by Elizabeth Langton
Photographs by Danny Fulgencio
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Jack Loftin guides his hulking sedan west through town while I sit in the passenger seat, clutching a tote bag packed with a notebook, tape recorder, camera, pens, water bottle and sunscreen. A cooler containing our lunch—ham on white, assembled by Jack’s wife—rests in the backseat. A pickax and a dead rattlesnake are stashed in the trunk. We seem woefully ill-prepared for our expedition.
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As we leave the town behind, the desert-like landscape stretches all around us—looking nothing like the sandy dunes traversed by Lawrence of Arabia but more like the outskirts of Vegas where movie mobsters dump the bodies. Jack steers onto a private dirt road and drives another minute or two before pulling off to park near a Jeep and pickup truck. I hear voices but see no one. Jack leads me to the edge of an embankment. I spot our quarry—four men digging in the hillside shaded by a blue tarp.
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Archer City, Texas is a town of 1,834 people about 140 miles northwest of Dallas. It’s the seat of Archer County—both named for Branch Tanner Archer, a leading figure in the Texas Revolution and Republic of Texas. Ranching, hunting and oil dominate the present-day economy, though most locals look elsewhere for work. Businesses include a small grocery, a handful of restaurants, two inns, thrift shops, oil field suppliers, the Royal Theater and the sprawling bookshops owned by Pulitzer Prize and Oscar-winning author Larry McMurtry. The town is both a community for the longtime ranching families and a “country” home for commuters working in nearby Wichita Falls. McMurtry, who grew up on a ranch outside town known as Idiot Ridge, brought acclaim to Archer City through his writing. The town’s ranching heritage and cowboy culture inspired his Westerns, including his epic novel Lonesome Dove. He relied on its more modern incarnation to create Thalia, the fictional town in The Last Picture Show.
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In 1876, while traveling Texas collecting plant samples, Swiss botanist Jacob Boll stumbled upon an ancient amphibian’s skull in Archer County. Eryops was a 200-pound carnivore who resembled an alligator with a flat head and snub nose. The fossil was the first discovered from the pre-Jurassic era Permian period—more than 250 million years ago and before dinosaurs walked the earth. The discovery ignited a paleontological gold rush in Texas. In two years, Boll collected fossils of more than 30 previously undiscovered species for noted paleontologist E.D. Cope, who discovered and named more than 1,000 vertebrates during his career. He and paleontologist O.C. March battled for 15 years to outdo each other fossil finding, a feud that became known as “The Bone Wars.” A steady stream of collectors converged on Archer County over the next 40 years. Alfred S. Romer of Harvard first visited in 1926. For more than 40 years, he visited annually—sometimes bringing his students, sometimes staying a month or more—to excavate in Archer County’s Geraldine bone bed, a Permian fossil gold mine that he discovered.
In the scientific world, Archer County is renowned as the world’s most prolific source for remains of “sail lizards,” a group of prehistoric reptilian-looking creatures known for the fin-like growths along their spines. Museums all over the world, including New York’s American Museum of Natural History and Paris’s National Museum of Natural History, display Archer County fossils. One of the finds, an eel-like aquatic predator, was branded Archeria. The fossils of Archer County have helped researchers close the gaps in our evolutionary tale.
Yet Archer City, with its Western folklore and its McMurtry myths, remains largely indifferent to its pre-Jurassic past. A few monuments about town commemorate Archer’s role in evolutionary history: dusty displays in the county museum; a sail lizard among the cowboys in a mural on the Dairy Queen wall. The customers who wander in for a DQ Bacon Cheese Grill Burger and a hand-dipped cone don’t seem much interested in the lifeforms plying their landscape 250 million years ago.. Instead they pay homage to the Old West, with their annual Archer City Rodeo and parade. But what defines the history of a place? Only our stories? Human stories? Or maybe we should think more about the ancient lizard-like creatures who walked here before us. Only Jack Loftin, the county historian, born here 82 years ago, appears interested in linking the two worlds.
