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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Reminiscences of George Langford, Jr.
Part I
1911 - My Initial Involvement

When I was ten years old, Father [George Langford, Sr.] took me on a couple of collecting trips to the Mazon Creek fossil beds.  We took a streetcar from our home on Union Street in Joliet, Illinois to the Alton Railway station, thence on the Local to Morris, Illinois, thence by rented horse & buggy the few miles to the collecting area.

A typical meandering prairie stream, Mazon Creek was wide, shallow, and muddy, its bed sprinkled with nodules washed out of the enveloping clay and mud.

My part in collecting was to wade barefoot in the mud, locating the nodules with my toes, [and then] lugging them to the bank, where Father cracked them open.  Father apparently was not deeply impressed by either their rarity or beauty ... I was totally unimpressed ... but over sixty years later I can still recall the pleasant feel of the soft mud and the warm water.

1937 - The Thrill of Discovery

During the early part of the year that Father [George Langford, Sr.] and I collected together, I became interested, almost in spite of myself.  Father was strongly motivated by his feel for their beauty and rarity, and [he] was deeply interested in them scientifically.  My interest was something else entirely.  The recurring thrill of discovery aroused my interest almost at once; [it] constantly increased and became a very strong motivational force.  I knew, every time that I cracked open a nodule, that I was demonstrably the first human being to ever see that specimen, after a two-hundred-fifty-million-year period of time.

I could always hope for, and frequently realized, an unusually fine or spectacular specimen.  I could hope for a specimen entirely new to Science, and we found a great many of them.  And I could hope for the ultimate rarity, a totally new animal form, and we even found those. 

The discovery element was really a strong force.

Locality No. 11 - Big & Barren

In our early collecting period in 1937, we did a great deal of exploring for sites where nodules were plentiful.  Sometimes we were lucky; more often than not we were unlucky.

Locality No. 11 particularly interested us; it was not too inaccessible, had an unusually large area of spoil heaps and ridges, [and so it was] an immense source of fossil specimens.  Some of the highest ridges in the whole collecting area were here, perhaps seventy feet above the surrounding flat ground level.  I photographed Father standing on the topmost peak one day [in 1938].

Sad to relate - nodules were very scarce, their quality was poor, and they were common species.  We came back another time, and again another, always hopeful that we would find a productive area, but we never did.

Our First Animal Fossil

We had spent quite a long time collecting plant specimens; and [we] were almost reconciled to the belief that the nodules contained nothing but plant forms.  Then, one red-letter day in November, 1937, we found our first animal form, Bellinurus [Belinurus, most likely, GL,III] danae, a small primitive beast like a miniature hoseshoe crab.  It was already known to Science, so we couldn't really point with pride to it, but it was our first animal specimen, and we really treasured it.

Later on in our collecting period we found perhaps a hundred or so of these attractive little creatures, but that first one really stuck in our memory.

Locality No. 3 - The Good "Pig Pen" Site

Early in our collecting career we came upon this site.  It was very accessible from one of the secondary roads, we could park very close to the spoil heaps, and we could reach it in any sort of weather.  It also turned out to be one of the most productive areas we ever found; we returned to it again and again and again.

The site had many north-south ridges paralleling the road, with deep gullies between the ridges.  Rains would recurringly wash nodules into these gullies, [and so] we could return many times and be sure that we would find collectible nodules.  Part of the site's productivity was the result of our very thorough harvesting technique.  We went through all of the gullies, no matter how difficult it was to walk.  We even dug nodules out of the gully banks with our collecting hammers, and [even] waded out into the pond for nodules.  This was probably our best site of all time.

Once, I was working clear out at the end of one of the ridges that stuck out into the pond, and there on a little island about ten feet out was a whopper of a nodule.  After considerable debate with myself as to whether I should go to a lot of trouble to collect it, I finally decided it might be worth it.  So, I stripped to my shorts, waded through water and clay to the island, picked it up and cracked it open, and there I had a gorgeous string of eight Annularia stellata, looking for all the world like a big daisy chain.  You can see it in the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, Illinois, if your curiosity really gets to you.

"Collect Them All" Policy

Rather early in our collecting career we made a decision that was probably the key to our success in getting so many superior specimens.  We made it our business to crack open 100% of the specimens available, and to collect 100% of them.  We were not the only collectors in the field in 1937.  There were signs of their work almost everywhere, and we came to know some of them.  What we did notice was that they usually collected in only the readily accessible sites., where everything was easy - no climbing, no long walks, no ridge climbing.  So they collected only a relatively few nodules. 

