we travel I try and look ahead for things of interest that we can write a story
about. As we went across Kansas I thought I had remembered hearing something
about a fort in Hays, Kansas. Well, we stopped in Hays and didn't do a story on
the Fort, however the Sternberg Museum turned out to be a real find.
We learned that the history of the museum began just one year after the founding of Fort Hays University. As early as 1903 artifacts and taxidermy mounts dotted several officers on campus . The first actual museum shared one-half of a large dividable room with the library beginning in 1904. In 1914 C. W. Miller, a local taxidermist was appointed as the first curator. By 1915, the library was in need of more space, and the displays were pushed aside to clear room for more study tables. W. A. Lewis, the college President, supported the idea of improving the museum as early as 1914. When a new library building was scheduled to open in 1927, Lewis stipulated that a portion of the first floor house an enhanced museum. Lewis chose George F. Sternberg to develop the new museum. George was living in Oakley and hunting fossils in western Kansas at the time. He was offered a salary of $25 a month to develop the museum and was provided the opportunity to maintain his fossil hunting business. He gladly accepted the offer. In 1928 he was named curator of the museum. The Sternberg family had a long history of fossil hunting, George, Levi, and Charles M., having followed in their famous father's footsteps. In 1952, George discovered the famous "Fish-Within-a-Fish", the most complete specimen of its kind known. He remained with the university museum until his retirement in 1962. After George's death in 1969, the museum was renamed in honor of the Sternberg Family. In 1991, Fort Hays State University acquired the "Dome" a defunct sports complex, which was given to the campus museum to develop as a modern state of the art scientific and educational facility. We learned from one of the guides at the museum that the water in the swimming pool hadn't been drained in the many years it sat vacant. After the pool was drained, renovation was then begun on the building and in 1994 all of the university museums were united under the Sternberg Museum of Natural History. It is hard to picture Kansas under Water but at one time (millions of years ago) a large inland sea covered much of the area that is now the Great Plains region (including Kansas). This was considered the Cretaceous Interior Seaway. Living in this tropical sea were large fish, reptiles, sharks, turtles, ammonites, and other unusual creatures. Today, preserved in the surface rocks of western Kansas, are the fossilized remains of many of these prehistoric creatures that lived 80 to 100 million years ago. The "Fish-within-a-Fish" that became one of the prizes of the Museum and indeed a real indication of George Sternberg's skill in collecting and preserving specimen is the tarpon-like fish, Xiphactinus. This fish was one of the largest fish that inhabited the Western Interior Seaway. It grew to lengths of eighteen feet. Their large size, elongated bodies, powerful tails, and bulldog-like jaws suggest that they were efficient predators. Xiphactinus had large fangs at the front of the mouth probably used to strike or impale prey during initial attack. It is estimated that the Xiphactinus lived about seventy million years ago. The specimen that is on display at the museum was so well preserved that they were able to show not only its skeleton but the skeleton of another fish inside it. This gave much speculation as to how quickly the change in the atmosphere occurred, actually freezing this large fish in the process of digesting his prey. As we looked at the specimen it was interesting to note George Sternberg's method of preserving the specimen. Much of what he did in collecting and preserving was along the lines of other fossil hunters. However, on presenting the specimen George did a background in a gold or sand color along with stippling that really added interest to it. The museum suggested that you start at the top (or 3rd floor) and work your way down. On the top floor we found a large display of dinosaurs, including a T-Rex. I had heard something about them being interactive but didn't understand what they meant until I started to walk by T-Rex. OH YEAH! interactive took on a whole new meaning. They had made the displays out of a rubberized surface and when you passed a hidden electric eye T-Rex started to move, opened his mouth and let out a sound reminiscent of "Jurassic Park". I let out a little shriek and Bob and the guide got a good chuckle. After that I figured at least I could have my picture taken with the beast. There were several areas that were aimed mostly at children but of course I couldn't resist looking around. In what was called the Discovery Room children were allowed to roam pretty much undeterred by adults. We discovered that some of the butterflies they had for display had just hatched out of the cocoons and were flying around the room. One decided to land on Bob (guess that's cause he's so sweet) and I was able to get a picture of him closely observing it. (That wasn't an easy task since he was carrying the camera in a pouch around his waist and I had to get it out without disturbing his new friend). I think the butterfly must have been a starlet wanna-be because as soon as I took the picture it flew away without a look back. After we went there we went through the various specimen on exhibit on the second floor, along with various other historical exhibits. They had a great exhibit about a Journey to South Africa. They also featured an area where they were doing archeological restorations. There was no one working while we were there but since we had seen other such sites we were familiar with most of the tools and techniques they employ. The first floor was mostly gift shop, entrance gate, and various meeting rooms. As we have learned in many other areas, don't take small areas or museums for granted. Many times you will find extremely interesting sights you never even imagined could be there.
For hours and admission call the Museum at 785-628-4286 or call toll-free at 1-877-332-1165. There is also information on the museum on the university's website at: www.fhsu.edu/sternberg .
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