By Mark Clark
Editor’s Note: Russell County has a long history that is important to the State of Alabama and its evolvement from an area described in the book “Russell County in Retrospect” by Anne Kendrick Walker as a “barbaric land” to what it is today. Many of the people who set their roots in the county in its early days including the state’s first Territorial Delegate to the United States Congress, important Native Americans who paid with their lives to cede land that created the county, a family that started a place of higher learning in south Russell County that later led to the establishment of one of the state’s most known institutions of education today and a former slave who placed a monument to honor his former owner, are very much important to the formation of Alabama. The story that follows is another of a series to inform you – our readers – about the history of Russell County.
Long before I knew the man, I knew the boy – Butch Anthony – whose father once operated a small restaurant in Seale called the Possum Trot. It is the same Butch Anthony who has become a famous folk artist and who brought the once annual Doo-Nanny festival to the central Russell County community.
That is who Butch Anthony has become – none world-wide for his unique outlook on items most people would refer to as junk. Butch Anthony sees the items as potential objects of art. He makes his living doing this work. But, the Butch Anthony I first met was a 15-year-old explorer, looking for shark teeth and such around his home community. It was one such outing with a friend that brought the then youngster to my attention.
Back in July of 1979, Butch Anthony and Joe Kunze were exploring a creek in Seale when they made the discovery of a Mosasaur vertebra. The 65 million year old fossil was seen by Anthony protruding from the creek’s bank. He pulled out a pocket knife to dig the item free of its location. He knew he had made a discovery, but not a 65 million year old discovery.
“We were out looking for shark’s teeth when I saw it. I knew it was old, but I had no idea it would be 65 million years old. Only a piece of it was showing. I took out my knife and dug it out of the ground,” Anthony told me at the time.
Still, Anthony had no idea just what he had found. The vertebra was authenticated by Dr. Daniel Womochel, a geologist at Auburn University. Dr. Womochel estimated the age of the vertebra. He also said finding the remains of such a large and prehistoric animal in the area is rare.
“Dr. Womochel said it was a rare find for the area. He said he was aware of the fossil beds which are located here, but that nothing like this had been found,” Anthony said at the time.
Dr. David Schwimmer, a geologist at Columbus State – then known as Columbus College – also said the find was rare, but not “unexpected.”
“It has been determined the area south of Phenix City and Columbus and to the east of the area was once totally underwater. We have found a large number of fossils in the area, but none from such a large prehistoric creature. Most of the fossils found have been from extinct oysters which were common to the area. I found one the other day which measured a foot and a half wide. To my knowledge there has not been any fossil like the vertebra found in the Chattahoochee Valley. There have been remains of large prehistoric reptiles found in Kansas and in Alabama. Those in Alabama were found in the Selma Chalk region. Fossils of marine reptiles are not common to the area. But, just because they are not common does not mean they do not exist. This area was totally underwater at one point in history and large marine reptiles roamed in the waters around here. It’s about time the larger animals began to appear. There is no reason they should not exist,” Dr. Schwimmer said.
After the authentication of the Mosasaur vertebra, Anthony and Kunze have found another smaller vertebra and another bone. Previously, the two, who have only spent time out looking for fossils on four or five occasions have been successful in finding what they were seeking. They have found shark’s teeth estimated at 80 million years old, sand dollars, gastropods and camel’s teeth.
“We knew we had found teeth, but never expected them to be from camels. Dr. Womochel identified them and said they were anywhere from 20 thousand years old to three million years old,” Kunze, who was 27 at the time, said.
The two explorers are reluctant to divulge the location where they found the Mosasaur vertebra for fear others would destroy the area.
Anthony said we wanted to display the fossil he found, but did not want it to be displayed too far from Seale. Until he decides what he should do with the fossil, he does not want the fossil out of sight. He plans to take it to school in the fall to show friends.
Anthony said he was excited to find the Mosasaur vertebra and planned to continue searching for more fossils during the remainder of the summer and then on weekends after school starts.
Dr. Schwimmer wanted to make it clear that the Mosasaur was not a dinosaur. It is a marine creature – much like the Monitor lizard found in Africa, South Asia and Australia. However, Mosasaurs grew to lengths of 30 feet. The vertebra found by Anthony was eight inches long and five inches wide.