Collecting Fossil Plants and Animals
in the Pennsylvanian Deposits of the Will County, Illinois Coal Measures
The Field Notes of George Langford, Sr. in the Years 1937-1960.
Prepared and organized by George Langford, Jr., 1973.
Copyright George Langford, III, 2010
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Field Work in the Strip Coal Mines
My first trip to the mines was not so, but on about October 15th, 1937, Dr. Elmer Stephen offered himself as guide to a place where he had found fossils.  The roads were soft from wet weather but we got safely to a soybean field at the south end of the road east of the Will-Grundy County Line road and then walked westward across the field to the spoil heaps to where we later designated as Locality No. 11.  There were a good many nodules there but most of them, when split open, had nothing of consequence in them.  However, we brought back a five gallon pail two-thirds full of specimens.  We got a fine Alethopteris sullivanti but most of the other things were common or obscured by white mineral deposits.  My son, George, Jr. was with us, and from then on, he and I made up our field party.

We went into the same locality four times more in October and brought back a good many specimens.  On the west side of the range was a small pond separated from a large pond on the south by a high wall of clay, a Dike.  We crossed this Dike once but did not stay long on the other side, although there seemed to be many nodules, most of them medium-sized, and some small.  Many were only about one inch in diameter.  I was struck by the pebble-like smoothing of the nodules.  In my collecting at Mazon Creek many years before, the specimens I found were as a rule laminated; that is, made up of distinct layers 1/16 to 1/8 [inch] thick, decreasing in length and width to the top and bottom surfaces.  At Mazon, the material was usually a not very hard claystone and light brown in color when split open.  The specimens we were now finding were some of them very hard, and varied in color. There was light brown, grey, light and dark blue, yellow, and of course red due to weathering which brought out iron oxide to the surface, wherever exposed.  This red combined with the first named colors to produce still more varied color effects.  We found only plant remains, most of which were obscured more or less by white mineral deposit, too firmly attached to the plant to be washed or brushed off.  There [was] quite a number of plant varieties, but a number of them were so common that we soon got to throwing them away unless they were unusually fine or clean specimens.

The very common species of plants would about make up the following list:
Alethopteris serli
Annularia radiata
Annularia stellata
Asterotheca (Pecopteris) miltoni
Asterotheca (Pecopteris) arborescens
Neuropteris scheuchzeri
Neuropteris flexuosa
Neuropteris rarinervis
Ptychocarpus (Pecopteris) unitus

[The links above connect these scientific names to the Mazon Creek Collection database at the Illinois State Museum, which consists entirely of specimens donated by George Langford, Sr.]

Wood bark and stems were extremely common, but none of them showed any particular pattern.  The largest nodule we found with a plant in it was about eight and one-half inches long, three inches wide, and about one inch thick.  A great many, although of promising shape, had nothing in them apparently.  Working northwestward from the Dike, we found many light brown shale nodules which split angularly and disclosed only mass[es] of plant fragments.  Harder claystone generally produced nothing.  Going farther northwestward we came into an area of outwardly black and dark nodules, which produced little but poorly preserved stuff or nothing. Farther on we found our fist animal form Bellinurus danai [Belinurus danai ? - GL,III] the lower half of a small horseshoe crab.

We made several trips to both sides of Route 59 and saw others collecting and came upon many piles of broken nodules discarded by others.  We worked both sides of the road to half a mile north and got some good things, although it took a lot of pounding to get them.  Not a few of the ones we kept were extremely hard and looked almost like flint when split open.  But most of the nodules were barren claystone or black or defaced by mineral  deposit.  Many were "bombs," intersected crossways by seams filled with mineral deposit so that they exploded into many pieces when hammered.  Not one in fifteen specimens cracked open was worth keeping.  It maybe wondered why we kept at this sort of thing.  George Jr. had never been particularly crazy about fossils, and fifty years of it was enough for me unless I saw something unusual.  The weather was getting disagreeable too.  It was cold, and occasional rains made the clay a sloppy mess to walk around in.  Most of the specimens were defaced by white or yellow mineral deposit and were not very attractive to look at, even though they represented a large number of species.  And yet we kept on.  We felt no great scientific urge, and what we were getting looked like the dead and dirty plants they were.  But the degree of preservation was astonishing, particularly when the specimens were embedded in very hard stone.  They were not merely plant impressions but more like plant sculptures and engravings. The forms of the plants were clear.  Tiny veins and other detail showed perfectly under a magnifying glass. Then there were the various colors inherent in the different kinds of stone.  These were the real attractions.

In the last half of November, 1937, cold weather and slushy clay stopped our cracking open nodules in the field, although it only necessitated transporting our specimens back to Joliet where we cracked them open indoors.  Our customary return load was about twelve, five gallon pails full, which made a good haul for my Ford sedan [a two-door coupe, as I remember - GL,III].  Ninety percent of our catch was discarded after splitting, and so we did no more such indoor work as was necessary, doing our splitting and discarding in the field whenever the weather permitted.

Five gallon pails and stone hammers became our standard equipment.  We had maps of the whole region and a good camera.  The work was hard and necessitated our keeping in good physical condition.  There were only the two of us.  We might have hired cheap labor to do much of our collecting, but from what we saw of many other collectors and their methods, we soon got over that idea. 

When off for a day's work in the field, we left as soon as we could in the morning, driving about 22 miles sothwest from Joliet, generally on Route 59.  This took us to the Highway 59-Highway 52 intersection, and from there we branched off to various collecting grounds as we found them.  The mined areas comprised chains of mountain-like spoil heaps ranging from about twenty-five feet to over one hundred feet high.  Here and there among them are many small and some quite large ponds.  The blue-grey clay gives the effect of distant mountains.  The more we tramped over the ranges, the more attractive it appeared to us.  Strip mining may have left a blasted wreck behind it, and yet these miniature Bad Lands and lakes were a picturesque contrast to the swampy and barren forestation.
[unsigned, but in the handwriting of] George Langford, Sr.