Immediately north of Chicago is the largest private collection of fossils readily accessible to the public. Home of the Northwestern Wildcats, Evanston is also home to The David and Sandra Douglass Prehistoric Life Museum located in the basement of Dave’s Down to Earth Rock Shop.
With the help of his mother and father, Dave Douglass opened the shop nearly fifty years ago when he was only twenty years old. Most of the items sold in the shop back then were collected by Dave and his family. The Douglass family had a lifetime of fossils collected from trips around the United States and the rest of the world. When faced with the question of what to do with the vast accumulation of fossils, Dave and Sandy opened the museum back in the 1980s, deciding that the fossils should be on display for everyone.
Fossils from every geological time period are represented in the collection, going all the way back to Precambrian times from 4.6 billion years ago to 542 million years ago, or seven-eighths of the Earth’s history.
This collection also boasts the largest number of Mazon Creek fossils on display. The Mazon River (Creek) is a tributary of the Illinois River and the Mazon Creek area is comprised of present-day Grundy, Will, Kankakee, and Livingston counties. Twenty-five to thirty meters of shale were formed about 309 million years ago during what is called the Pennsylvanian epoch, the latter part of the Carboniferous period. Earth back then looked very different than it does now.
Plant and animal remains were rapidly buried and the natural bacterial decomposition of those remains produced carbon dioxide that combined with the iron in the groundwater. This sediment surrounded the remains and formed incredibly detailed casts of their structure. Plants and invertebrates were preserved, rarities because of the lack of bone in their bodies. This is where the Illinois state fossil was found: the Tully monster.
The Douglass collection also includes holotypes, single specimens that are the basis for the description and name of a new species. These holotypes are named after the Douglass family; Dave himself found many of these when he was just a kid.
There are other fossils from around the world: dinosaur eggs, a complete cave bear skeleton, complete skeletons of small dinosaurs from China, a collection of amber encasing varieties of plants and insects, an extensive collection of trilobites, and a case of crab fossils.
A femur from a giant apatosaur sits in the museum basement with a sign instructing us “Do not touch.” Oh, but how tempting it is!
If you’re a Chicagoland resident and you haven’t been here, make a point to go to Evanston. Check out all the wonderful offerings of the city and make sure to stop here. If you don’t live in the area but love rocks and fossils, I’d say go to the Field Museum for sure (if you can afford it), but make a point to travel north to Evanston and see this collection for yourself.