Bones in the Brewery

A Paleontologist's Rendezvous with History and Prehistory in St. Louis

Expedition Headquarters

Expedition Headquarters: the fine old De Menil house, a historical landmark standing near the entrance to the natural caves beneath St. Louis’ 13th Street and Cherokee

Lee Hess

George Gaylord Simpson had youthful ambitions to become a man of letters, but a geology course at the University of Colorado awakened his interest in bone-digging and eventually led to his following that career. In 1922 he transferred to Yale, where he completed his undergraduate work in 1923 and received his doctorate in 1926. After a year abroad as a National Research Council fellow, he came to the American Museum as an assistant curator in 1927, where he has remained ever since, except for a period of military service in 1942–1944. He became Curator of Fossil Mammals in 1942 and Chairman of the Department of Geology and Paleontology in 1944. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Sciences and of the American Philosophical Society, president of the Society for the Study of Evolution, and past president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. He has written more than 200 scientific articles and books. In 1934 the field diary he had kept of his experiences in Patagonia as leader of the first Scarritt Expedition of 1930–1931 gave fruit in his lively and fascinating book, Attending Marvels. —Ed [1946]

Three currents of history meet at the corner of 13th and Cherokee Streets in St. Louis, Missouri. South of Cherokee, where 13th does not run through, there is now an immense shoe factory. On the northeast corner of the intersection, there is a large but apparently rather plain brick house. The northwest corner is a lot with only one small structure, which looks like a one-car garage. Each of these buildings is more than it seems to be because each has a historical significance. The shoe factory was formerly a brewery: it recalls a current of history that started in the Rhineland, more than a century ago. The house turns its plain side to the street but when viewed from the east, within its own spacious grounds, it is seen to be a stately mansion with a graceful, pillared portico: its history traces back through the De Menils and the Chouteaus to the pioneer days of the Mississippi. The apparent garage is really the entrance to a cave that rambles beneath the surrounding buildings: its history is the most ancient of all, and in it are buried animals that lived before man ever saw the site of St. Louis.

Our introduction to this convergence of history at 13th and Cherokee Streets began with a letter. Lee Hess, a pharmaceutical manufacturer in St. Louis, wrote to say that he had found some bones in the cellar of a brewery. Would the Museum be interested? Many such letters come to a curator’s desk. Nine times out of ten, they do not lead to anything of value, but we always follow them up as far as possible because the tenth letter may be a clue to an important scientific discovery. We wrote to Mr. Hess asking him to send some of the bones so that we could determine their possible importance.

The bones sent to us had been considerably broken by the workmen who found them, but when we pieced them together in the laboratory we found that they included a skull of an extinct peccary, Platygonus compressus by name. Now, Platygonus is not a particularly rare fossil. Its remains had already been found in many places throughout the United States. For instance, 22 skulls (12 of them nearly complete) had been collected for the United States National Museum in a cave near Cumberland, Maryland, 5 partial skeletons had been found in a peat bog near Belding, Michigan, and 9 nearly complete skeletons had been discovered at Goodland, Kansas, in the clay-pit of a brickyard, and sent to the University of Kansas. One of the Kansas skeletons, obtained from the University by the American Museum of Natural History, was restored and mounted in a lifelike pose and has been exhibited here for years.

In spite of these and other previous discoveries, we became quite excited about the bones from St. Louis. Platygonus had never turned up in a beer cellar before, and extinct animals are rarely found in the heart of a great city. How they came to be there was a mystery worth solving, and we resolved to go to St. Louis and try to clear up the mystery with a little geological detective work. I wrote to Mr. Hess asking whether more bones remained in place and whether we could come out and investigate the find. His reply assured us that many bones remained to be excavated and cordially invited us to study the occurrence. In a few days George O. Whitaker, of our fossil vertebrate laboratory, and I were off for what turned out to be an unexpectedly fascinating rendezvous with history, ancient and recent.

Mr. Hess met us in St. Louis and drove us immediately to the De Menil mansion, the historic home at 3352 South 13th Street. This house, unoccupied but restored by Mr. Hess with sufficient modernization for comfort, was our camp throughout our stay: a camp such as a bone-digger has seldom enjoyed in his wildest dreams of luxury. Before we were through, it was also our bone laundry, shellackery, and packery. Here we dropped at once into an atmosphere of old St. Louis of the pioneer days before the Civil War. The house was originally built in the 1840’s by Henri Chatillon, a western guide and hunter of that period. In 1854 it was purchased by Dr. Nicholas N. De Menil, and in 1863 he enlarged it by adding several spacious rooms and the magnificent portico on the east side, overlooking his large garden and the slope of Arsenal Hill down to the Mississippi.

Nicholas De Menil, who had come to America on a visit (which proved to be life-long) in 1833, was a physician who established the first successful chain of drugstores in St. Louis and became one of the aristocrats of that growing center. He married Emily Sophia Chouteau, linking his family with the real pioneers of the region, for she was the great-granddaughter of Marie Therese Chouteau, the first white woman to settle in St. Louis and still revered as the mother of that city.

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