoric animals found at the site (10-foot-tall ground sloths, giant armadillo, giant beaver, a stag moose), and explain the difference between mastodons and mammoths (mastodons were earlier by eons and found only in North America, mammoths also roamed Europe and Africa).

The site has three hiking trails. The two-mile Limestone Hill Trails heads up a hillside of gnarled oaks and comes back along the bluff, offering views of the valley below from overlooks. The three-quarter-mile Spring Branch Trail is flat and joins a lovely stretch of Rock Creek, the waterway that first drew the mastodons to the site. Both trails begin at a park area that has a playground and picnic shelter, which are popular with the families who live in the nearby neighborhoods.

The third trail is called the Wildflower Trail and begins at the museum’s back door on a half-mile loop. It goes down a stairway to the site of the bone bed at the base of a limestone bluff.  A kiosk explains where and when the digging was conducted, although there are no exposed pits. Russell Graham of the Illinois State Museum led the digs that uncovered the Clovis points; his last excavation was in 1980.

“We have pretty much answered all the questions that need to be answered,” said Smith, the site manager.

Marilyn King, however, remains active at the site. She volunteers on weekends at an annex building next to the museum where children are treated to hands-on activities, including digging in a make-believe bone bed.

“We have these digs inside,” King said. “The kids look for bones and we all have a good time.”

‘Yes, we can’

The battle to preserve the land began after the Missouri Highway Department finished construction of Interstate 55 in 1966. Acreage that was surplus, including the bone bed, was offered for sale. The department accepted a bid of $568,725 for the land from developers, despite the protest of the housewives.

“A busload of us went to Jefferson City to talk to the highway department,” King said. “They wanted to give us a couple of acres where the bone bed was. On the way home, Rita said that wasn’t going to work, we needed the whole thing. We wanted to save the land as a park because it was building up. Dorothy wanted to save the bones and what else might be there.”

The four organized the Mastodon Park Committee and were granted a reprieve – they had two years to match the developer’s offer for the 431 acres. The committee also got an agreement from the state to accept the land as a park, and to put up half the purchase price from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. The committee went to work raising the other half.

“We had tailgate sales, bake sales, walks, dinner dances, bumper stickers and collection cans with ‘Save the Mastodons’ on it,” King said. “School kids went door to door and asked for pennies, nickels and quarters. We’d say, ‘We can’t raise this much money,’ and then something else would happen and we’d say, ‘Yes, we can!”

The committee lobbied its local politicians, especially Charles Becker, and eventually won a $200,000 appropriation from the Legislature. “Charlie told us, ‘I don’t give a dern about the land, but you gals are so enthused about it’,” King said.

“We got down to the last month and were $20,000 short,” King said. “The McDonnell Douglas Personnel Charity came through at the last minute. We were so proud. But if the whole community hadn’t of backed us, we would never have made it.”


For more information on Mastodon State Historic Site, call (636) 464-2976 or visit mostateparks.com