Chesterton Tribune

Prehistoric exhibit at county museum of history highlights early natural formations and mammals

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Before there were Chesterton, Portage, Valparaiso or Kouts, before Native American settlers, Porter County -- like most of the world at the time -- had a lot of ice around.

There were other things around too that were a little more peculiar – a big cat with 12-inch long canines and a ground sloth the size of an elephant.

In its newest featured exhibit, “Prehistoric Porter County”, the Porter County Museum of History in downtown Valparaiso gives visitors a personal tour of what the county was like more than 50,000 years ago and the lost but not forgotten beasts like the 10-foot tall Mastodon and the short-faced bear.

Museum Director Kevin Pazour said the idea for the exhibit started more than a year ago when members of the Porter County Historical Society wanted to give residents a better idea of how their community was formed, from the beginning, before written history.

“Everything we do at the museum is to show how Porter County fits into the big picture,” Pazour said. “We have natural, local and military history exhibits that show how we fit in, not just in our community, but the global community.”

The trip back in time starts with shelves of primitive tools used by the Native American tribes that inhabited Porter County for centuries. There are quite a few pointed arrowheads to see and stone carvings believed to be more than 7,000 years old. Although not original to Porter County, the display features a 12,000 year-old stone carving from the Inuit tribes who crossed the land bridge from Asia into Alaska and Northern Canada.

From the southwest tribes is an artifact a little more modern to our time – an eagle talon necklace comprised of silver, turquoise and an eagle talon circa 1870.

Next, visitors can make their way down what appears to be a dark, porous cave into the dawn of mammals. It may be difficult to believe you are in 50,000 B.C. but it may be more difficult to believe you are in the former Porter County Jail. Museum volunteers have transformed the cell quarters into caverns complete with stalactites and stalagmites.

To give it a chilly effect, the path through the cave is lit with black light UV as wanderers are asked riddle clues leading to the identity of mammals which inhabited the area.

As you make your way around, skull replicas of the Saber-toothed cat, the 29-foot long giant ground sloth that could grow to 4 tons in weight, the dire wolf, and an early species of the peccary that bears a resemblance, but is not an ancestor to, the modern-day pig.

Nearby are the great grandparents of the ox called the Musk Ox, an ice age survivor, and more familiar specimens that are still very much a part of our outdoor world -- the coyote, the mink, the beaver and the muskrat.

Designers of the Prehistoric hallways were Zach Gipson, a Chesterton native, and Garth A. Conrad of LaPorte. The two designers were also responsible for the museum’s previous temporary exhibits: “Tools of the Trade,” which has been extended until the end of this year, and “Masks” – the museum’s first temporary exhibit -- which ran last fall.

Last but certainly not least in the exhibit are the bones of Mastodons found here in Porter County.

Pazour said there have been three reported instances of Mastodon fossils found in the boundaries of the county. The first took place in 1911 near Koselke Ditch in Washington Twp. followed in 1949 by another discovery on a Boone Grove Farm with a more complete set of bones and tusks.

The next Mastodon remains showed up just outside of Hebron fairly recently in 2004 and were given to the Indiana State Museum.

“Who knows what you’ll find in your own backyard,” said Pazour.

Drawing a pattern, Pazour said the best chance to find Mastodon bones or any other prehistoric ice-age creature would be close to waterways. He said the lands along the Kankakee River have seen the most success.

Slightly different from Woolly Mammoths, who were ground grazers, Mastodons died out nearly 20,000 years ago in the final stages of the last ice age. But even before that, at about 50,000 B.C., glaciers spread across Porter County. While this was happening throughout many places on the globe, Porter County is unique in the fact that glaciers stopped halfway through the county producing sand hills and glacial tills like the Valparaiso Moraine and the fertile runoff soils of the Kankakee River.

The Moraine not only rises in Valparaiso but wraps around Wisconsin to Michigan. It was formed at the end of the Wisconsin glaciations.

Pazour said the Prehistoric exhibit will run until the museum relocates to the former Valparaiso police station a half a block away, probably in the next two years.

The exhibit will continue to be a work-in-progress as more fossil replicas are added. The giant land sloth and short-faced bear skull replicas are the newest additions having just arrived last week.

Each fossil is a replica except for the Mastodon bones.

The replicas are created by a company in California which specializes in taking models from real-life fossils, said museum volunteer Paula Ramos. Pazour said acquiring real fossils is out of reach for the museum’s budget and the replicas help illustrate the different mammals that once roamed the area.

Joanne Urschel, secretary for the Porter County Historical Society, said the exhibit holds something of interest for every resident in Porter County. The Historical Society promotes the message that the museum is for all Porter County residents.

“We’re not only looking at the Ice Age but the entire Porter County experience,” said Urschel.

War collections to be updated

The museum’s current undertaking is to renovate the war exhibits, specifically the collection of WWII artifacts.

Other war exhibits include the American Civil War and a combined World War I and Spanish-American War exhibit.

Much of the renovation will be complete by the museum’s open house on Sept. 8 for the Valparaiso Popcorn Festival.

The museum, located at 153 Franklin Street in Valparaiso next to Courthouse Square, is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays.






Posted 8/7/2012