My exploration of Archer County’s history starts in an obvious place—the Archer County Museum, a former jail. One block north of the courthouse square and adjacent to a farm equipment grave yard of sorts, is the jail, a three-story, sandstone structure erected in 1910. The sheriff’s family once lived on the first floor. Prisoners resided on the floors above, near a never-used hanging gallery. The first prisoner was a horse thief.
The door pushes open with a creak into the museum’s “lobby,” a 10-by-10 room crammed with furniture and cooled by a grinding window air conditioner. As she does every weekend, volunteer curator Mary Ann Levy waits here for visitors. Jack Loftin, slouched in a wooden chair, keeps her company. Admission is free, but Mary Ann asks me to sign the visitors’ log.
I pass from the lobby into the “exhibit halls,” a maze of rooms stuffed with remnants of Archer County’s past: maps and photos, jars and soda bottles, furniture and clothes. The first display to greet me is a full Diadectes skeleton mounted in a homemade, glass-topped wooden case painted aqua. The skeleton’s label is handwritten in permanent marker directly on the case itself.
Diadectes roamed the Texas Plains 140 million years before dinosaurs arrived. Renderings depict him as resembling a pot-bellied lizard, but don’t mistake him for the English-accented, insurance-selling gecko variety. A full-grown Diadectes stretched up to 6 feet long and weighed 200 pounds.
Jack discovered his Diadectes near Archer County’s southern border in 1980. I examine the assembled vertebrae, rib and leg bones, trying to imagine the herbivore lumbering among swamps—a vegetarian crocodile with the personality of a cow. I ignore the skull; I know it’s a fake. A few days earlier, two fellow writers and I sat around the kitchen table in Jack’s tin-roofed ranch house east of town for an introduction to Diadectes. Jack—rancher by birth, engineer by trade, historian by inclination—is also an amateur paleontologist with a few important fossil finds to his name.
Jack’s wife, Marie, retrieved a 1.5-foot square black box, a treasure chest of sorts, from underneath a desk in the adjoining room and carried it to the table. As her husband narrated, she unpacked the box. “This is a knife,” Jack said of a Native American tool crafted from flint. “Here’s another knife. Here’s an arrow. I have lots of arrows. … And here’s the real head.” He deposited a rocklike item about the size of a grapefruit onto the table. The skull bore the features of a horror-movie monster—canine-esqe shape, hollow eye sockets and bared, overlapping teeth.
“Aww, he’s cute,” said one of my companions, giving the creature an affectionate pat. “Do you have a name for it, Jack?” “Diadectes,” he replied. Jack may count the head among his prize possessions, but he’s not one for christening his finds with cute pet names like Sue the Tyrannosaurus Rex or Gertie the Chindesaurus Bryansmalli (both are real, by the way).
Back in the museum, the wooden floorboards moan as I move into the first display room and find an Eryops skeleton mounted on a saw horse with his head atop an empty cabinet. The next room, dubbed the library and prehistoric room, holds an odd assortment including dusty soda bottles, an aged printing press and skeletons of the sail lizards Dimetrodon and Edaphosaurus. Typed labels turning yellow identify some exhibits, while sloppily hand-printed signs mark others. A folder decorated with foam letters resembling a child’s craft project offers fossil instruction. On the middle shelf of a case lining the western wall rests what looks like a large, flat, black stone. It’s another fake head: a replica of that first discovered Permian fossil.
Jack assembled these displays—a testament to Archer County’s place in scientific discovery. His book, Trails Through Archer, is the source on Archer County’s history. He and his wife compile cemetery surveys for genealogy research, and Jack has marked historical sites all over the county with handmade markers. He believes that fossils extracted from these lands should stay here, but most don’t. Boll’s Eryops head reportedly went to the American Museum of Natural History, along with thousands of samples collected by Cope and his teams. Some were studied and later displayed. Some were packed away to await a scientist with time to probe them.
