Noted Twentieth Century Geologist Always Talked About Iowa’s Revealing Fossil Beds

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Photo Courtesy Library of Congress

The Fentons looked for fossils in Glacier National Park and in Iowa

“Fossils are the remains or traces of animals which lived in past ages of the earth. They show not only the types of life in those periods, but something about the conditions under which they lived,” Dr. Carroll Lane Fenton explained.

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The renowned geologist was lecturing at the University of Cincinnati in 1929, but he was talking about his experiences in his native Iowa. Born near Parkersburg and a graduate of Charles City High School, Fenton traveled across the United States sharing his vast knowledge about fossils, and he often lived at the home of his in-laws at West Liberty.

His wife, Mildred Adams Fenton, had grown up at West Liberty; and her parents opened their home to the Fentons as a central base of operations. Mildred Adams and Fenton had met in college and married in 1926. Together they conducted research, wrote books for adults and children and gave presentations about their work. Mildred’s photography enhanced the talks and enriched the books.

The two often traveled in their specially-equipped car which doubled as a camper. Nicknamed “Malaria,” the vehicle served as their home as they spent weeks digging and collecting specimens.

The pair traveled to California, New Mexico and Glacier National Park. In Arizona they conducted research at night as they collected material for their children’s book, Wild Folk in the Desert, as many of the animals they were observing were nocturnal.

Working closer to home, the Fentons spent months collecting specimens in Floyd, Cerro Gordo and Black Hawk counties. They scooped up materials weighing almost a thousand pounds. Individual fossils ranged from microscopic size to 50 pounds. Fenton estimated the age of some to be 340 million years—“more ancient than dinosaurs” he said. And he said this was proof that Iowa had been covered “repeatedly” by seas. Near Charles City, Greene and Cedar Falls he claimed he found evidence that the sea bottom had raised and dried over time.

Digging for fossils near Mason City the Fentons found indication of river channels “at least 300 million years old.” At Waterloo, Waverly and Littleton they reported they had discovered a fault that indicated “some prehistoric disturbance by earthquake.” In Charles City they studied white marble in a small quarry. Much of it had been used by residents for fireplace mantels and table tops because of its “beautiful polish.”

Fenton was always eager to emphasize the richness of Iowa’s fossil beds. He talked about kneeling for over 10 hours in the “clay of an Iowa roadside” as he gathered “the varied inhabitants of a sea that vanished 300 million years ago.” He recalled so many fossils that he could hardly gather all of them. In that one day he collected ten thousand specimens.

“When I say that in the great Iowa fossil beds these specimens are abundant, I scarcely give an accurate picture of the quantities available,” he said. He described scooping them up “like a miser with piles of gold nuggets.”

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Sources

Caldwell, Belle. “Says that Dreadful Modern Art Isn’t Even New!” Sunday Register’s Magazine, Sept. 13, 1925.

“Dr. and Mrs. Carroll Lane Fenton Off From West Liberty Soon for Desert in Southwest to Write Another Book,” Daily Times (Davenport), Feb. 14, 1936.

“Fossil History Retold,” Cincinnati Enquirer, Feb. 20, 1929.

“Papers of Carroll Lane Fenton and Mildred Adams Fenton,” University of Iowa Libraries, Special Collections Department.

“Work on Fossils by Dr. Fenton is Printed in East,” Muscatine Journal and News-Tribune, Sept. 8, 1933.

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