Henderson County, Kentucky


Mastodons are nothing new to the Tri-county area. In prehistoric times, the elephant like beasts were native to Kentucky. But even though they went extinct thousands of years ago, mastodons have not exactly been strangers to the Kentucky landscape. As early as 1804 a large wagon-load of mastodon teeth was hauled out of Kentucky by a Dr. GOFORTH.

Thomas JEFFERSON, the third president of the United States, reportedly received bones from Big Bone Lick in northern Kentucky. Specimens from that area, which is now a state park, and Blue Lick now adorn museums around the world.

Furthermore, several mastodon teeth were found here in 1885 while workmen were constructing the piers for the first railroad bridge across the Ohio River.

So it probably should not have been that big a surprise when a man and his son uncovered mastodon bones in 1953 while digging for fishing worms on the banks of Canoe Creek. But it was.

The Gleaner, as well as other papers in the Tri-state area, treated it as a major story. People from around the Tri-state came to gawk at the site, which is at the end of outer Fifth Street.

A county bulldozer and county road workers helped move dirt away from the bones. A couple of crises arose during the two weeks of excavations: the first involved roaming hogs trampling the uncovered bones and causing some minor damage. The second involved possible flooding, and toward the end workers were racing to get the bones removed ahead of the rising water.

Experts from the University of Kentucky and the Evansville Museum assumed control over the excavations. County Judge Fred VOGEL claimed county ownership of the bones, since they were found within the right of way of outer Fifth Street, at that time a county road.

Within a few days, however, it became clear that the land was owned by Herman L. HICKEY, who was interviewed by the Gleaner and Journal:

"HICKEY and his wife, both of whom have been deeply interested in the developments which have brought people swarming from all over the area to view the slow, painstaking work of the men who are laying back the muck of Canoe Creek to outline the skeleton of the huge mammal, said that they have no monetary interest in the ownership of the mastodon.

"'We want to preserve it for the education of our children here in the area,' said HICKEY. 'We want to do as Judge VOGEL suggested, to keep it here in Henderson County at the Audubon museum, if possible, because the children here could study and learn from it.'"

A sort of subtle tug-of-war developed among the competing interests: the county, the University of Kentucky and the Evansville Museum. Two weeks after the discovery, Francele ARMSTRONG, publisher of the Gleaner at that time, chronicled the behind-the-scenes maneuvering.

She gave Charlie DAVIS, the night editor of the Gleaner at the time, the credit for coming up with the idea that the mastodon bones should be kept in Henderson County.

The Evansville Museum provided the first experts on the scene, and they had hoped to acquire the bones, which consist of a skull and some of the upper skeleton.

"Throughout the first week of excavations the men from the university and from (the) Evansville museum continued to hope that each would fall heir to the treasurers," Mrs. ARMSTRONG wrote.

Meanwhile, HICKEY had verbally given the University of Kentucky permission to take the bones to the university so they could be properly preserved. But Mrs. ARMSTRONG worried that if UK got their hands on the bones, they would disappear forever from Henderson. Consequently, she had HICKEY sign legal papers expressing his wish that the bones remain in Henderson County "in perpetuity."

As chairwoman of the Audubon park board, Mrs. ARMSTRONG had a strong interest in keeping the bones in Henderson County.

Since 1988, the mastodon skull has been exhibited at Big Bone Lick State Park in northern Kentucky.

"It is the main piece here," said Clarence Metcalf, park manager, who stressed that "it is on loan to Big Bone from Audubon State Park.

"The reason we have it is because … it fits in so well" with the park's theme. During prehistoric times, he said, many animals "got mired in the soft, jelly ground" in the area, resulting in pioneers finding numerous bones there. The best pieces from Big Bone Lick, however, have been hauled elsewhere for exhibition.

The skull is extremely heavy, "well over 400 pounds," METCALF said, but is in "very good condition."

Reprinted with permission.
Progress Edition, The Gleaner, Henderson, KY, Saturday, March 30, 1996
Written by Frank Boyett

Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2002 HCH&GS