EKALAKA — By the time Kirsten Johnson and her colleagues finish cutting, shaping and painting the 120-plus vertebrae of the Mosasaur model taking shape in the Carter County Museum warehouse, the backbone of the giant sea reptile will be 30 to 35 feet long.
Johnson, a film student from New Hampshire, will slide the perfectly fitted vertebrae down a metal tube at Montana State University designed to resemble the spinal cord of a creature that hunted in the last of the great inland seas 70 to 80 million years ago.
It’s all in a summer’s work for a cadre of museum staff, community volunteers and Montana State University students and graduates who embarked on an ambitious program to transform the Ekalaka museum for a new era.
The amount of work accomplished in a matter of a few weeks is astounding. At the warehouse recently updated by the county, Derek Brouwer, a recent MSU graduate, has turned jack-of–all trades, building display cases, helping clear the warehouse, putting together an advertising campaign and helping to shape museum policy.
Sabre Moore, also a 2013 MSU graduate, has redesigned and rewritten interpretive signs on the museum’s impressive collections of Stone Age tools and arrowheads. She dug into the museum vault for rare pottery shards centuries old.
“She’s added so much context to what we have,” said the museum’s new full-time director, Chioko Hammel. “She’s added a lot of content from the tribes.”
Outside the museum walls, Hannah Pearce’s native and heritage gardens,
planted in June, are showing signs of life. The heritage garden, planted with seeds that early settlers would have used, is flourishing with vegetables that aren’t quite modern, but are recognizable.
Getting the soil ready for planting was literally a ton of work, Pearce said.
“I took an incredible amount of rocks out of the soil,” she said while showing off the two small gardens. “I probably took out over a ton of rock.”
High school sophomore Stew Cook has volunteered during the last two summers, helping get the museum, warehouse and bone collection in shape. Sometimes fire crews waiting on a late wildfire season stop by to help.
Steve Hobe, a student from Carthage College in Wisconsin, is working in the area with a paleontology crew from his school, and spends a lot of time at the museum writing display panels.
Marilyn Schultz, the museum’s assistant director, may have one of the hardest tasks of all. She is trying to digitize 70 years worth of records of the sites where the museum’s vast collection of fossils was found. To meet Bureau of Land Management standards, she must classify and catalog everything taken from public lands.
“It’s tedious work, but we’re having fun,” she said.
It’s hard not to have fun with the energy radiated by the MSU volunteers and especially by project leader Nathan Carroll, an Ekalaka native and paleontology graduate student at MSU.
He’s an encyclopedia of fossil science, and knows the museum’s bone collection inside and out. During the last two summers, with the help of his team of volunteers, the chaos of the warehouse has been tamed.
“There used to just a couple of cow paths through here,” he said of the spacious county building, “Everything was on the floor or sitting on old 2-by-4s between sawhorses.”
The county helped clear the trash out of the warehouse and Carroll and his crew built shelves from salvaged wood. Everything came off the floor and onto orderly shelves. Enough space was cleared to assemble large dinosaurs.
Work tables are lined with casts of fossils brought to the museum decades ago and never opened. Carroll and his team have started working to remove the layers of plaster that preserved them when taken from the field.
There were some big surprises when Carroll started examining the collection. In early July, he identified a mass of fused vertebrae that fixed an enormous club to the tail of an unusual armored dinosaur. The club portion was not found, but few have been.
“The exciting thing was this was just a random find for us,” he said.
Spread out across the warehouse are fragments of Mosasaur bone, a Tyrannosaurus rex leg bone, the skull of a triceratops, fossilized turtles and ancient sea creatures.
Most of the workers are unpaid, although donors have provide them with a bunkhouse and plenty of food. Carroll said he only asks that they work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but they are such an enthusiastic crews, they usually end up working seven days a week, and well into the night.
“The lights are on late some nights,” Carroll said.
Transformation of the museum won’t end this summer. Carroll and his crew have plans for an addition to the museum that would enlarge its dinosaur hall, providing more space for mounted dinosaurs and casts of major Carter County finds in museums and universities around the country. It would also have a workstation that could be used by museum staff and paleontologists who come from around the world every summer to explore the brimming fossil fields of Carter County and the Hell Creek geologic formation.
Public support for the museum is huge, Carroll said, and the county commissioners have always been supportive. He’s talking with commissioners now about applying for a long-term, low-interest federal loan so that work on the addition can begin sooner rather than later.
“It’s doing things a lot of things people want to see happen,” he said. “We hope people will keep coming to us with things they find. A lot of ranchers are willing to donate a fossil if they know it will stay in the community.”