Prehistoric Randolph County

"Old Randolph" on display at Earlham College

The following was written by Terry Wisener. It is from the book Randolph County Indiana History 1990, available for purchase here.

Some 18,000 to 20,000 years ago, following the end of the Wisconsin glacier (the third glacier to cover Randolph County), wet, lush ice-age forests developed along with fields of wild rice. Also left by the glacier were kettle holes, formed when gigantic chunks of glacial ice broke from the leading edge of the ice sheet and were forced deep into the earth as the glacier passed over them. These chunks later melted centuries after the glacier receded. Silt and vegetation slowly filled the little lakes, leaving them spongy and marshy. As the centuries passed, this early Randolph County environment became home to many ice-age mammals. Giant sloths 14 feet tall, beavers the size of present day black bears and huge 10-12 ton red-haired elephants called mastodons all roamed thru prehistoric Randolph County 8,000 to 12,000 B.C.

Evidence of these gigantic creatures can be viewed personally by a trip to the Joseph Moore Museum at Earlham Collage in Richmond, Indiana. There resides "Old Randolph" (an 11 foot 2 inch mastodon), a giant sloth carbon dated at 12,190 years old and a giant beaver nearly six feet long. "Old Randolph" and the giant beaver were both discovered in Randolph County in the late 1800s. While the sloth on display was discovered near Greenville, Ohio, many of his relatives lived in the early Randolph County area. These fossil remains are all extremely unique because forest-dwelling animals generally decayed quickly after death or were scavenged by the numerous smaller mammal carnivores, such as the opossum which existed then relatively unchanged from his present day descendants.

The giant beaver, scientifically known as Castoroides, was found in the fall of 1889 when workers were digging a ditch on the eastern Randolph County farm of John M. Turner to drain a swampy tract known as the "Dismal" near Bartonia. The skeleton was uncovered about eight feet below the surface. This find was extremely unique to the scientific community as an entire skeleton was present. The remains were purchased in 1890 by the Earlham Museum. This complete assembled skeleton is one of only two or three in the entire world.

A giant beaver skeleton from Randolph County

The giant beavers were one of the largest rodents known, reaching up to ten feet in length. More remains have been found in Indiana than in any other state. It is believed that their habits and activities were similar to the modern beavers. Assuming this to be true, our specimen could have been part of a large colony which, over the centuries, built large dams that may have contributed to the formation of the present day "Dismal" swamp.

The Randolph Mastodon was discovered in 1888 on the Walter Bookout farm about a mile northeast of Losantville, on the west side of county road 1000 W, and north of road 900 S. The site was covered with deep water impounded behind a beaver dam. James Bookout, Walter's son, began a drainage project in order to gain the area for farming. The first discovery was a large tusk. Later excavation produced a fairly completed skeleton. For a few years, portions of the find were displayed at county fairs and other gatherings until public interest declined and profits from admission fees dwindled.

In 1895, James began to look for a buyer for his mastodon skeleton. He owed a debt of $250 and decided he'd rather be free of debt than to own a pile of mastodon bones. He learned that the Earlham College had some mastodon leg bones (from New Paris, Ohio) and got in touch with Joseph Moore with his offer. Earlham raised the money and purchased the skeleton. The bones were loaded into the boxbed of a farm wagon and hauled from Losantville to Richmond with a team of horses. Joseph Moore and Caswell Grave borrowed leg bones from the New Paris find and in 1895 mounted the skeleton. As the true tusks proved to heavy to safely mount, castings were made and used instead of the original ivory. The present day display at the Joseph Moore Museum was set up in 1955.

The area where  "Old Randolph" was discovered is believed to have been a kettle hole lake. A well preserved layer of wild rice straw was found just below the layer of blue clay which buried the skeleton for nearly 10,000 years. While only speculation, it is suggested the mastodon was foraging for food in the winter and wandered out on the ice of the small lake. His ten ton mass would have proved too much for the ice and he broke through. He probably struggled to free himself and sank deeper and deeper into the mucky lake bed. The ice closed in over him and his remains were protected from scavengers by alternating layers of ice and water. Over the years, the blue clay stratum gradually thickened, protecting his bones until a hundred years ago when they were dug up by the bookouts.

Perhaps some day further excavations in Randolph County may produce new and unique finds of prehistoric animal life. But even if not, Randolph County has produced two of the most unique finds of fossil remains. Pack up the kids and spend a Sunday afternoon at the Joseph Moore Museum, Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana and touch a genuine 10,000 year old piece of Randolph County History.