We came back many times to prolific spots, always with the intention that we would not knowingly leave any nodules for someone else to collect.  Sounds selfish, and it was, [but] we wanted to be the real collectors, and I think we really succeeded in this intention.

So we returned many times to our good sites: Locality No. 3, Locality No. 4, Locality No. 7 and Locality No. 8.

Get All the Pieces

The minute we split open a nodule, we gave it a quick field inspection: Was it worth keeping, from any angle at all ?  Or should it be pitched away ?  A big percentage of cracked-open nodules [was] a total loss - they were blanks, there was just a bunch of unidentifiable vegetation, or it was just a junk specimen.  So perhaps eighty to ninety percent of all nodules were valueless and [therefore were] discarded.

This vastly increased our desire to save the ten to twenty percent of good specimens, even though they might be in a number of pieces.  We early arrived at a happy solution to this problem, improbable though it was, [by use of] the Saturday Evening Post.  Not only was it easy to carry a few rolled-up copies that wouldn't blow away in the wind, but the paper was thick enough, stiff enough, and sufficiently unaffected by moisture, that we could wrap all pieces of a broken nodule together and transport them back to Joliet to be repaired.  A service that the editors of the Saturday Evening Post had hardly anticipated.

The Quiet Spot - Locality No. 8

We almost never saw or heard other [people] when we were collecting in the spoil heaps; the sense of isolation was almost overwhelming, as if we were the only living things for miles around.  We probably were, too.

At Locality No. 8 we would be working hard on our collecting activities and be suddenly alerted by a quite loud rustling sound, loud enough to almost startle us.  All it was ... a breeze had sprung up ... and was rustling the leaves of a row of cottonwood trees, close to half a mile away ... but it truly did seem loud.

Bird Life

"Long Pond" at Locality No. 7 and Locality No. 8 was quite a mecca for the larger water birds; it was full of minnows and crawfish, with lots of frogs along the shores, and [so it was a] good hunting ground.  Herons were almost always visible, quite a variety: Little Blue Herons, Green Herons, Black-Crowned Night Herons, Yellow-Crowned Night Herons, an occasional Great Blue Heron, and we even saw a Sandhill Crane once.

[There were] many varieties of ducks: Buffleheads, Mallards, Teals of various colors, and occasional Canada Geese that hadn't gone north.  There were also Lesser Egrets and Greater Egrets, which had extended their normal semi-tropical range into this area.  They were very visible, surprisingly numerous, [and] we sometimes counted over a hundred sightings in one day.  I'm surprised that there were enough frogs available to go around.

Plant Colors

Father [George Langford, Sr.] worked out a formula which brought out the brown and gray and black colors of the plant impressions, contrasting with the lighter colored backgrround of the claystone nodules.  This formula also preserved the veination and detail of the leaf impressions, prevented the surface from dusting and wearing away, thus losing its detail.

I made one abortive effort to assist nature in this respect - I worked out a green [colored] formula - tried it out on some fossil ferns.  I cannot report success - it looked just plain lousy.  We stayed with Father's formula.

Frost-Split Nodules

We always made a point of collecting in the spoil heaps as early in the Spring as weather would permit.  Frost would work its way into the cleavage plane where the leaf was located [and] would crack it open where the leaf was located.  [The frost] would crack it open more gently and efficiently than we ever learned to do.  We had to collect them quite soon - before the weather dulled them, turned them rust-colored, and ruined their fine detail.  These frost-cracked nodules often produced super fine specimens because of this gentle but efficient splitting method.

Acting on this clue, I soaked a couple dozen in water a few days, and then put them into our home freezer so that nature would crack them open.  The experiment was nonproductive. [Present-day collectors now prefer freeze-thaw to bashing with the hammer, because of the scarcity of nodules in the twenty-first century - GL,III, ed.]  I returned to my brickmason's hammer-splitting technique.

Exploring for New Sites

All through our 1937-1938 collecting period we did a great deal of exploring for new and productive collecting sites.  Always with the thought that at the end of the rainbow there would be a fabulous collecting site, where all the specimens would be fine ones, most of them new ones, and all sorts of little beasties just hoping against hope that the Langford team would find them and [re]introduce them to the world.

