September 4, 1995 in Nation/World

New Life From Old Bones Discovery Of Mammoth Skeletons At Tolo Lake Stirs Pride, Economy In Struggling Community Of Grangeville

Eric Sorensen Staff writer
 
Tags:tourism

Plans for a Hairy Elephante T-shirt never left the drawing board, but Gem Signs and Designs has cranked out a total of 2,000 shirts featuring three other mammoth themes. Sales, says employee Effie MacMenamin, are “hot.”

According to the big red thermometer painted on the wall of the West One Bank, organizers have raised $20,000 toward their $50,000 goal for a life-sized mammoth replica and building to house it. The money was raised in one night at an auction.

“Recycling,” reads the mural at the Camas Prairie Recycling Center, “A Mammoth Responsibility.”

Nobody’s talking about abandoning Border Days, this farm and timber town’s Western-style summer extravaganza, but there is talk of a mammoth festival as well.

Judy Elliot, executive secretary of the Chamber of Commerce, fields about five calls a day from people asking about the Tolo Lake dig, the region’s newest - and oldest - roadside attraction.

It might be stretching the truth to say this town of 3,226 has gone completely bonkers over the discovery of hundreds of ancient bones beneath a local skating pond.

But it would only be a mammoth exaggeration.

After seeing 110 jobs disappear with the close of the Ida-Pine timber mill, a little self-indulgence can be forgiven. By coincidence, the mill issued pink slips last year as word circulated that men found “dinosaur bones” out at the lake.

“It was really uplifting to the town,” gushed Elliot. “They just got this bad news and then they turned around and here’s something totally unexpected.”

As mammoth finds go, the Tolo site “very possibly ranks among the greatest fossil deposits of North America,” according to a display inside the West One Bank. The remains of as many as 200 animals could eventually be uncovered, the display boasts.

That claim too has a touch of P.T. Barnum to it - with the nation’s biggest find being the 75 or so mammoths in Hot Springs, S.D. But out at the dig itself, where maybe eight carcasses are being uncovered, workers still exhibit the awe of kids at a circus.

No matter that they have to squat in the sun and dig 10 centimeters at a time through a rock-hard adobelike soil.

“I’ve been dreaming about this ever since I heard about it last summer,” said Alyssa Hopkins, 43, a kindergarten aide from Clarkston. “I fulfilled a dream.”

At Tolo Lake, dreams are made of rust-colored fossilized bone left anywhere from 10,500 to 350,000 years ago by Mammuthus Columbi. Standing 13 feet tall at the shoulder, the beast was the largest creature after the dinosaurs.

To them, Tolo Lake was probably a low, marshy spot suitable for wallowing or just plain dying.

To modern human beings, Tolo Lake was a skating and fishing pond that the Idaho Department of Fish and Game was cleaning out last September when workers came upon the bones.

“It’s a big find,” said William Ackersten of the Idaho Museum of Natural History. “Exactly how big is difficult to tell at this time.”

The quantity of bones is beside the point for volunteers like John Davis, 37, of Grangeville.

“It’s kind of a link to the past,” he said. “You can feel that when you’re here.”

“There’s the bone I found,” said Pat Cornwall, 13, of Spokane, pointing to a nubbin sticking up from the earth. Such are the pickings at the euphemistically named “Ivory Coast,” a field of boulders so called because it yielded actual mammoth tusks.

More dramatic finds are down at the “Gold Coast,” about 50 feet away. Here, mammoth parts lie jumbled like trees after a windstorm: a pelvis measuring 5 feet across, a 4-foot leg bone, an 8-foot tusk, ribs everywhere.

If the bones lie as thick across the entire site, there could be 200 mammoth remains, said Ackersten. That is unlikely, he said, but there could easily be 30 here.

A lack of human activity - both past and present - could prevent workers from getting an exact count.

If workers were to find spear points or other signs of ancient human activity, researchers would be eligible for more money from the federal government, which places a greater emphasis on archaeology than paleontology. But so far the only spear to appear is in the trunk of the mammoth replica planned for downtown.

With no such evidence unearthed yet at the site, the workers will do what they can until the winter rains begin. Then they will cover the site for the indefinite future and let the lake flood again.

As excited as Grangeville is about mammoths, said Ackersten, the people want their lake back.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos Map of area


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