Imagine a time, some 16,000 years ago, when the city of Chicago and much of the nearby area was covered by a lake, the ancestor of today’s Lake Michigan. The northeastern shore of this lake is the retreating edge of the huge glacial ice sheet that had until recently covered the area. The western shore is a low beach ridge, running through what is now Forest Park and Oak Park, made of sand and gravel left behind when the glacier retreated. And walking near the beach is a mammoth, who is soon to die and leave its carcass along the shore. Its decayed remains will become part of the gravel in the ridge. Some 2,000 years later the lake will retreat from the area, forming another shoreline just to east, before eventually reaching its current extent. By that time all mammoths, as well as their distant cousins the mastodons, will have vanished not only from Illinois, but from the Earth.
The mammoth’s remains would lay in the ground until the mid-19th century. In 1856, Ferdinand Haase opened a picnic ground on what are now the Forest Home and German Waldheim Cemeteries. As described by the guide to the cemeteries published by the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest, Haase mined the old beach ridge for gravel to sell to a railroad, that in return built a spur line to his park. At some point he unearthed the fragment of the mammoth; as described by his daughter-in-law Pauline Haase in 1906 in the Oak Leaves: “These fragments of bones tell of animals of immense proportions, undoubtedly the mastodon. These specimens are apparently pieces of the tusk. They were found on the Haase property about 150 yards east of the Desplaines river in a gravel bed. They were contained in a stratum about 10 feet below the surface of the ground.” Beyond this notice, the remains were never mentioned again or scientifically described. The ridge itself is gone.
I first became aware of the mammoth when I noticed a fragment of tooth displayed at the Hemingway Museum in Oak Park, with a label indicating it came from the Forest Home Cemetery and was on loan from the Forest Park Public Library. Intrigued, I made my way over to the library, where there were on display numerous fragments of mammoth teeth, as well as a tusk. Mammoth teeth are easily distinguished from those of the mastodons; the teeth of the former resemble old-fashioned washboards, whereas the latter look like small hills. The specimens were in poor condition, with the ivory of the tusk crumbling. Along with a suite of archeological artifacts, the fossils were donated by the Haase family in 1968.
Excited by this discovery, I informed the expert on mammals and mammoths at the Illinois State Museum. He told me that there was a mastodon from the same site at the Chicago Academy of Sciences. At the first opportunity I made my way to the Academy and found a fragment of tusk, with the label “Mastodon americanus; Portion of Tusk; Forest Home Cemetery, Chicago, Il.; Carl Dilg”. The label contained two errors; first, the cemetery is not in Chicago! Second, it was not a mastodon. An examination of the ivory showed a pattern that was distinctly that of a mammoth. My assumption is that the tusk belongs to the same animal as in the Forest Park Library. Carl Dilg, by the way, was an amateur archeologist from Chicago. Perhaps he convinced the Haase family to donate the tusk fragment to the museum.
It is exciting to think that these ancient elephant relatives once walked so close to our homes. Unfortunately, the fossils are no longer on display. The Hemingway Museum is closed and the Forest Park Public Library has put its specimens into storage.
What you can see at the library is a beautiful updated display of the archeological materials that also come from the Forest Home cemetery; much of this is “trade silver” from about 1800. These artifacts have a distressing back story. There once was a Native American burial mound on the land. As again described by Pauline Haase: “four scores of graves have in the course of local improvements been unearthed and their contents of peace and warfare have been exposed…each mound contained about 10 bodies…unfortunately the entire hill has been removed and the material used in the reclamation of the river lowlands.” Records kept at the library suggest that this “material” included the skeletons. Only two skulls, whereabouts currently unknown, were saved, as was the trade silver and other artifacts. This was a typical fate for the numerous Native American mounds and remains throughout the Midwest. Grudging respect for the remains of our predecessors in this country is only of recent vintage.
Roy Plotnick is a resident of Oak Park and a professor of paleontology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.