Father [George Langford, Sr.] lists thirty-four sites that were productive, where we successfully collected.  I venture to say that we explored well over a hundred additional sites which were totally unproductive, [and] which Father chose not to dignify by assigning them [Locality] numbers.

All this time, the strip-mining people were just starting to work west of the Will County - Grundy County line.  We explored a few of their early spoil heaps, but had very little success.  These sites contained many well shaped nodules, black or very dark gray, which when split contained no fossils at all, and gave no clue [as to] why the nodules had formed in the first place.

So we returned to our tried and true Will County sites and continued to collect only in Will County.

Locality No. 8 - The Lepidodendron Grove

Up until we worked Locality No. 8, we had found only small, isolated specimens of bark patterns.  Locality No. 8 changed all this; it was literally covered with excellent bark patterns, and a wide variety of them, with their very attractive, geometrically repetitive patterns.  At Locality No. 8 they weren't rare at all, and we really got a kick out of finding this site.

Also at Locality No. 8 was the highest concentration of nodules that we ever found enywhere.  I could sit in one spot with a nice, hard glacial boulder for an anvil, rake in nodules with my hammer, crack them open, discard the duds, pack the good ones, until I had a pile of broken discards eighteen to twenty inches high.  Then I would move perhaps six feet, repeat the operation, then six more feet, and so on.  We ended up with an area perhaps thirty by fifty feet that had discard heaps spaced six feet apart in all diractions.  I wish now that I had taken a photograph of this spot, but we almost never carried a camera - we were busy collecting, never [giving] a thought to the idea that photographs of collecting would interest anyone.

We returned many times to Locality No. 8 ... rain would [always] wash out additional specimens for us.  Locality No. 8 almost qualified as [the] "End of the Rainbow" for us.

My Picture Book Collection

In our 1937-1938 collecting period, we collected at first with the idea that the collections would be saleable, and that we could keep our [McKenna] Company's financial hopes alive by that means.  We were succussful for a time, [making] some substantial sales, but the market was a small one.

Father [George Langford, Sr.] and I had both decided that neither of us would amass a personal collection.  We wanted our collection to be of scientific interest and value and to end up in a proper and appreciative museum.  And it did - in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago [now the Chicago Museum of Natural History - GL,III].

As a memento of our collecting period, and its resulting vast collection, Father put together a book of photographs, drawings, and descriptions of all the species of flora and fauna that we had found.  This very large book is my personal fossil collection.

The "Roman Coin" Nodule

Father [George Langford, Sr.] and I considered ourselves fairly compentent at guessing by its shape what an unopened nodule would probably contain.  Percopteris miltoni had a very characteristic size and shape, and on these we were good at guessing right.  Other species had their shapes, too, and we often made correct guesses.

Small, roundish nodules were always pre-cracking mysteries, perhaps a small, single leaflet, a small crab, a small fish scale, a nut, almost anything, and sometimes, nothing at all.

We had quasi-serious debates on what our reaction would be if we cracked open one of these small, round nodules, and out would pop a Roman coin.  Obviously, this would be a scientific event of the highest interest.

So, in the general interst of Science as it might be, I laboriously machined cavities in a small, split nodule, and cemented a Lincoln penny in one half of it.  I planted it where Father was sure to find it, and he did, having a good belly laugh.  Father kept it for a long time, finally disacarding it before some humorless character might find it and question the purity of our scientific interest.

Heavy Loads and Long Hauls

As our collecting territory widened, we also added the problem of long distances from where we parked our car to where we were successfully collecting nodules.  The long distances were not nice, easy walks like along a sidewalk; they were up steep hills covered with loose stones and shale, down through gullies full of rocks and sticks, through marshy spots, through fences.  It was really hard going.

And the pails were heavy, around sixty pounds each, and I carried two of them, folded cotton gloves cushioning the bite of the wire bail handles.  Father [George Langford, Sr.] carried one pail and a large leather shoulder bag, not much lighter.  The technique was to lift both pails, walk as far and as fast as possible, before my fingers lost their strength and straightened out, and [then] we would stop and rest.  We would then puff and blow and wait until we felt we could make another lap toward our car.  Meanwhile, at each lap, the pails would grow heavier.

My fingers always gave out before Father's did - so I set the pace.
[All of the above is in the original pen & ink handwriting of George Langford, Jr. - GL,III, ed.]