In 1909 the University of Nebraska was expanding, slowly and surely absorbing all the lots, homes and businesses within the area from Vine to R, and from 18th to 10th streets.
There were still plenty of people’s homes in the neighborhood. One of them was at 1520 U St. A teacher named Jennie Kimmel lived there. It was a solid frame house with a spacious front porch, wood floors and a brick chimney, built when Lincoln underwent some of its greatest growth in the 1880s.
Kimmel’s children were grown and had moved away, and her husband had died two years earlier.
On a Saturday morning in October of that year, J.T. Sprat of the Jack Sprat Heater and Boiler Co. of Lincoln had been hired to install a new furnace in the basement. He and a couple of his employees were digging additional space for the installation. One of the workmen came upstairs. He said there were bones down there that they had uncovered, and they were huge. One wonders what Kimmel’s reaction must have been.
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They removed one of the bones to take to the recently built University of Nebraska State Museum, aka Morrill Hall, to see if they should be saved. They didn’t have to carry it far. The museum was across the street.
They were met there by Dr. E.H. Barbour, who had come to Nebraska from Yale in 1891 and was director of the new museum. Barbour identified the fossils as having been part of the skeleton of a Columbian Mammoth.
Barbour and a number of students went to work to remove the fossils, but their work was impeded by the home’s chimney, under which much of the skeleton lay. To excavate it, the house would have to be torn down. This was not an option at the time, and so, as the decades passed and as different residents moved in and out, it was all but forgotten that the basement was the resting place for a prehistoric giant – which for the time being would remain where it was.
Barbour provided the Lincoln Daily State Journal with a drawing of what the mammoth looked like when it was alive and inhabited the area that would ultimately become Lincoln, Nebraska.
The skeleton was still in the memory of Lincolnites. A Lincoln Evening Journal article printed in 1928 said that a resident of the house, Mrs. Rodman, was surprised to learn that the house had a mammoth skeleton underneath it. A reporter from the Daily State Journal shared that information with her. Perhaps the fact was not mentioned by the seller.
By the time the University finally bought up the property and razed the house, the memory of the fossils below it was still extant and, once the chimney was demolished, a team of paleontologists went to salvage the remainder of the skeleton.
Unfortunately, the remaining fossils had all but disintegrated by then and crumbled from exposure to the air. A tusk, the animal’s teeth, and some of the bones removed by Barbour’s team remained on display at Morrill Hall as part of the world renowned collection of mammoth and mastodon fossils — most of which had been found in Nebraska.
The tip of a tusk of Kimmel’s mammoth is still on exhibit there, in the renowned Elephant Hall.
Since then, near-complete mammoth skeletons have also been excavated in Lincoln from a gravel pit near what would become the Capitol Beach Amusement Park, and one from behind what is now the Super C at 33rd and Sheridan Boulevard.
Today, the site of Kimmel’s house is occupied by the Kauffman Academic Residential Center. Kimmel’s mammoth was there during the Ice Age, drinking from what we call Salt Creek and lumbering through the very space we walk through every day.
If one enters the search term “fossil skeleton found” into a digital database of Nebraska newspapers, it doesn’t take long to find plenty of articles about fossils found throughout our state — stories of paleontology expeditions and chance discoveries like Kimmel’s mammoth. Nebraska has a vast and varied fossil record — and there are countless discoveries yet to be made.
When you look at Nebraska, its sidewalks, streets, lawns, croplands, playgrounds and prairie, remember – that’s just the top of it.
Matt Piersol is a researcher in the reference department at History Nebraska. He says every square foot of this town has a story in it.