The fossil hunter from Mount Blanco
Collecting fossils can be dangerous. But when your livelihood depends on it, as it does for 46-year-old Joe Taylor, you simply take the risks.
‘I’ve fallen several times and broken bones. I’ve poked holes in my fingers digging, stepped on rattlesnakes, been chased by bumblebees, and had cliffs fall on top of me.’
But this is all part of a day’s work for Joe Taylor. Joe runs a fossil business in Crosbyton, on the high plains of west Texas known as the Panhandle. Crosbyton, called ‘cowtown’ by the locals, is Joe’s home town 300 miles west of Dallas, 150 miles north of Abilene, and a few hours’ drive south from Amarillo. Out past farms of cotton, wheat, and grain sorghum, the land drops steeply into canyons which contain many fossil beds. This is Joe’s fossil-hunting territory.
In one major canyon the landmark is a prominent white hill called Mount Blanco. ‘Blanco Canyon was at one time filled with a host of animals foreign to today’s west Texas environment’, Joe says. He has made some exciting fossil discoveries there, and has found a unique way to share his fossil finds with others: he makes copies of his best fossils and sells them.
Joe began making realistic plaster casts of his most fascinating fossils. He found that other people were interested in these genuine-looking reproductions too. So in 1986 Joe set up Mt Blanco Fossil Casts. He has sold his casts to museums, private collectors, scientific laboratories, children, and families looking for an unusual possession or talking point.
Joe’s business is housed in a big old 13-room Texan house.
‘It was a mansion in its day, and is still one of the largest and oldest houses in Crosbyton.’
Joe’s 22-year-old secretary, Kern Marshall, runs the business office from the house, which is also Joe’s home. The casting work is done in the outbuildings around Joe’s house.
‘Kern does all the secretarial work and helps put out our catalogue, Mt Blanco News. I dig the fossils, restore, mould and cast them.’
Buried in the Blood
Joe is a creationist to the bone. He says he couldn’t be anything else, because everything he finds in the fossil business fits so well with the biblical account of creation and Noah’s Flood.
‘The most exciting part of my work is actually finding marvelously preserved animal remains which were buried in the world-wide Flood of Noah’s day. Another exciting part is being able to reproduce those same fossils and make them look like the real thing.’
Joe knows all the local ranchers, who give him access to the local fossil beds.
‘I also have an “in” with many museums, and they let me mould their specimens’
Fellow fossil collectors often lend him fossils, or commission him to mould and cast their prized specimens.
Some of Joe’s fossil replicas are spectacular. He has cast the world’s largest bison horns from an animal which had a horn-spread as wide as two automobiles! Joe estimates this creature must have weighed as much as an elephant. He says the horn-cores of this bison, at the base of the skull, are larger than most mammoth tusks. He had to use several kinds of reinforced plasters in reproducing it, and cast a steel bar into the skull and horn-cores. The original skull is on display at the Panhandle Plains Museum in Canyon, Texas.
Joe has casts of sabre-toothed tiger skulls, giant pig tusks, jaws of a peccary (a type of pig), dinosaur teeth (and dinosaur tracks from the famous Paluxy River limestone), a male Apache skull, a giant hyena jaw, huge extinct reptile skulls, and much more. Joe will give you a dinosaur tooth cast for a few dollars, and a giant hyena jaw for $14. But if you want those huge bison horns, you’ll have to pay for a lot of material and hard work they’re going for $1225! After Joe moulds his fossils he has to decide on colouring material to make them look like the originals.
‘I even bury some casts of buffalo skulls in mud and let the soil colour them.’
The most unusual cast Joe has made is of the hind leg of a tiny three-toed horse Nannipus phelegan. He found remnants of six of them in the Blancan Formation in 1986. This little horse stood only about 75 centimetres (30 inches) high. ‘It is strange’. Joe says, ‘to see a little fossil horse with 12 hooves instead of four.’ He had to separately cast 22 bones of this tiny horse’s leg from the tibia down. The splint bones were thinner than a toothpick, and some bones were tinier than a pea!
Life has not been a completely easy ride for Joe. He has been severely affected with hay fever since he was a child.
Joe had ambitions to be a musician, artist and writer. He is talented in all these areas. But hay fever has been his greatest physical obstacle.
‘My allergies to dust, weeds, horses and cows were hard to live with around here, so mother and pa sent me away to art school.’
Sneezing fits and searing pains in his eyes and head have now nearly ruined his left eye.
‘It has almost blinded me at times, and almost driven me to the point of madness at others.’
Joe has gladly given a lot of his time and talent to Christian causes. He has had some financial difficulties, and is now struggling to build up his fossil cast business.
Joe and Kern have now learnt to ‘over-pack’ after some costly breakages.
‘Scraping together enough money for initial magazine ads and mould materials has been difficult. Also shipping fragile casts so they don’t break has been a headache.’
Joe still does a lot of art work and public speaking on art and fossils to help fund the fossil business. But he says that with the Lord’s help things are improving. He says he is happy to use whatever abilities he has to help spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to convince people the Bible is true and dependable historically and scientifically. He believes that the world-wide Flood of Noah’s time is responsible for most of the fossils he finds.
‘When the flood-water abated it recut the rivers and valleys, and exposed the layers the water had just laid down. That is why we can go almost anywhere in the world and go down 12 feet or a thousand feet and find Flood evidence such as layers of coal or animal fossils.’
He believes the biblical description fits modern science well.
‘It certainly fits what I have found in my own diggings.’
Joe has never married, although he admits he would have liked to have married and had children. He still hasn’t met the right woman, but says that through God’s interesting way of doing things he has had lots of local children ‘adopt’ him. His hay fever meant he could never work in an office among cigarette smoke or perfume, so he worked from home.
‘My studio and house became a place for the local kids to come for cookies and milk. I became “this guy who is kind of like our Dadâ€?.’
One of the children who ‘adopted’ him was 8-year-old Kern, who is now his valuable 22-year-old secretary.
Joe has never doubted the truth of creation. He was raised in a strong Christian home in the Mt Blanco community. His father was a cowboy in the last of the Old West cattle days in the 1930s, who hung up his spurs in 1955 to become a Primitive Baptist preacher.
‘Going to church meetings hundreds of miles away was our favorite activity.’
If the fossil evidence fits so well with Joe’s creationist beliefs, what does he think of evolution?
‘Students should not be made to subscribe to any religion, so students shouldn’t be forced to accept the religion of evolution and humanism in our public schools.’
He believes that students certainly should be taught about Darwin and evolutionary beliefs, but that no one should be forced to accept evolutionary theories as fact.
‘When it becomes illegal to even explain that there are beliefs besides evolution about life’s origin I revolt at such non-academic nonsense.’
Joe sees his fossil-hunting finds as clear confirmation of the world-wide Flood of Noah’s time, as described in the Book of Genesis. He loves finding the fossils, identifying them, and being able to provide others with inexpensive casts of such evidence for the Flood.
‘I feel privileged at being able to excavate them.’