LOOKBACK: Dredger unearths mammoth tooth at Austin Mill Pond
Summer 1920 effort to create Horace Austin State Park leads to ancient discovery that’s showcased in downtown store window
By Tim Ruzek, CRWD outreach coordinator
In the early 1900s, the Austin Furniture Co. promoted itself as having “three Mammoth Stores.”
By summer 1920, the downtown Austin store was showcasing an actual mammoth tooth in its display window.
A dredger working on a Saturday (June 12, 1920) on the Cedar River at Austin Mill Pond — part of developing Horace Austin State Park — had unearthed the prehistoric tooth.
“Monster Tooth Is Uncovered” read the headline in the Rochester Daily Post & Record on June 14 1920.
“It is a wonderfully fine specimen, almost perfect of its kind,” the newspaper wrote. “There is no question about its being a tooth of some huge monster that lived here in the glacial period and it sets one’s mind to work wondering about that head that could hold a set of such teeth and the body that could support such a head.”
M. Ousley, “who is always on the job in the state park,” brought the tooth for display in the Austin Furniture Co.’s store window. Its whereabouts after the window display are unclear.
“It harks back to the far distant days when the earth was in the process of building, and when monsters walked about the face of the earth,” the article stated.
Some thought the creature must have been in the process of losing baby teeth and dropped them across the landscape.
‘Huge Rare Tooth’
Dredging at a depth of 20 feet in the Cedar River, the dredge crew “brought up from the river depths Saturday a huge tooth weighing 7 pounds, 9 ounces,” wrote the Mower County Transcript-Republican in an article June 14, 1920, titled, “Unearths Huge Rare Tooth.”
That’s about the average weight of a newborn baby.
Measurements of the tooth put it at 6 inches from the grinding surface to its root ends and 4 inches wide and about 8 inches long.
“Comparing the tooth to descriptions given in the Encyclopedia Britannica, it evidently belonged to a ‘Mammoth,’ a huge animal of the Glacial period,” the Transcript wrote.
Estimates were that the tooth came from the E. primigenius mammoth or “whatever that is,” the newspaper wrote.
Woolly mammoths are the E. primigenius or Mammuthus primigenius. They are arguably the best-known mammals of the ice ages, according to the Smithsonian Institute, and went extinct due to a combination of shifting climate, changing food sources and humans emerging as a new predator.
Based on other remains found in various places around the world, the mammoth’s size at the time of losing the tooth was about 16 feet from its forehead to the tip of its tail and about 9 feet tall.
The creature also likely had 9-foot-long tusks and six molar teeth on each side of its jaws above and below.
Skin of the mammoth would have been dark gray and covered with a reddish wool mixed with long black bristles somewhat thicker than horsehair.
Docked all winter near the George A. Hormel & Co. meatpacking plant along Austin Mill Pond’s northeast shoreline, a dredger was set to resume dredging for the larger effort to create a lake for Horace Austin State Park, according to the Albert Lea Times Enterprise on May 26, 1920.
Plans were for the dredger to remove 40,000 yards of earthen material from the channel of that stretch of the Cedar River created by the downtown dam at old Water Street (4th Ave NE).
Dredging would begin the following week upon the arrival of a new discharge pipe line for the dredger that also had electric motors installed to replace steam engines from the 1919 season on the Cedar.
Overall, the dredging and related developed of graded parkland were expected to be completed by the following year (July 1, 1921), the Mower County Transcript-Republican wrote on April 5, 1920.
“By the time canoeing is at its best, this season followers of that sport will experience little, if any, difficulty with shallow shore lines and heavy water vegetation,” the Transcript wrote.
Other mammoth remnants found locally, across southern MN
Apparently, the mammoth tooth wasn’t the first of its kind found in “that section” of Mower County nor other parts of Mower and southern Minnesota.
Numerous newspaper reports from the early 1900s mentioned people finding mammoth fossils, including buried teeth and bones, across southern Minnesota.
An Austin farmer, John Galloway, also found a petrified tooth believed to be from a woolly mammoth on his farm where Austin’s Galloway Park and surrounding neighborhood is today. His son brought it to California in 1937 and it was returned by one of his children in 2011 to the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum of Natural History.
In summer 1924, a dredge working in the swamp area of Turtle Creek west of Moscow in neighboring Freeborn County discovered bones of a prehistoric elephant about 15 feet deep in clay. It was believed to be a Columbian mammoth, according to the Austin Daily Herald on July 24, 1924.
By September 1920, the Rochester Daily Post & Record wrote on the mammoth tooth discovery in Austin.
They did not shy away from dramatic descriptions.
“Away back down the centuries, before time began, before man appeared on the earth, a great monster came into what is now the Horace Austin State Park at Austin, Minn., and laid himself down and died or perhaps met his death in mortal combat with some creature more terrible than he was,” wrote the Post on sept. 23 1920.
The article described the ages rolling by “centuries following centuries and thousands of years passed.” Native Americans hunted beaver and mink in the river and then European settlers moved in around 1855, including a party of eight families. One of them was led by settler Abe Watkins who camped near the present-day Wells Fargo Bank in Austin, which once was the long-time site of the Fox Hotel.
“Mr. Watkins says at that time the site of the Horace Austin State Park was a great swamp of wild rice, a home of the wild waterfowl. Down below the sedge and the rice slope the monster of the niocene age.”
The suction pipe of the dredge “that is making a beauitufl state park of that part of Austin” worked its way down 20 feet into sand and “out of the exit pipe came a fossil tooth that weighed seven pounds and nine ounces.”
Then came a half of a tooth of the monster of the past.
“Harmless teeth now but solid as in the days when the ground food of the ponderous animal whose foot fall would shake the earth,” the Post wrote.
Analyzing the broken tooth, the writer wondered if the tooth was broken from a “fatal, titanic contest or did an abscess form at the base of the tooth.”