You can’t get to Ekalaka by accident. The only incorporated town in Carter County, Montana, this tiny burg of 200 people nestled among the rolling ranches and badlands is the end of the road. One hundred fifteen miles southeast of Miles City as the pickup drives, Ekalaka recently hosted a weekend celebration of dinosaurs that drew visitors from far-off Illinois and Ohio. The location of the first annual Dino Shindig, although unlikely, is no coincidence.
Carter County, in the state’s southeastern corner and home to 1,160 people in an area roughly the size of Puerto Rico, contains a portion of the famed Hell Creek Formation, a collection of fluvial deposits from the end of the Cretaceous Period bearing a rich collection of dinosaur, fish, turtle, mammal, plant, and amphibian fossils. Paleontologists have sought Carter County’s extinct inhabitants since the 19th Century, and many well-publicized fossilized remains have been plucked from the county’s eroding mud and sandstone hills to research labs and museums all over the world. Among the most heralded finds is Jane, the famous juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex found with healed bite marks on her or his face, which led researchers to hypothesize that adolescent T-rexes engaged one another in non-fatal skirmishes.
Housing hundreds of original specimens and the casts of many more that are in museums, traveling exhibits, and universities around the world, the Carter County Museum (CCM) holds the honor of Montana’s oldest museum, located just off Highway 7 in the heart of Ekalaka. The building itself is a curiosity, with large portions of its walls constructed out of petrified wood and disparate elements of the museum sprawling from the central structure at angles more suited to architectural whimsy than logic. Above the whole structure a square wooden tower rises, one that would be at home on the set of a 1940s Western.
Last weekend, this structure nonpareil hosted its first ever Dino Shindig, a twoday celebration of Ekalaka’s fossil heritage and community spirit. CCM director Chioko Hammel and Montana State University Paleontology grad student and CCM curator Nate Carroll designed the event to connect dinosaur enthusiasts (especially the under-12 crowd) with world-famous paleontologists. Also, the event would showcase the work he and a handful of industrious MSU students and recent grads have accomplished this summer to update the somewhat funky curation and display infrastructure, while researching and organizing the museum’s extensive collections.
After a week of all-nighters to finish the life-sized, skeletal replica of a Mosasaur, put the finishing touches on the new displays, and refine every last detail for the influx of visitors, the Shindig officially began at nine a.m. Friday, just two minutes after recent MSU graduate and volunteer Derek Brouwer put the last screw in the Pachycephalosaurus display case. Local families lined up for children’s activities alongside travelers from the Midwest and beyond, the whole place suffused in that energy that only a seven-year-old spouting the scientific names of dinosaurs can emit.
Although MSU Landscape Design student Hannah Pearce signed on for a summer designing and installing new landscaping and a heritage garden for the museum, she’s spent the last few weeks predominantly planning the children’s activities and putting her graphical skills to work on museum brochures and displays. The morning and early afternoon were filled with young families and retirees ogling the new exhibits and (for the younger set) filling up the Junior Paleontologist passports that Pearce designed. Among the activities available for kids at the Shindig were face painting, decorating fossil casts, dinosaur origami, dinosaur footprint casting, fossil hunting, dinosaur illustration, and the crowd favorite, the Robotic T-rex.
This last attraction, which drew crowds before the lunch hour of Redneck BBQ (cooked in a repurposed propane tank), featured an enormous welded T-rex skull fitted with bronze casts of fearsome dinosaur teeth on one side and a bronze hyena dental cast on the other. Operated by curator Nate Carroll’s father Llane, the hydraulic device began as a high school science project constructed by Nate to determine if T-rexes crushed or sliced their food. To demonstrate the variation, MSU Paleontology grad student and CCM volunteer Jade Simon placed whole coconuts and melons in the beast’s jaws, reducing them to neatly sliced halves on the dinosaur side, and a crushed pulp (to the delight of the gathered crowd) within the hyena’s maw. “This’ll be ready for lunch!” Llane Carroll joked as a particularly juicy watermelon exploded in pink streaks that rained down upon the delighted children.
