This week for #Flashback Friday, we focus on a group that was started by the “public,” a group of enthusiasts who made science a hobby or secondary profession and sought out the opportunity to pursue their passion. Jack Kallmeyer, the current president of the Dry Dredgers, told their story that he has reconstructed from accounts and pictures.
The Dry Dredgers, whose name was inspired by hunting for fossils in ancient marine deposits on what is now dry land in Ohio, is an avocational fossil club that is open to both those who make paleontology their career and those who are committed to it as a hobby. Although it has been supported by career paleontologists and geologists from the beginning, those who devoted their spare time to an interest in local paleontology spearheaded the group and continue to define it.
Before the Dry Dredgers
Cincinnati has a remarkable, easily visible fossil history. Invertebrate fossils are so common in the area that even before the University of Cincinnati had a Geology Department, locals habitually collected fossils and described what they saw. One group that included doctors, lawyers, merchants, and others who have come to be known as the “School of Paleontology” contributed to the early literature on the Cincinnatian formation as far back as the 1870s, and their writings still get cited in the literature.
When an official Geology Department formed at what would become the University of Cincinnati, many of these early fossil hunters enrolled for official training and started attending geology lectures led by Professor Walter H. Bucher at the University of Cincinnati Evening College. In addition to covering a wide variety of topics, professors organized field trips to observe local geology and to see the collections of what was then the Natural History Museum. Such field trips resulted in stories doomed to be shared indefinitely: one professor is still famous among older members for importunately pushing attendees to visit “just one more” Native American archaeological site. Field trips also provided the opportunity for collecting interesting rocks and fossils, and were central to what the group became.
The Early Days
In 1942, a group of participants enthusiastically wrote a letter requesting the creation of a more permanent group that would continue local trips to find fossils and lectures to learn about them. This group, the Dry Dredgers, was named for the abundant marine fossils in Cincinnati and those who collect, or “Dredge,” these marine creatures from dry land. It was advised by Professor Caster and continues to be hosted by the University of Cincinnati Geology Department, where they originally had access to the Geology library, display cases to fill with interesting finds, and a meeting place. They first met officially for a lecture in May of 1942, followed by the first official field trip to Stonelick Creek. Even then, members had a wide variety of backgrounds, even including Mrs. Geier who was known for arriving in her limousine to take other members fossil hunting. Many of their accounts sound like embellished fishing stories, including collecting in adverse conditions, things left behind, and an undying, contagious passion.
Contributing to Science
Professors Buchner and Caster wrote a fossil identification book, the Elementary Guide, which encouraged attendees to take note of the geographic and geologic context that allows for the interpretation of fossils, and often repeated the motto that they should “keep looking, and keep going back!” From these important lessons also came encouragement to collectors to contribute to the museum and researchers. The many collectors meant increasing finds of scarce taxa; their contributions resulted in a comparative collection at the University, several type collections (fossils that represent the first of a new taxa), and a multitude of publications. William Behringer, an active member, collected fossils and curiosities that would become a large part of the Behringer-Crawford Museum in Covington, Kentucky. The Geology Department at the University of Cincinnati used to house a geology museum that was cared for in the 1980s by Elizabeth Dalve. Her master’s thesis is still cited frequently, and her illustrations are still used in books and displays. Eventually, much of the collection that was the University’s geology museum would go to the Cincinnati Museum Center, although a few cases remain in the Geology-Physics building. Such specimens inspired, and still inspire, student research, and eventually the Dry Dredgers began providing funding for research on local fossils that is still awarded annually.
In addition to contributing to research, Dry Dredgers and other groups like them serve as an inspiration. The group has worked closely with the museum to host fossil themed events, as well as with professors who continue to inspire members with talks and field trips. They made it one of their missions to connect talented collectors with researchers, making members important advocates for science. In the 1960s, the Dry Dredgers created Fossil Kits to sell at the Cincinnati Museum Center to raise needed funds, further inspiring the people that bought them. While some members continued to enjoy fossil collecting as a hobby, several were spurred to pursue geology and paleontology as students and eventually professors. It was, and continues to be, a place of mentorship and shared passions, encouraging new members that “Fossils are for everyone!”
Over time, the Dry Dredger’s have continued to have a healthy mix of men and women, professionals and hobbyists, and a wide variety of ages. However, the lectures have become more focused on paleontology, and the meetings have become increasingly informative and technical. This led to the creation of a “Beginner’s Class” in the first hour of the meetings to help newer and younger members. When forced to move online during the COVID-19 pandemic, they noticed members “attending” from even further away than they are normally able to. They maintain a display case at the Cincinnati Museum Center, have continued to put together Fossil Kits, and more recently partnered with the Mineralogical Society to help host their annual mineral show. They also were involved in the myFOSSIL project, an effort to connect communities and catalog fossils both in museums and private hands. They make important contributions to ongoing research, often credited in related publications. Between their eyes, hands, skills, and passion, avocational fossil clubs serve a crucial role in inspiring future scientists, education, and research, and muddy the divide between professionals and the public, bridging a disconnect with shared excitement, ongoing research, and conversations about the world around them.