The Shukla family from Chicago was digging the dig in Waco on Thursday, touring the Waco Mammoth National Monument on a chamber-of-commerce afternoon of muted sunshine and mild temperatures.
“This is like a national treasure, a hidden gem,” said Barry Shukla, 46, after his walk back in time with wife Malti Shukla and their 9-year-old son.
He said he was most impressed by the natural setting, where a herd of Colombian mammoths met their death 65,000 years ago. Young ones probably drowned in rushing water, their mothers doomed in their attempts to rescue them. Partially buried remains, including tusks, rib cages, teeth, and their proximity to each other, provide insight into how they died, the stress they endured and the panic that overwhelmed their senses.
“Summer camps, exposure to future paleontological digs. We definitely would come back for those,” Malti Shukla said, nodding toward her son.
The Waco Mammoth National Monument, a 107-acre site off Steinbeck Bend Road that includes a walking trail, amphitheater, gift shop and climate-controlled dig shelter, is celebrating a decade of welcoming the public, including four years as part of the National Park System.
More than 100,000 visitors annually trek there to learn about the discovery that dates to 1978, involvement by the city of Waco and Baylor University, the significance of the find and where the project goes from here.
Most bones discovered there reside at the Mayborn Museum. Those remaining are still in their original position in the bone bed, making the area significant enough to receive national monument status from the National Park Service in 2015.
But backers believe its full potential remains untapped. They envision a children’s discovery center, a paleontology lab, more dig structures and digging, sit-down classroom space and a larger area to sell puzzles, backpacks, T-shirts, postcards, maps and “mini-pickaxe” pencils.
“Our little gift shop, all 60 square feet of it, generates a third of our revenue,” monument site manager Raegan King said.
Left unsaid, at least by King, is what a larger shop with an even wider selection could produce.
That in mind, the sixth annual Mammoths on the Move event scheduled Saturday at the monument will include a booth staffed by the Waco Mammoth Foundation. It hopes to attract members pledging $25 to $1,000 a year, a precursor to a possible capital improvements fundraising campaign in the near future, foundation Executive Director Chelsea Smith said.
“This past year has been what I would call a trial year,” Smith said. “We’ve found out what works, what doesn’t work, and hope to apply what we’ve learned about mounting a campaign. If memory serves, we have about 23 members now, most from Texas but a few from out of state. We’re talking now about getting 500 members the first year. We’ve established what I believe is a wonderful committee and are partnering with the Mayborn Museum and Cameron Park Zoo to talk about the benefits of membership.”
Smith said benefits may include $1 discounts on tickets to the zoo or Mayborn Museum, and invitations to amateur digs sponsored by the Dallas Paleontological Society, which will staff a booth at Saturday’s celebration.
“Our goal is to support the needs and goals of the site, and we need partners,” she said. “We are expanding our presence on social media, and I can tell you we already are seeing an uptick in postings and memberships.”
The group is determined to spread the message of Waco’s mammoth site, board member Gene Fisseler said. He is a Houston resident and brother of former Waco City Manager Dale Fisseler.
“This kicks off our big membership drive,” Gene Fisseler said. “We’ll have all these goodies on Saturday just for grins, but we’re determined to make the community part of us. We’re excited about the mammoth site, but we can’t do our work without cash flow. We’ve talked about adding an education center with sit-down classrooms, more trails, more nature walks. We have a very small store. Maybe we need more dig structures, more digs. We’re blasting our ideas everywhere and in any way we can, to Waco and its environs.”
During a guided tour Thursday, several visitors asked about resuming excavation of the site and expanding the dig. Tour guide Jeremy Holt, who drew raves from the crowd, said those advancements hinge on funding.
“This really is a neat place,” Baltimore resident Dawn McNeil said. “I saw a mammoth site in South Dakota when I was in high school, and it made an impression. We had to stop here.”
McNeil, 45, said she was part of a group “doing Waco things,” while visiting family members in Austin.
Phillip and Diane Roehler and their two sons, Nicholas and Alphonse, are visiting relatives in Belton from their home in Alamogordo, New Mexico, and made a side trip to Waco and the Waco Mammoth National Monument.
“I don’t know. This is impressive enough for me,” Phillip Roehler said when asked to comment on plans to improve the experience for visitors.
But Diane Roehler said she thought a life-size skeleton would prove enlightening, though she was complimentary of the huge drawings of Colombian mammoths that illustrate their massive size: 14 feet tall and weighing 10 tons.
Horst Roehler, 64, said he found interesting Holt’s discussion of sensations, sounds and feelings that permeated nature and its creatures during the Ice Age. Holt pointed out knots in bones, probably caused by rambunctious males during mating season. He pointed out the skeletal remains of an ancient camel, explaining that research has shown camels did roam North America, often accompanying mammoth herds and serving as scouts.
The camels had keen eyesight, but the mammoths did not.
Saturday’s free event will unfold from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the mammoth site, with attractions to include a petting zoo, egg scramble, painting activities sponsored by Home Depot and more. Guided tours will cost $5.
Anyone interested in supporting the Waco Mammoth Foundation is asked to visit wacomammothfoundation.org, or call 265-5200.