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 II

Stuck Car

I recall another stuck car incident, which turned out OK.  Near Locality No. 11, alongside the switch-track to the south, we drove parallel to the tracks, where it was fairly smooth, looking for a spot to park, so we could prospect a small spoil heap that we hadn't visited before.  I was driving, spotted a nice, smooth parking spot, just right for us, happily steered the car to this nice spot, sank into soft sand right to the running boards.  Cars had running boards in those days.

Before we could really plan how to extricate the car, a little Diesel switching engine chuffed down the tracks, stopped, and asked if we could use any help.  They had a long chain, hooked it onto our rear axle, backed us out of the sand, unhooked, and chuffed away, total time not over ten minutes.

This was the only time we ever saw one of these switchers in this area of the spoil heaps.  On that day SomeOne was watching over us.

The Lost & Found Pocket Watch

As mentioned many times, when we were collecting in the spoil heaps, our sense of isolation, the feeling that we were the only human beings for miles around, was profound.  In fact we were the only humans around ... to illustrate:

One day, at Locality No. 17, we had parked our car alongside the "Tipple Road," a fairly busily travelled truck road, and we had eaten our lunch there. 

After we returned to Joliet that evening, Father [George Langford, Sr.] couldn't locate his pocket watch, a valued anniversary present, and we couldn't recall where we had last seen it, so we decided to retrace our footsteps of the day before and look for it.  To make a long story short, right there on the edge of the "Tipple Road," face up on a flat rock, was Father's watch, ticking properly, on time, not seen by any humans but ourselves.

The Eurypterus Locality

By this time, we had become accustomed to the fact that a given collecting site would usually have one predominating fossil type.  Locality No. 19 was one of these.  The quality was very poor, but our Eurypterus specimens all came from this small area, and we returned there ev ry so often, just on the off chance that some more of these very rare little creatures would have been washed out of the clay.

And there were more of them, all from Locality No. 19.

Wounds & Contusions

Because we were so isolated from contact with other [people] we were always extra careful.  But in spite of this extra care, we had occasional problems.  We even had what might have been considered a bad day.

First - Father [George Langford, Sr.] accidentally pinched the skin of his left thigh between his hammer and his rock anvil.  We solved this by tying a handkerchief around his leg ... and continued our collecting.

Next - I whacked my left thumb, a split about an inch-and-one-half long, lots of blood, bone visible and all that.  By this time, Father's leg wound had used up our handkerchief supply.  So I wrapped several layers of the toilet tissue we always carried around my thumb, and fastened it with a piece of blasting wire that we found handy.

As all this happened in the forenoon, and as we had already driven the twenty-two miles from Joliet, we hated to lose the rest of this nice collecting day, so we continued our collecting for the rest of the day.

Father's leg healed slowly but surely [with] no after effects.  My thumb required seven careful stitches, but healed right up ... I can't even locate the scar today.  The clay and sand in the spoil heaps must have been super sterile.

Caught in a Downpour

Getting soaked in this heavy rain was entirely my doing.  We could see a black and rainy-looking rain cloud coming toward us from the southwest, [and] we had plenty of time to hustle back to our car, [which] was Father's [George Langford, Sr.] judgment.  My assessment was that the cloud was small [and] the shower likely to be a light one, easily borne this pleasantly warm day ... sort of a "liquid sunshine" theory, like they handle these warm showers in Florida.

Sad to say, the situation didn't work out quite that way ... it was a deluge, and it was icy cold.  All we could do was hunch our shoulders, grit our teeth, shiver, and wait until it would stop.  It lasted probably five minutes, [though] it seemed like an hour, but then it drifted past and the sun came out again.

What we had not anticipated was the wet and slippery clay resulting from the rain ... it was just like greasy ice ... almost impossible to stand up.  Cold and wet, we finally slipped and slid back to our car, taking our specimens with us, quit work and went home early.  It was a wet and cold trip, very little conversation, but no recriminations, I'm happy to say.

My Swim in "Long Pond"

One mid-Summer day, we had been collecting at Locality No. 7, it was afternoon, and Father [George Langford, Sr.] and I were taking a short rest in the inadequate shade of a small cottonwood on the shore.  Long Pond looked invitingly wet and cool, there was no one in sight, so I stripped and took a refreshingly cool swim.

Getting to shore was something else again.  Every step I took, I went up to my knees in soft clay.  By the time I reached shore, I was a muddy mess.  I built a small dock of flat rocks, rinsed, and re-rinsed my legs, until I dared put my pants back on.

When I got home, I rinsed off again in my basement, went upstairs and took a bath.  In spite of this, I smelled of clay for at least a week.  This was my last swim in any of the spoil heap ponds.

We learned next day that my swim took place on one of the hottest days ever recorded in Illinois history.

Our Dietary Arrangements

We were in fine physical condition, worked in extremes of heat and cold, [and] we learned the diet that would enable us to do so.  We survived very succeswsfully on this standard lunch:

A large Thermos of hot coffee, well sugared & creamed.
Another Thermos jug of ice cubes and water.
One box each of vanilla flavored sugar cookies.
Several ripe bananas.

On real hot days, as we entered Joliet in late afternoon, we would stop at an ice cream parlor which offered extra large malted milks; in retrospect they seemed about a foot high.  We would each slurp one down, usually without saying a word, [and we] would sometimes enjoy a second malted.

Our diet was obviously successful; we were never overcome by the heat, never had digestive difficulties, never caught cold, and never felt healthier.

The Dragonfly Site

Locality No. 21 had a number of ridges that extended a long way out into the pond, usually ending in a string of small islands, the tops of the extended ridges.  We were getting well shaped nodules of fair size, so I decided to fulfill my mission ... stripped to my shorts ... waded from island to island, collecting as I progressed.  Brought them back to the end of the ridge, where there was a handy boulder to use as an anvil.

Father [George Langford, Sr.] was working down the ridge, coming toward me, while I was cracking open the nodules I had picked up.  One of these was a very large and perfect insect wing, a thrilling beauty of a specimen.  I also found a perfect small "craw dad" [that was] also an extreme rarity.  And I had several other unusually good plant specimens.

I set them all up in a row, in the "closed" position and went on with my nodule cracking, while Father came toward me.  He dumped his pail of unopened nodules in front of me, for me to crack, sat down, started to look over my opened specimens.  When he saw the big insect wing, I thought he was going to fall into the pond.  As a scientist, he knew that he was viewing a truly great find.

The hope of more days like this really kept up our collecting fever.

Our Biggest Crab

On this particular collecting day, it was wet and rainy overhead, [and] very wet, muddy, and slippery underfoot, so we parked on the edge of the concrete highway and worked from the highway.  I had an old golf club [with] hickory shaft, [and I] could walk along Highway 59, reach out into the muddy shoulder, [and] flip nodules to where I could pick them up without getting mired.  One of these nodules held the big Bellinurus [Belinurus ? GL,III] the largest and finest one we ever found.

All of this, maybe eighteen inches from the dges of one of the heavily travelled highways in Illinois, in an area that had been worked over by collectors for years, ever since the strip mines opened up.  We figured we were entitled to a little blind good luck one in a while, like [that] day.

Our Biggest Nodule - a Fifteen Pounder

At this site, Locality No. 28, I was working on the top of a ridge, and I could see this big nodule two ridges farther west, almost as big as and shaped like a small kite.  Father [George Langford, Sr.] and I debated whether or not to go after it, and [so] I was nominated, and off I went.

It had been cracked open by the frost, but it was not weathered and had not yet acquired the rust-red coloration that affects all opened nodules when exposed to the weather.

It was a huge frond of Pecopteris, very well preserved, showing fine detail, and also showed how the small fronds patterned the big frond.  Well worth climbing over two ridges !

First Plant Identification Work

We had a loan collection at the Illinois State Museum at Springfield, and through that connection we met Ray [Raymond E.] Janssen at the University of Chicago, and his associates there.

I drove Father's [George Langford, Sr.] car to the University, loaded with half a dozen pails of mended and cleaned-up specimens.  We met Dr. Noe for the first time; he was Professor of Paleobotany at the University of Chicago, and he had three graduate students working under his direction at that time, including Janssen.

They were literally speechless at the quality, quantity, and variety of our specimens, [and so they] dropped everything they were doing, spent the afternoon looking them over, identfying some, laying those aside that they felt were new to Science.  They really had a ball.

I drove with Father to deliver several more car-loads of specimens to the U. of C., [where] they would identify as many as possible, [and then] we would take those back to Joliet.  This led to Janssen taking over the project of classifying and naming those that were new to Science, and making the first publication of our collecting work under the auspices of the Illinois State Museum.

[Dr. Raymond E. Janssen published two books: "Some Fossil Plant Types of Illinois," Illinois State Museum Scientific Papers, Volume I, subtitled, "A Restudy of thr Lesquereux Types in the Worthen Collection of the Ilinois State Museum, Augmented by Descriptions of New Species from Mazon Creek," Springfield, Illinois, 1940 and "Leaves and Stems from Fossil Forests," Ilinois State Museum, Popular Science Series, Volume I, subtitled, "A Handbook of the Paleobotanical Collections in the Illinois State Museum," Springfield, Illinois, 1939.  Both books acknowledge the contributions of George Langford, Sr. and George Langford, Jr. - GL,III, ed.]

We could always count on a real warm welcome from Dr. Noe and the three graduate students.

Falls & Similar Mishaps

In all of the time that Father [George Langford, Sr.] and I collected, I never saw him lose his footing and fall.  He had trained himself over the years to compensate for his physical dis-symmetry by carefully planting each foot before he moved the other, so I am really surprised to find that eventually he did fall.

Personally, I had dozens of falls, most of them harmless and uneventful.  Once, though, I slid off a narrow path on the edge of Long Pond, plunked right down into the mud and water up to my waist, pails, hammers, specimens and all.  I felt that penance was indicated, so I retrieved the whole works before we left for Joliet.

Our 22-Mile Strip Mine Trip

This was twenty-two miles each way, quite a ramble in Father's [George Langford, Sr.] 1936 Ford V-8.  I usually was pilot, Father was navigator.  I watched the right side and straight ahead, [and] Father was lookout for the left side.  The trip to the mines was almost always pleasant - fresh air - cool - high hopes - and all that.

The return trip was something else again.  Both of us [were] pooped and hot ... and thirsty.  Often we made the whole trip home with no more than a dozen words.  No need to talk, just too tired to need to ... we were well content to enjoy a quiet spell.

Our Collecting Kits

Each of us carried a brickmason's hammer, the chisel edge to pry nodules out of the clay, the hammer end to crack them open.

After cracking a nodule open, we would wrap the pieces in a page [ripped out] of the Saturday Evening Post [and] deposit it in one of our five-gallon collecting pails.  On each mission away from our parked car, Father [George Langford, Sr.] would carry one pail and a shoulder bag [and] I would carry two pails.

We would fill our three pails and the one shoulder bag, then take them back to our car, [and] then start the cycle all over again.  Well ... each filled pail weighed about sixty pounds, [and] the filled shoulder bag about thirty-five pounds.  We sought a way to make this pail-carrying chore a mite easier.

My first attempt was a length of half-inch rope with a steel hook at each end to latch over the pail handles.  I could never adjust it to divide the load between fingers and hooks, and it cut into my sun-burned neck and shoulders, so this bright idea was discarded.

Remember those cute little wooden yokes that milkmaids are portrayed as using ?  Well, I made one of those.  It looked real nice, and it actually worked quite well as long as I walked straight and easy on dead level ground.  Sad to say, we had no level ground, just up and down slippery paths ... or no paths ... and it would swing me off balance.

So with resigned reluctance, I returned to the use of my tried and aching fingers, [and] made no further experiments.

Abandoned Strip Mine Areas in Will County

In many parts of the country (one example is West Virginia) strip mining completely ruins the country.  It devastates the forests, chokes the streams, leaves the equivalent of desert behind it, devoid of vegetation, apparently ruining the area completely and for all time.

In Will County, Illinois, where we collected, it left behind a different environment.  This part of Will County is table-top flat, [with] a shallow layer of dirt and humus atop an impervious clay layer, creating a shallow marshy or swampy area, almost useless for farming, [but] used mainly for grazing.

The strip mining operation created rows of gray hills, not unattractive at all, rather picturesque, with several small ponds and lakes dotted through the hills, in my eyes at least a welcome change from soggy flatness.  The hunting and fishing clubs, and the nature societies, have also noted this, [and] have purchased or leased large areas for private use.  Nearby Goose Lake, which is surrounded by an area of original Illinois prairie land and vegetation, has even been created a National Park [actually it is the Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area - GL,III, ed.].

Perhaps northern Illinois is unusually lucky that their spoil heaps are not an ecological disaster area; [instead, they are] truly attractive.

The Tree-Trunk Specimen

One day, near Locality No. 11, a road had been bulldozed through some spoil heaps, opening up an area which neither of us had ever explored.  I wandered along a valley floor between two ridges, [finding] very few nodules, but [I] just kept going [and] hoping for some new collecting area.

There on the valley floor was what looked like a big stick of firewood, about four inches in diameter and around three feet long, [lying] in several pieces.  I already had two pails full, so I collected the nicest tree piece, balanced it on top of one pail, [and] lugged it back to where the car and Father [George Langford, Sr.] were waiting.

Father liked my sample; it showed one of the Caulopteris bark patterns fairly well; and so next trip I went in and got all of it.  When mended, it qualified as our largest specimen ever, about a sixty pounder.
[All of the above is in the original pen & ink handwriting of George Langford, Jr. - GL,III, ed.]