While the many museum volunteers and kids were kept busy cracking plaster-of-Paris ‘dino eggs’ apart at the museum, across town a procession of world-renowned paleontologists held court over rapturous, dino enthusiasts and Ekalaka locals. Among the hotshots in Ekalaka for the weekend were Scott Williams (Burpee Museum of Natural History), Joe Peterson (University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh), Mark Goodwin (University of California Museum of Paleontology), Thomas Carr (Carthage College), Tyler Lyson (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History), Thomas Holtz (University of Maryland), and Bozeman’s own Jack Horner (Museum of the Rockies).
I was able to sneak away from my duties as a kid wrangler and catch Horner’s standing-room-only presentation on the recent developments in the study of Triceratops. Horner, among others in his field, believes that many three-horned dinosaurs that have previously been categorized separately may in fact be the same creature, just at different points of development. Meanwhile, one of the most discussed paleontological subjects of the weekend was the question of feathered dinosaurs: should we think of dinosaurs as ancient scaly lizards, or creatures that looked more like Gonzo the Muppet? “If the first dinosaurs we found were in China [where feathered dinosaurs have been discovered],” answered Thomas Holtz, the day’s last speaker, “we would be thinking of them as toothed birds, not lizards, not reptiles.”
Friday’s official Shindig activities ended after a spirited live auction—a rock hammer engraved by the paleontologists fetched $510 for the museum—with a breakfast-for-dinner meal catered by the local home economics club and dancing to Ekalaka’s finest cowboy swing band 4 Wheel Drive that lasted well into Saturday’s early hours.
Putting the dig in Shindig
Participants and paleontologists crowded into ten pickups and SUVs on Saturday morning and tottered like a line of elephants along rutted ranch roads to the northwest of town, finally lurching to a stop at the base of a mudstone hill after over an hour, a cattle watering station the only human structure in sight. There, MSU Paleontology grad students Jade Simon and Danny Barta led our group and college-aged Shindig volunteers through a brief history of the Hell Creek Formation, pointing out the strata that bore microfossils. Spreading out along the steep bluff, the newly-minted amateurs learned to differentiate between ‘normal’ rocks and fossils, finding such remains as gar scales, fish vertebrae, turtle shell fragments, alligator scoots (the bulbous ridges found on their backs), bits of dinosaur bone, and petrified wood.
The best find of the morning went to the littlest paleontologist, a six-year-old boy who found a Hadrosaur toe bone protruding from the fine dirt beneath sagebrush (photo, top). After a picnic lunch, Simon, adorned with a jaunty bandana and a fitting Archeopteryx tattoo, demonstrated the proper techniques of excavation so as not to damage the specimen that will be added to the museum’s collection.
Piling back into the vehicles, the group jostled their way across the landscape to a neighboring hill where a Triceratops frill and spike had been spotted about 20 feet up the steep slope. Scott Williams of the Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford, Illinois, led a demonstration of larger fossil excavation, placing particular attention on the fragility of bones that have been exposed and weathered by the elements. The vehicles on the return trip were filled with sleepy people, content that they had partaken in a genuine paleontological dig, finding parts of animals that had roamed the warm, moist shores of an inland seaway 60 million years before humans set foot in contemporary Carter County.
As I drove home to Bozeman on Sunday morning, I reflected on the communal nature of the Carter County inhabitants. It seemed that every person in town pitched in for the Dino Shindig, exuding a palpable love for each other and pride in the world-famous fossil beds. So many Montana towns have dried up over the course of the last century, with Main Street after Main Street of empty storefronts and deserted schoolyards. Ekalaka, against the odds, seems to be hanging on, out there adrift in the rolling landscape.
As I made the left-hand turn at Baker onto Highway 12, I remembered a moment from one of Friday’s expert talks. An audience member asked what they should do if they find fossils on their property, not an unreasonable question for an inhabitant of the area. A voice in the audience quipped, “Call Nate!” to general laughter and agreement, demonstrating the community’s pride in their homegrown boy who, by no accident, has returned home to curate the local museum. That same spark of enthusiasm that Nate Carroll embodies was visible in numerous youngsters at the Shindig, giving me hope for the Carter County Museum and that little place called Ekalaka.