Paleontologist Donates Entire Collection to Calhoun Library
Interview by Gary Cox

June 2008

  “When these go into the display, it will complete the largest, most diverse public display of fossil life from Calhoun County’s Chipola Formation in the world.”  With these words, Harry Yingst placed into my hands his treasure for their return home to Calhoun County.
            I met Harry when our daughter Jennifer married her sweetheart, Brian, up in Georgia.  I think it was unplanned that Harry sat beside me the first time we met.  It was very intentional after that.  I was told that Harry made a living as the owner of a printing business in Sandy Springs, but his passion was always uncovering and identifying fossils.  When he started talking about excavating along Ten Mile Creek, I hesitated before asking, “In Calhoun County?”
            Then I remembered a young scholar in my seventh grade Science class years ago named Derek Hagler.  As Derek did research for what turned out to be an amazing science fair project, his journey led him to a professor at FSU who directed him to a book written in the 1800’s which described the rich fossil deposits found in the “Chipola Formation”.  His curiosity led him to group the species he found at each stratum of this formation located behind his home.
            Harry’s stories of nature’s dangers, encounters with the local folks and world travels would make a fascinating book.  However, his focus is to receive the long awaited certificate that acknowledges him as the discoverer of a unique specie which will be named after him and also to transfer the Chipola Collection back to the Public Library in Blountstown which has prepared a display case for his treasure.

            The following is an informal interview recorded as we sat around before dinner one evening:

Q.- Harry, how did you become interested in collecting fossils?
A.- I had taken a course in historical geology in college. On our field trips, we would collect 450 million year old Ordovician age fossils which were very abundant in southwest Ohio. It wasn’t long before I got the "Bug".

Q.- What do you do with these fossils once you pick them up or collect them?
A.- Well, once you get them home you have to clean them, identify them, make identification labels, and then mount them in your collection. I call the tiniest, ornate fossils “God’s artwork”.  At some collecting sites, we would fill several buckets with the matrix as the fossils are very small. We then washed the dirt and sand away with water using a garden hose through a window screen.  Then we were ready to have fun picking out these small fossils.

Q.- Is this the procedure you used to collect here in Calhoun County?
A.- The way we collected here was to wade into the creeks and dig sand from the creek banks into four sided screens. Then we dipped the screens into the water. The sand was washed out and all that was left were fossils. There could be a few or none at all.

Q.- Is there anything different about collecting in Calhoun County?
A.- Oh, yes. During the eight years I came to the Chipola sites, I collected in two areas that are quite unique as they represent two different environments that existed 16 - 18 million years ago."  The shallow inland seas that covered Calhoun County during the Miocene developed two different environments about 16 to 18 million years ago. Ten Mile Creek Site was a lagoonal environment. The water would wash off the land into what you might call a bay or saline pond. This water was full of clay. The result was that when the animals inhabiting this estuary died, they became encrusted with the clay sediments.  It had the effect of wrapping these fossils with "Saran" plastic. Consequently, the Ten Mile Creek fossils are exactly the same size and color as the day they died millions of years ago.  Now, Farley Creek, on the east side of the Chipola, was a whole different environment in that south of Farley Creek was a large reef.  So, north of the reef where Farley Creek is now, the water was very turbid and rushing. The fossils found here are somewhat worn from the constant abrasion from the sand and swirling water. Interestingly, while in close proximity, most of the animals that lived in the Farley Creek environment could not have existed in the Ten Mile environment. The Farley Creek sands are a cream color whereas the Ten Mile Creek sands have a slate gray color.
Q.- Does your wife share your enthusiasm for collecting fossils?
A.- My wife supports me very much in my fossil collecting. However, trooping through
rock quarries, up and down creeks, and hunting at highway roadcuts are not her cup of tea.  (Harry stopped to tell me stories of falling into an unseen cavern in Calhoun County, a tree trunk stopping his fall off a cliff at another site and realizing that he was undermining a power pole and causing it to lean in Western Alabama)  Her idea of roughing it is staying at Howard Johnson motel with a black and white T. V.

Q.- Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, so to speak, but what motivates you to give us your wonderful collection?
A.- The answer is my age. Soon I’ll be 73 years old and am unable to do the type of
collecting that I described earlier. My adventures have made me a “High Mileage” vehicle.  Tromping in these creeks is not for an old man. I like my fossils so much that I would like to find a "Home" for them after I am gone rather than take the chance that they will not be appreciated, wind up on ebay or in a dump. I am thrilled that they have a "Home" here at your library.  I enjoyed the days I spent on the Chipola Formation more than any other site.  When we first met, you indicated that many people in Calhoun County may not realize the esteem that the world’s scientific community holds for the fossils under your feet. I gave you a carton of these fossils which are already on display in cabinets at the library. I’ve been told that a lot of people are very happy to see them. By the way, I would like to highly compliment Belvin Bryant Jr., who built the cabinets for his outstanding craftsmanship. He did a terrific job!