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Journey of the Highgate Mastodon

7/23/2004:

In the spring of 1890, William Regcraft found some bones while digging a ditch on his uncle’s farm, one mile from Highgate, Ontario. A hardware merchant named William Hillhouse bought the bones, and he and his uncle, John Jelly, also bought the right to continue excavating. What they found was almost an entire skeleton of an Ice-Age mastodon, relative of the modern elephant.

Hillhouse and Jelly cleaned the bones and strengthened them with two layers of hot white glue. The one and only tusk, described as a “perfect beauty,” was dropped and broken in two places. After it was repaired, they offered R.A. Essery $50 to take the mastodon out on tour. Essery headed toward Winnipeg, putting up posters that read, “A Monster Unearthed! Do not fail to see the Highgate Mastodon!” A review by the St. Thomas Evening Journal read, “...the cavity in the head from whence the fire of a mastodonic eye...is almost large enough to admit a man’s head.”

Between 1890 and 1892, Essery died somewhere out west, and Hillhouse and Jelly lost track of what they called “The World’s Greatest Wonder.” Then, Hillhouse received a handbill from his niece in Neche, ND, revealing it was now being displayed by a Mr. Thompson and Mr. Glover.

The bones then wound up in storage at the Bibb Broom Corn Co. in Minneapolis. After some time, the company sold them to Harry Dickinson, a Great Northern Railroad fireman, to recoup unpaid storage costs. Harry shipped them by rail to his father’s home in Barnesville, MN, and they exhibited the mastodon around Minnesota and the Dakotas for the next several years.

Around 1898, a Buxton physician, James Grassick, saw the show and later bought the mastodon for $10, and in 1902, he loaned the bones to UND for display. A week later, the Grand Forks Herald published an article about it, and three days later, UND received a letter from William Hillhouse claiming rightful ownership. Grassick quickly sold the bones to UND for $100, and when attorneys came after him soon after, he told them he no longer owned them.

It was 49 years before the mastodon surfaced again. UND history professor Elwyn Robinson wrote to the State Historical Society to say a mastodon had been discovered in an attic on campus, and it was shipped to the Historical Society and placed in a storage building.

Early in 1991, plans were being made for a permanent exhibit at the ND Heritage Center titled The First People: North Dakota Prehistory. Committee members were wishing they had a nice reconstructed megafauna, like an ancient bison or mammoth for the display. Collections curator Mark Halvorson asked if a mastodon would do, at which point the chief archaeologist started laughing, saying, “Will a mastodon do? Yeah, that’d be nice!” Halvorson replied, “OK, I’ll pull our mastodon.” Paleontologist John Hoganson said, “You have a mastodon!?” Halvorsen said, “(Yeah, out) beside the ‘61 Lincoln Continental in the warehouse.”

Museum director C.L. Dill said, “I know I’ve seen this lower jawbone we have in a crate, but I’ve never seen anything else.”

It had been more than a quarter century since a mastodon had been reconstructed anywhere in the world, but after bouncing around in crates for a hundred years, the ancient Highgate Mastodon was on its way to having itself put back together. It now proudly stands near the entrance of the Heritage Center Museum.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm