Washburn Rural eighth-graders dig up dirt on famous Carbondale dinosaur hunter

Teacher Cynthia Wilson and eighth-grader Madison Blanchette explain an exhibit to visitors to the science room museum.

The minute you walk into Cynthia Wilson’s eighth-grade science room at Washburn Rural Middle School, you become mesmerized by the information presented in the classroom-turned-museum. Student-made exhibits allow visitors to follow the geological timeline, and explore Kansas as it was millions of years ago.

Billed as the Greatest Show on Earth, the students created the museum representing life and rock as time has progressed. Each turn at the 2017 geology museum will find interactive artwork, correspondence with experts in their fields, or interesting facts about Kansas and its past inhabitants. Tying Kansas geology to the world, Wilson provided students a bit of information about a man that grew up close by and made significant advancements in our knowledge of dinosaurs, Barnum Brown.

“The students took it from there and wanted to share their discoveries,” Ms. Wilson said.

Brown turned out to be one focus of the multi-year project, resulting in a student led request to the Kansas Department of Transportation to honor Brown with special roadside signs along U.S. 75 at Carbondale.


An artist’s diagram shows a proposed highway sign to be placed near Carbondale on U.S. 75.

Barnum Brown was born on Feb. 12, 1873, in Carbondale, Osage County, Kan., growing up on the family farm nearby. As a young man, Barnum preferred to spend his time studying the land around him. His formal education in geology at the University of Kansas led to a career collecting bones and fossils for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Barnum soon was referred to as “Mr. Bones” and brought many important finds to the museum.

In 1902, Barnum unearthed a new species of dinosaur that was named Tyrannosaurus rex. This large fossil helped make him known as the greatest dinosaur collector of all time. Little entertainment was available during this time period and museums played an important part in educating and entertaining the public. This created competition between fossil hunters, bone collectors, and curators in search of fresh displays for their respective museums.

His talent in finding the best fossils made him famous and also directed his future endeavors including working as a geological advisor during both World Wars. Brown was the dinosaur expert that kept then-popular visual images correct to nature. Whether working with an oil company, or consulting with Walt Disney, or broadcasting his weekly radio show, Barnum led an adventurous life, which ended shortly before his 90th birthday on Feb. 5, 1963, in New York City.

Madison Blanchette, WRMS eighth-grade student, said she “really liked finding out that Barnum Brown lived in Carbondale because it is only 15 miles from my school.”

As part of her efforts in the project, Madison had contacted Professor Chris Beard at University of Kansas, and learned that KU still had fossils found by Brown in their collection.

The Osage County Register of Deeds Office also became a source of information that was added to the museum. Second deputy Rose Hearn provided plat maps of land owned by the Browns and letters from the family’s history.

“Ms. Wilson called our office and I answered the phone,” Hearn said. “She gave me some information about Brown’s family and some dates and I started digging.”

Looking in courthouse records and consulting David Piemann, Hearn was able to search an original abstract for the Brown’s property, finding a letter that Barnum had written to his brother Frank, sent from the National Museum in New York.

Wilson said the students were intrigued with Brown and thought he should receive recognition for his accomplishments. They researched procedures for placing signs on the highway near Carbondale to tell everyone about their famous citizen – finding out such a request must come from the Carbondale City Council to the Kansas Department of Transportation. Students met with the city council last year and asked them to make a formal request for the signs to be placed on the highway. To back up their request for the signs, the students collected more than 800 signatures on a petition and wrote letters in support. The students received word from KDOT in February that KDOT had approved the signs and placement was being planned.

According to Wilson, the students plan to make one more request to the KDOT regarding the highway signage. After making the first request, the students decided the signs should also note Brown was “Discoverer of T-rex”, feeling it is important to honor his contributions to science.


A traveling display of the science museum was exhibited at several locations in Osage County; shown here in the lobby of the Osage County Courthouse.

The inspired science class also assembled a traveling road show to highlight some of their best geological finds. The portable museum was displayed at Osage City Library and Lyndon Carnegie Library before landing in the first floor lobby of the Osage County Courthouse, in Lyndon, where it will be on display for a few weeks.

And the students-as-teachers program will continue in Osage County, as the class was awarded a grant to purchase children’s books for both the Osage City Library and Lyndon Carnegie Library.

Before the class dismantles the museum for the summer, photos will be taken of the students and their geological era projects, and sent to the experts in the field thanking them for participating in this massive display of Kansas geologic history.

As the end of this school year comes close, Cynthia Wilson is also planning her retirement after more than 30 years of teaching and exploring the world from her classroom. Whether the annual student-curated museums that began eight years ago continue or not, Wilson has added an epic era in the timeline of learning at Washburn Rural Middle School.

Author’s note: My discovery from visiting the museum was that great Kansas teachers continue to inspire great Kansans, as they have for more than a hundred years in our public schools. And WRMS rocks!

More photos of the museum are available here.

Contact us: Osage County News | P.O. Box 62, Lyndon, KS 66451 | [email protected] | 785-828-4994 | Powered by Osage County, Kansas