The American Museum of Natural History, founded in 1869, occupies four city blocks fronting New York’s Central Park. Permanent exhibits include geological specimens, animal dioramas, fossils, a planetarium and the famous 94-foot blue whale model that dangles from the ceiling in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life. Hundreds of visitors swarm under the cathedral ceiling of the main lobby—the Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda—greeted by the world’s tallest freestanding mount of a dinosaur, Barosaurus, with its elongated, skinny neck stretched 100 feet above their heads. But the museum is more than a display space, it’s also a laboratory and research facility—a scientific holy land that draws scientists, anthropologists, historians and others to study its collections—and sponsor 100-plus field expeditions each year.
I enter via the museum’s back door—the subway level—missing the rotunda’s grandeur. I want to see what the public doesn’t: the museum’s expansive archives. The museum holds more than 32 million specimens (4.75 million of them fossils), displaying only a fraction at any given time. Publicist Kristin Phillips whisks me to the fifth floor, an area outside the public domain, to meet Carl Mehling, manager of the paleontology department’s amphibian, reptile and birds fossil collection. Carl has agreed to help me hunt for the first Archer County fossil: the Eryops head discovered by Boll. He leads us on a brisk walk through wide, high-ceilinged hallways lined with rows and rows of 4-foot tall lockers stacked two high. Each one is filled with specimens—fossils, modern invertebrates, mammals and more.
We climb to the sixth floor and enter a room about the size of a basketball court filled with more lockers. We pass a researcher examining fossils at a table and move to the last row where Carl opens a cabinet marked “Eryops.” Three-inch deep wooden trays, mounted on track-like drawers, fill the cabinet. Carl matches the catalog number he retrieved from the computer database to one of the drawers and slides it out. “I’m not even sure what we’re looking at here,” he says.
The drawer holds multiple small fossils; “jaw fragments,” reads one ID card. Definitely not Boll’s Eryops skull. “It doesn’t mean we don’t have it,” Carl says, “it just means if we do have it, someone didn’t put the word Boll into the database.” He scans the drawer tags, looking for the word skull. “Oh, that’s beautiful,” Kristin exhales, as he withdraws another tray. The intact skull fills the entire drawer. It’s not an Archer County sample; but Boll collected it in Wichita County, just one county to the north. “God, that’s awesome,” Carl says as we all examine the wide, flat head with eye sockets high on its face.
Carl opens other lockers, discovering drawer after drawer of fossils collected from Archer and surrounding counties by Boll and W.F. Cummins, who both worked for Cope during the late1800s. Many of the samples remain untouched since their acquisition, awaiting a curious researcher. “You can see with a place this rich,” Carl says, “it was collect first; collect, collect, collect. And someday when somebody’s hysterically interested in Eryops, they’ll have a field day.” In lockers on the next row, we find more samples from Texas: Diadectes, Dimetrodon, Edaphosaurus, Seymouria (a smaller Permian era amphibian named for the town of Seymour). “We have a lot of Dimetrodon,” Carl says. “That’s everybody’s favorite. It’s so well loved that it gets into all the collections of little dinosaur toys. It bridges the gap because it’s cool, not because it’s a dinosaur.” He pulls out more drawers, hoping to show me an intact skull of one of these creatures. “Last cabinet; cross your fingers,” Carl says. “It’s like a lottery,” I reply. Alas, no jackpot. The cabinet contains nothing from Archer.
We leave the collection room and navigate a maze of hallways and stairwells connecting two of the museum’s 25 buildings. Carl takes us down a stairwell and past a velvet rope meant to keep visitors from leaving the public exhibits and wandering into museum workspaces. The museum’s fossil halls inhabit all of the fourth floor’s public space, and Carl maneuvers through the crowds of tourists and schoolchildren like an aggressive taxi in heavy traffic. The museum labels itself a “field guide to the entire planet,” and in the primitive mammals hall, we encounter Archer’s contribution: a reconstructed skeleton of the sail lizard Edaphosaurus collected by Romer, the Harvard paleontologist, from the Geraldine bone bed. Carl and Kristin leave me to explore the rest of the museum on my own. Even though I didn’t find Boll’s elusive Eryops head, I’m delighted with the results of my treasure hunt. I found evidence of Archer County’s important contribution to scientific discovery, one that’s ongoing.
