|It was Dr.
Elmer Stephen of Joliet who got me started on the strip mines about
October 15th, 1937. I had known of these quite a number of years
before, and [I had] heard of fossil-bearing nodules found there.
These were similar to the nodules from the Mazon Creek deposits about 8
miles west and in Grundy County. This reported similarity
deterred me. I had done considerable collecting at both the upper
and lower beds of of Mazon Creek, from 1907 to 1912, but finally
stopped completely and for all time. I did so for many reasons,
one of which was that the site had been so long exploited by many
collectors, I could not expect to find anything new about it or in it.
And yet Mazon Creek has been known all over the world for many years. Scientists have marvelled at the fine preservation of its fossil plants and of its insects and other forms of small animal life. The site has long been popular with amateur collectors. The individual stone packages were easily handled, and the plants within made an attractive picture. Many specimens were taken away to repose in curio cabinets throughout the country. Similar fossil plants occurred in the Coal Measures of Pennsylvania, Ohio and other states, in the clays, shales and rock layers. But the nodules or stone packages of Mazon Creek were unusual and more appealing to the collector than slabs of clay or rock. Also, the preservation of the fossil plants were generally better than elsewhere. I had [already] heard a good deal about them by 1888 when I was only twelve years old.
There is a peculiar fascination in the nodules which all who have handled them, experienced. Each stone package is like a draw in a lottery. It may be a blank containing nothing or it may, when split open, disclose one of many varieties of plants. Occasionally something fine or rare appears, but generally the plant is a common form occurring with exasperating frequency. The average collector finally tires of this. To secure a fine collection, one must work hard and swallow many disappointments.
Dr. Stephen broached the subject of the strip mine fossils to me many times and for six or seven years, without arousing my particular interest. Finally in October 1937 I drove down to have a look. The drive was about twenty-three miles from Joliet, Illinois. I went to Wilmington, then to Coal City. It was raining slightly but continually, and not being familiar with this part of the country, I had trouble finding my way about. From Coal City, I drove north and then east to one of the strip mines. The road got worse and the driving became tougher. I went between piles of sand and came to the edge of a long cut. A monstrous electric shovel was at one end of the cut. The digging shovel or bucket was big enough to hold my car within it. The cut was about thirty feet deep. The sides showed a veneer of loam on top and about ten feet of fine sand beneath. The sand overlay about twenty feet of soft clay rock. The coal, over two feet thick, was beneath the clay. I saw no nodules nor rocks and very little clay in the spoil heaps around me. The heaps seemed to be mostly sand. I had a hard time getting out of there, as I had to back a hundred yards or so on a very bumpy and slippery road while the rain obscured my vision.
On my way back from the mine to Wilmington, I saw an apparently endless chain of spoil heaps to the north on my left. I was on Route 52. I stopped frequently to study the spoil heaps, and although I was a considerable distance from them, I could see that they offered little encouragement to a collector. There was considerable clay more or less obscured by top sand and some glacial stones of all sizes; also friable sandstone which had originally lain deep down, above and near the coal. What with the bad weather and the little I saw to encourage me, my first exploration of the strip mines was distinctly disappointing.
[unsigned, but in the handwriting of] George Langford, Sr.