Fenske Mastodon Site

The Fenske site is located in Somers township Kenosha County, WI.  The first report of this find is found in an article on the front page of the Kenosha Evening News dated June 26, 1919.  J. R. Maurer, the station agent of the Northwestern Railroad and his work crew on the previous day (June 25) were in the process of digging a sewer line under the railroad tracks near Bain Station approximately one mile north of the Burlington Road.  The work crew unearthed a large femur bone and several additional bones.  Mr. Maurer stated that the bones were located " just a few feet under the surface " and were in an excellent state of preservation.  Mr. Maurer removed the femur and a vertebra that was estimated as being 12 inches across, and brought them to the office of the Kenosha Evening News.

The size of femur measured 49 inches in length and 25 inches in circumference and weighed approximately 75 pounds (most likely due to its water content).  The bones  drew a large crowd and plans were made to temporarily display them in a local store front window.  The State Historical Society in Madison was contacted and asked to send a representative to identify the bones and to direct the excavation of the rest of the skeletal remains.  It was speculated at the time that the bones would be sent to the State museum in Madison, as had all previous finds in Kenosha county since the city lacked a museum at this time.

After the initial discovery in 1919, the historical record of the Fenske find undergoes a period of seven years where no information exists.  It is possible that future archival research may clear up the unanswered question of why the Fenske site was not excavated at that time.

No further information on this site exists until an article appears in the Kenosha Evening News dated June 29, 1926.  This article raises more questions as inaccuracies and mysteries surface.  Starting with the recovery of the Fenske femur bone during the process of the demolition of the old Rhode Opera House:  How did it find its way there?  Was it used as a prop as some have speculated?

The only explanation is that in the June 29, 1926 story the bone was improperly measured.  Additionally, another question arises as to what happened to the large vertebrae that was recovered at the same time?  Was it lost?  Was it sent to the State Museum in Madison where it now resides in a drawer, or is it collecting dust on some shelf?  Or was it overlooked during the demolition of the opera house?

The personnel involved in the demolition contacted Mr. Fred Becker, who at the time was the custodian of the Kenosha County Courthouse, as they knew him to possess what might be considered a private museum of local artifacts in the basement of the courthouse building.

Mr. Becker went to the demolition site and retrieved the bone that at this time was described as weighing 35lbs and having a length of 3 ft 6 inches long.  Here the discrepancies between the two newspapers start to appear.  The 1919 article stated that a Mr. J. D. Maurer the station agent, and his work crew were digging a sewer line under the railroad tracks, and the bones were found "Just a few feet under the surface", while the July 1, 1926 article in the Kenosha Telegraph Courier describes an encounter between Mr. Becker and an old friend who claimed to have been present when the bones were discovered (member of the work crew?).  His account of the find varied in his statement that "the rest of the skeleton is there", and that "I can take you to the exact spot", and that the bones were found six feet under the surface (not a few feet?) while digging a ditch alongside of the railroad right-of-way (not a sewer line under the tracks?), and that a Mr. Drissel was the work crew leader (what happened to Mr. J. D. Mauer?).  Just who led the work crew gets further confusing, in the Kenosha Evening News article dated June 29, 1926.  When Mr. Becker decides to try to locate and excavate the remaining skeleton, he went to the Bain Station Depot and spoke with Mr. Archie J. Murphy, the signal maintainer of the railway.  Mr. Murphy claimed that it was not Pat Drissel who was in charge of the construction gang that found the bones.  He stated it was Tim Drissel who was Pats father, and that before Tim Drissel died he had showed him the location where the bones were found.  Mr.. Murphy then took Mr. Becker to that spot.  Mr. Becker then requested and received permission from Mr. William J. Kiltz who at the time the local agent for the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad Company.  

The weight difference between the first story of 75 lbs and the second story of it being 35 lbs can probably be explained due to the loss of water in the bone.  The loss of 6 inches is a little more difficult to explain as the Fenske femur is on display in the new Kenosha Public Museum and still measures the full 49 inches.  

Copies of original black and white photos of the 192x attempt by Mr. Fred Becker to locate and excavate the Fenske site:

Click on the image to enlarge

In 1991 Mr. David Wassion while examining the mammoth bones at the Kenosha Public Museum noticed strange markings on the Fenske femur that appeared to him to be man-made with stone tools.  He brought this to the attention of the museum's curator, Mr. Daniel J. Joyce.  Mr. Joyce agreed that most of the mammoth bones that were in the museum's collection, specifically the bones from the Schaeffer site, Fenske site, and Mud Lake site had distinctive cut marks that could only be explained by their location and shape as actual butchering marks made by stone tools.

Mr. Joyce then contacted Mr. David F. Overstreet of the Great Lakes Archeological Research Center and asked him to look at them.  As Mr. Overstreet had been doing work on stone tools in the area at the time, he agreed that the markings on the bones did appear to be from butchering activity.  Later, scientific analysis determined that these bones from these sites were butchered by Paleoindians.

Mr. Overstreet sent in a bone fragment said to have come from the Fenske site to Thomas W. Stafford Jr. who ran two AMS-XAD purified collagen dates on this fragment.  The tests produced the dates of 13,470 +/- 50 BP and 13,510 +/- BP.  In 2000, Mr. Joyce removed a sample from the shaft of the Fenske femur, and sent it to Stafford Research Laboratories for retesting.  Two more tests produced dates of 11,230 +/- 40 BP and 11,220 +/- 40 BP.  This discrepancy in dates can only be explained by wondering whether this bone fragment was from the Fenske site or did it actually come from the Mud Lake site bones as the two older dates fit perfectly in the date range that was run on the Mud Lake bones.  The historical record only speaks to the removal of one vertebra and a femur bone from this site.

In 1992 and 1993 Mr. Overstreet and Dr. Sverdrup tried to use remote sensing equipment at this site.  Although they were able to locate potential anomalies, the Fenske site remains as one of many unexcavated Paleo-Indian butchered mastodon/mammoth sites in Kenosha County, Wisconsin.

In the spring of 2003, the Fenske femur was definitively identified as a mastodon by archaeological experts.

Two new cores were taken from the Fenske femur and sent to Stafford Research Laboratories who did the chemistry and to Lawrence Livermore Laboratories for the AMS processing.  The two new dates are 11,230 +/- 50 RCYBP and 11,220 +/- 40 RCYBP.  These new dates correspond well  with the earlier core dates and with other mastodon dates in the area. 


2000 - 2004 Butterbrodt/Joyce



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