Hidden History: Osage County boy’s curiosity unearths enormous discoveries

Barum Brown, left, and Henry Osborn at Como-Bluff during the American Museum of Natural History expedition of 1897. At front, limb bone of Diplodocus. AMNH photo.

By Wendi Bevitt

The fossil record in Osage County might be relegated to small marine specimens, but one young man’s fascination with them led to prehistoric finds of gigantic proportions, and the title of “Father of the Dinosaurs”.

In 2017, an Osage County native named Barnum Brown was memorialized by signage on U.S. Highway 75 through the work of Washburn Rural Junior High School students. Barnum Brown, a paleontologist also known as “Mr. Bones”, gained national notoriety for his discovery of the first identifiable Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton in southeastern Montana.

Barnum grew up just outside of Carbondale, Kan., the son of William and Clarissa Brown. William Brown was known for his profitable business of outfitting wagons heading westward, providing land for the town of Carbondale, and being a successful coal mine operator.

Barnum Brown, Mr. Bones, as a student.

Barnum, the youngest of the Brown children, was named for Phineas Barnum of circus fame, reportedly because the circus arrived in town on the day of his birth in 1873. From a young age Barnum began collecting fossils, and his collection eventually overflowed from the family home and was relegated to the family laundry building nearby.

Referring to his childhood collections, Barnum once said, “I followed the plows and scrapers, and obtained such a large collection that it filled all of the bureau drawers and boxes until one could scarcely move.”

Barnum pursued paleontology at the University of Kansas, starting in 1893. When he began his own excavations, Brown found specimens that, had they been alive, Phineas Barnum would have sold his soul for the chance of exhibiting before the masses.

Brown was hired in 1897 by the American Natural History Museum when he was not quite out of college. It was in 1902, while working for the museum, that he discovered the first identifiable Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton.

During his career, Brown led 30 expeditions. He was known for an eccentric style – many times dressing in a fur coat and top hat during his digs. His work for the American Museum of Natural History took him all over the world, and while his primary collecting target was bringing home fossils, he also would look to obtain anything of scientific value. The collections from his travels were so large that some of the specimens he collected have yet to be unpacked.

His work on the North American continent included work in Montana and Alberta, Canada, digging up specimens from Albertosaurus to Diplodocus to Tyrannosaurus.

Brown originated the bold idea for excavating the cliff of dinosaur bones at Dinosaur National Monument. He also introduced the idea of using plaster of paris for wrapping the specimens from excavations.

Brown brought paleontology into the public domain by partnering with the Sinclair Oil Company, which had as its mascot a Diplodocus. Their relationship was mutually beneficial – Sinclair Oil funded Brown’s digs and in turn Barnum wrote pamphlets on dinosaurs that were given out at the company’s gas stations.

Brown enjoyed his work so much that he worked well into what would have been others’ retirement years. With his skin deeply tanned, and close cropped hair, he looked like a good man to have at your back in an alley fight.

“It’s too much fun to quit,” he said in 1942, when he was interviewed at age 69. “I’ll be out digging again this fall.”

Retirement was just a technicality for Brown and while he wasn’t out excavating the following season, he didn’t slow down. Instead, during the remaining years of World War II, he volunteered for the forerunner of the CIA, where he used his knowledge gained in his travels to help plan potential invasion routes into Europe.

His last success for the promotion of paleontology was supervising the construction of Sinclair’s life-sized dinosaur models for the Dinoland exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. This exhibit featured nine life-sized fiberglass models, including a 20-foot-tall Tyrannosaurus Rex. Brown, however, did not live to see their arrival at the fair because of his passing in 1963.

Brown’s legacy lives on in the American Museum of Natural History, in New York, where no less than 57 specimens of his are on display, and with the modest highway signage near his birthplace in Osage County. But one man’s lifelong fascination forever serves as an inspiration to other young fossil hunters with aspirations for larger things, both in Osage County and far beyond.

See related story: Washburn Rural eighth-graders dig up dirt on famous Carbondale dinosaur hunter

Brown in 1914 doing field work in Montana. Douglas J. Preston, Dinosaurs in the Attic: An Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History.


wendibevitt2016bWendi Bevitt is owner of Buried Past Consulting LLC. She lived in Osage County for 20 years and her research interests include Osage County Civil War veterans and Osage County history.


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