McPhersonSentinel - McPherson, KS
  • McPherson man made history at La Brea tar pits

  • Although the historical society’s program featuring James Zacchaeus Gilbert, McPherson College’s first graduate, and his discoveries was last week, the fossils he unearthed from the La Brea tar pits still speak of his contributions to the science world.

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  • Although the historical society’s program featuring James Zacchaeus Gilbert, McPherson College’s first graduate, and his discoveries was last week, the fossils he unearthed from the La Brea tar pits still speak of his contributions to the science world.
    His many and unprecedented contributions are displayed at the George C. Page Museum in southern California and will be part of an exhibit at the McPherson Museum and Arts Foundation when it reopens in 2013.
    More than 50 percent of the fossils and bones at the McPherson Museum are from Gilbert’s digs, which took place from 1907 to 1909, making him the first large-scale excavator of La Brea. His pioneer efforts, removed from parts of the 23-acre area now known as Hancock Park, uncovered prehistoric animals of all shapes and sizes.
    in McPherson
    His donations to McPherson College likely came to town about the 1920s. It was about that time he returned to receive an honorary doctorate degree from the institution.
    The Indiana-born student attended the college from 1891 to 1894. During that time he taught geography and orthography and was pastor of a congregation north of town after becoming an ordained minister.
    He graduated with what would now be considered a bachelor's degree at age 28, as the first and only member of his class. His major is unknown.
     of opportunity
    Gilbert and his family moved to Los Angeles about 1904 because of the job opportunities growing there. He was hired as a biology and zoology teacher at the Los Angeles high school and began teaching in the fall.
    In September 1907, he took his first field trip to the outskirts of town. Although this area is now at the heart of the city, the class rode a trolley to the end of the line and had to walk a distance to reach their destination.
    This destination was the La Brea tar pits, a large area consisting of natural asphalt. Then and even today, light fractions of petroleum bubble to the surface and evaporate, leaving a thick, black, sticky layer on top.
    Many varieties of animals become trapped in the top few inches and die like a fly on flypaper. It is especially deadly in the heat of California summers.
    During that first trek to the tar pits, one of Gilbert’s students noticed a bone sticking out of the surface and excavation began. Because they could not finish the job, they covered it back up and returned the next week, eventually unearthing the skull of an American lion.
    Following permission from the landowners, Gilbert, his students and eventually the Southern California Academy of Sciences continued excavation in the area, discovering thousands of fossils beneath the surface, including parts of dire wolfs, sabertooth cats, giant ground sloths, mammoths, mastodons and other prehistoric animals.
    Page 2 of 2 - They also uncovered smaller animals such as coyotes, skunks, raccoons and birds. At the time, excavators would focus on large-scale fossils, but Gilbert was ahead of his time in collecting small bird bones. They are now what the tar pits are famous for, as the sticky substance permeated and preserved the otherwise brittle pieces.
    Gilbert dug at the site for two years, with no record of any monetary compensation. Following his time there, the county hired workers to do similar work for $3.50 a day.
    More than 1 million bones have been found at the La Brea tar pits, and more are being discovered today.
    Local display
    As he was digging, it was agreed Gilbert could keep duplicate specimens. It was these he donated to McPherson College.
    Within this collection are fossils of a dire wolf, sabertooth cat and a giant ground sloth, which is one of only six found at La Brea. Bones from other animals are also part of the collection, which was displayed at the museum before its closing and is scheduled to emerge again for public viewing when it opens on Kansas Avenue.
    They will join other fossils and bones found within McPherson County’s borders. Some discovered not far from McPherson are parts of a sabertooth cat, ground sloth, mammoth, mastodon, and camel, all of which were discovered in the 1940s and 1950s.
    “It's sort of neat that the very same animals that were found in the tar pits were found here,” Brett Whitenack, McPherson Museum curator, said.
    It was common for visitors to come to the museum and wonder why the fossils were part of the exhibits. But Whitenack said they have a lot to offer people.
    “What kid today doesn't like dinosaurs or prehistoric things?” he said. “Hopefully, this sparks their interest in the sciences. It can be like a springboard for them.”
    They also can be educational for adults.
    “It opens up a lot of questions about the world,” he said.
    Whitenack specifically notes how intimidating the teeth of the sabertooth cat can be.
    “You can be glad they’re not around today,” he said. “Those animals are so interesting, and to know that (they) once lived....”
    Whitenack had done significant research on Gilbert, who was a teacher until 1938 and died in 1945.
    “They story of James is just as interesting as the fossils themselves,” he said. “If it wasn’t for him, maybe the story of La Brea might have been delayed a while. He sort of pioneered that.”