My wife and I moved to Jefferson County, Missouri, in 1979 not once thinking that this was an area where the huge mastodons and giant sloths (the size of grizzly bears) of prehistoric times had once roamed freely.
However, owing to the wise decision making of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, who purchased the 418 acres in Imperial, Mo., that encompasses the “Kimmswick Bone Bed” where the fossils of these giant creatures were found and established a museum and historic site, we have discovered that these magnificent animals did in fact live in this area and very possibly walked around on the very ground where my zoysia grass now grows.
Located at 1050 Charles J. Becker Drive in Imperial, the historic site and museum is full of interesting displays. First a giant replica of a mastodon skeleton is what catches your eye as soon as you walk in the door. You must keep in mind that a full skeleton wasn’t found at the site but such pieces as tusks, jaws and hip bones and teeth were found and were enough for scientists to establish that they were indeed here.
A quarry operation in the area that ran up to the 1930’s had destroyed a lot of the ice age remains. Enclosed in glass cases are a tusk and hip bone and several jaw bones. Some actual teeth are in the open for visitors to touch.
Also in glass cases are spearheads that were made by the Native Americans that lived here during the time of the mastodon.
The mastodon wasn’t the only animal who left behind intriguing remains for scientists to discover. There is also evidence of the giant sloth, stag moose and peccary.
At the end of the ice age, estimated to be 35,000 to 10,000 years ago, this area was believed to be swampy and having a lot of mineral springs. It is thought the animals became trapped in the mud and thus, preserving their bones.
Early North Americans known as the “Clovis” people had also reached this area and their spearheads that were found also in the “Bone Bed” can also be seen in the museum. The fact that spearheads were found along with the bone fragments of the mastodon indicated that the Clovis people coexisted with these giant animals and killed them for food and for their hides.
As a fisherman, one of the things that really fascinated me was seeing tiny fish hooks that they had fashioned out of bones. I wondered if any of them ever tried tying feathers onto their hooks and making flies. Of course, there is no evidence to suggest that they did but you never know.
In the early 1900’s, an amateur scientist dug up skulls, teeth and tusks in this area prompting tours from St. Louis to view these fossils, especially during the 1904 World’s Fair that was held in St. Louis.
Construction of I-55 in the 1970’s renewed public concern from Jefferson County residents to preserve the area, which resulted in the historic site being established in 1976.
Along with the museum there is a wildlife garden and bird sanctuary which attracts birds and butterflies with native wildflowers and bird feeders. There is a picnic area and numerous programs for school groups.
There are also three hiking trails. The Wildflower Trail is one-quarter mile long and takes you by the “Bone Bed.” Although it is a relatively short trail, it is rated “moderate” mainly because there are a lot of steps leading down to the Bone Bed area and of course, if you go down the hill, you must come back up the hill.
Don’t be disappointed when you arrive at the Bone Bed expecting to see bones because there won’t be any… only a marker identifying and explaining the area. There are no current excavations in process.
The Spring Branch Trail is one-eighth mile long and is rated “easy.” Strollers and wheelchairs are manageable on this trail. Along this trail you will see the remains of a “springhouse,” built in the early 1900’s, that a family used for refrigeration by taking advantage of the cool spring water to keep their food from spoiling.
The third trail, the Limestone Hill Trail, 2.0 miles long, is for the more adventurous and is rated as “rugged.”
The site grounds are open from 8 a.m. to a half-hour after sunset every day. There is an entry fee of $4 for ages 13 and up, and those under 13 are admitted free.
The site is easy to reach by exiting off I-55 at Exit 186, Imperial, Kimmswick and going west on Imperial Main Street to the Outer Road. Turn right and go north on the Outer Road until you come to Charles J. Becker Dr. You can’t miss the huge sign with the mastodon on it.
This place has all the ingredients for a very enjoyable family outing and is well worth your time. It is still mind-boggling for me to try to imagine that these giant creatures measuring 8-10 feet high at the shoulders and weighing in at 4-6 tons, actually prowled around in this area where Walmarts, Cracker-Barrel restaurants, and many, many subdivisions now cover the landscape.
(Bill Oder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)