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Mammoth finds

Selected artifacts from the Sophienburg Museum’s prehistoric collection. L to R: kidney, bear tooth, horse tooth, unknown tooth fragment, mammoth tooth fragment.

Selected artifacts from the Sophienburg Museum’s prehistoric collection. L to R: kidney, bear tooth, horse tooth, unknown tooth fragment, mammoth tooth fragment.

By Keva Hoffmann Boardman –

If you’ve ever looked at the mural “Lure of the Springs” on the Parks and Rec building in Landa Park, you will find it includes a mammoth. The Sophienburg has several prehistoric artifacts and one of them is a mammoth tooth. Cool. I wondered where it was found, who found it and when. Time for a mammoth quest!

Many of our early German founders were highly educated; they had attended university and studied a wide range of sciences. Dr. Samuel Geisser, professor of biology at SMU, did an extensive survey of early Texas naturalists in the 1930s which includes a large number of our founders.

Quite a few of these men had scientific study collections that they shared with the local community and even the world (think of Lindheimer whose herbaria made it back to Europe). Others had “curiosity” collections — – collections of Native American stone points or pretty seashells or weird bugs or maybe even of hairballs or two-headed goats in jars of formaldehyde. You and I make collections like this (maybe not of two-headed goats) and so it was that prehistoric bones, when discovered, made their way into the collections of people in NB.

How did they find them? In a lot of cases, mammoth and other mammal remains were unearthed during the digging of wells. Several men were known as Brunnenmacher or Brunnengräber or well-diggers prior to 1900: H. Guenther, J.H. Petri and R. Sands. They dug wells for $1.50 per foot of depth and guaranteed they would find you water or your money back. Many backyards in the downtown area have these remarkable wells. We have old fire insurance maps in the museum’s collections that show their locations.

The first published account of prehistoric bones was in June 1856. While digging a well “on Lister’s lot”, an almost complete skeleton of a mammoth was unearthed. The shinbones alone were 43 inches long and 17 inches thick. The vertebrae were roughly 15”x13”. Tusks were 9 feet in length. The animal was discovered at a depth of 18 feet in sandy light grey clay. It was supposedly sent to the Smithsonian Institution (there is a snide remark about the Texas Legislature not taking measures to secure its own treasures) but I haven’t verified that. It seems this really fantastic find was also written up by an English periodical, The Geologist, in 1861. Look at NB making international news!

In 1941, biologist Dr.Geisser had local historian Oscar Haas try to trace down some more information on this outstanding early find. Haas contacted C. A. Jahn and received this answer:

“The early residents of N.Brfls did get water for household purposes from the Comal or Springs entering the Comal river. This was inconvenient and most every family did try to find water by digging a well or having a well dug on their premises. There were men who made it their business to dig wells about 35 ft deep five feet in diameter walled with lime rock. By digging these wells they unearthed a large head of a fossil mammal. They also found in other parts of the city limits large bones of some monster, the head and bones were found in a sandy loam strata. The head about three feet long by two &1/2 feet wide, about two feet thick was for several years lying near the entrance door of August Forcke’s Drug Store. The head and bones when exposed to the air peeled off what has finally become of them I do not know”

Mr. Jahn would have been 5 years old at the time of the big find. His answer is interesting because it fits in with later fossil discoveries. His “large head of a fossil mammal” might refer to the bones of a huge prehistoric animal found at a depth of 30 feet by men digging a well for Balwin Behring in Jan 1873. The find of “large bones of some monster” could have been the 1890 discovery on Heinrich Kellermann Sr.’s farm on the east side of the Guadalupe of a type of “dinosaur lizard which was a plant eater and lived in water most of the time.” The tooth was brought to the NB Zeitung office and according to their research, they determined it came from a 30-foot animal.

I really like that this “monster” find was displayed in front of Forcke’s Drug Store for everyone to marvel at. I can just see the bleach-white bones of the behemoth peeling under the hot Texas sun. I also wonder if bits and pieces of the skeletal remains didn’t find their way secretly into the homes of other New Braunfelsers.

In July 1866, a tooth was found while digging a well on Mr. George Schmitt’s lot at a depth of 34 feet just above blue clay or marl. When an eight-pound mammoth tooth was found in Sippel’s gravel quarry in 1895, Otto Heilig put it in his “curiosity” collection and invited the public to come take a look. In June 1905, Jack Horne and friends were picnicking on the banks of the Guadalupe River near “the Elsner place” and found parts of an enormous skull protruding from the riverbank.

Here’s a find location you will know. In July 1915, Peter Nowotny, Jr., “had a sink dug at the Prinz Solms Hotel” and at a depth of 25 feet was found the three-foot thighbone of a mastodon. In 1920, Louis Staats brought a very large mastodon tooth into town that workers had dug up on Post Road near Watson School. The newspaper men got a little silly and reported, “Toothache in such a tooth must have been immense. We are glad that our wisdom teeth are not that big or that the dentist has to fill them with gold.”

Teeth and bones of adult and infant mammoths were found by A.M. Fiedler in late November 1920 in a gravel excavation near Landa Park. Dr. Fiedler found many fossils and bones which he kept in his quite extensive geological collections displayed at his home and at his office at the Comal County Courthouse. He regularly shared these with boy scouts, high school science students and interested groups. A part of his collection remains at Texas Lutheran University.

By the way, the Sophienburg’s mammoth tooth was dug out of the bank of the Comal Creek by Albert Nowotny. He donated it to the museum when we opened in 1933.

Sources: Neu Braunfelser Zeitung and NB Herald collections – Sophienburg Museum & Archives; The Houston Weekly Telegraph, July 30, 1856; The Geologist, 1861, “On a Fossil Elephant in Texas”, George E. Roberts ed. By S.J. Mackie, London; Field and Laboratory, “Collectors of Pleistocene Vertebrates in Early Texas, by S.W. Geiser, Vol 13(2): 53-60; Oscar Haas collection – Sophienburg Museum & Archives.