German paleontologist Martin Sander first visited the bone beds of Archer County in 1982 while earning his master’s at the University of Texas-Austin. He conducted his thesis research here and returns periodically to resume digging. Two students and an amateur joined him on his latest excavation in September 2010 on private land west of Archer City. I’ve agreed to keep the location secret; Jack fears fossil poachers if word gets out. I perch on a large rock under the tarp canopy to watch Chris Shelton, who grew up in nearby Iowa Park, chip dirt away from the hillside. Chris earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Midwestern State University and moved to Germany to work toward a doctorate in paleontology under Martin. “The main purpose is to get materials for Chris’ study but also for teaching purposes,” Martin says.
The men don’t tolerate my passive observer role for long. “If you want to write about it, you have to do it,” Martin says as he carves a drainage channel into the site with a pickax. “I’m not going to make you do the pick work, but you have to dig.” I plop into the dirt, and Chris equips me with my digging tools: a small paintbrush and the hooked metal tool dentists use to scrape tartar from teeth. “There’s a bone there you can dig out, a vertebrae,” Chris says. I tentatively poke at the dirt, trying to distinguish dirt from rock from bone. As I practice my digging technique, I learn the purpose behind the rattlesnake, which Jack had killed that morning near his garage. Team members Koen Stein and Herman Winkelhorst pose for photos with the snake draped around their necks. “That’s what they wanted to see most, a rattlesnake,” Martin says. Fossil excavating is strenuous, tedious, hot—and often fruitless—work. I unearth a handful of fragments no bigger than a grape. Luckily Martin’s team fared better during their weeklong dig. They amassed hundreds of samples large and small, including a Dimetrodon skull, that they ship to the University of Bonn, where Martin teaches and Chris and Koen study.
Fossils from Archer County—both those collected a century ago and those gathered last year—continue to enhance scientific understanding. Martin wrote about Archer bone beds during his master’s work more than 20 years ago. Though his research has strayed outside Permian era animals—he’s co-curator of a new American Museum of Natural History exhibit on Sauropods, the world’s largest dinosaurs—Archer fossils still impact his research. “Today I’m interested in the big questions of evolution, like extinction and the origin of warm-bloodedness,” he says. “When Chris came and wanted to do something with Permian, I combined that with my interest.” Chris has presented his early findings at two international conferences. Jack regularly conducts tours of Archer’s fossil sites for both amateur and professional paleontologists.
To scientists, the prehistoric amphibians of Archer County mean something—even 135 years after their discovery and nearly 300 million years after they lived. “I have to go there,” Carl from the American Museum of Natural History told me as we hunted the archives for Archer fossils. “I want to find things like this.” But to everyone else, they’re an interesting oddity or, more likely, simply unknown. Except to Jack. He continues to talk about Archer’s Permian past to anyone who will listen. He keeps collecting his own fossils, reassembling the bones like puzzle pieces at a work station in his living room. He has weaved these otherworldly, lizard-looking creatures into his hometown’s story. Jack, 82, still works the ranchland where his family settled in the 1870s, when the first permanent residents arrived, and his memory remains sharp. But he can’t stand sentinel of Archer County’s past forever, and once he’s gone, the town will likely go on with its Western ways, slowly forgetting what originally put them on the map.
Elizabeth Langton is a veteran newspaper reporter, editor, freelance journalist and teacher. She has covered agriculture, religion, health, demographics and four executions. At the Dallas Morning News, she wrote about amputee athletes, a district attorney turned felon, a failing state pension fund and letters to Santa Claus. Her work has won numerous awards including tops honors from the Texas and New Mexico Associated Press Managing Editors and two Gavel Awards from the State Bar of Texas. A 2004 award-winning story prompted a Texas attorney general’s opinion regarding health privacy and open records laws.
Langton earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of North Texas and later returned to study narrative journalism with Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference writer-in-residence George Getschow. She contributed to a student-produced, award-winning series about the national health care law and attended the Archer City Writers Workshop in 2010.