Waco, Texas III: ...Where the Columbian Mammoths Roam

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At Baylor University you can see the skeletons of 19 Columbian Mammoths that crossed into North America and drowned in a flash flood 68,000 years ago. Plus, there's a 19th century historic village, including doctor's buggy and hearse.

Long before the Spanish brought their Andalusian cattle to the New World, (those steers whose offspring gave us the Texas Longhorn), a different beast roamed deep in the heart of Texas: the Columbian Mammoth.

The animal had crossed into North America from Asia during the Pleistocene Epoch. Scientists now believe a herd of 19 of those mammoths — and somehow a camel — were drowned about 68,000 years ago in a flash flood on the Bosque River in Waco where the Bosque joined the Brazos (the longest river in Texas, the Spanish River of God’s Arms).

In 1978 two Texans hiking near the river looking for arrowheads noticed a large bone protruding from a ravine’s wall. They dragged the bone out and got it to the Strecker Museum at Baylor University. The bone was identified as a mammoth’s. Volunteers started to excavate the site.

The Strecker Museum has been folded into the new Sue and Frank Mayborn Natural Science and Cultural History Museum Complex that opened in 2004 at Baylor. Its long name matches its size. (Wealthy benefactors can benefit communities. Andrew Carnegie built libraries. Well-heeled Californians put up hospitals. Rich Texans chose museums, or so it seems.)

The excavation has gone on for years at the Mammoth Site by the river. Some of the bones have been removed to the Mayborn Museum Complex but others lie in situ by the rocky ravine wall where they were actually discovered. In the Mayborn a thick glass floor allows visitors to walk over the exhibit and peer down at something that happened about the time Mount Toba erupted in Sumatra and nearly wiped out homo sapiens.

The museum is huge. It seems to go on forever. Its components all started in the late 1880s when John K. Strecker, the curator of the modest Baylor University Museum, was “busy gathering bird eggs, snails and reptiles” for his museum and writing articles for popular and scientific magazines until 1933.

The museum was called the Strecker in his honor in 1940. We walk past “Strecker’s Cabinet of Curiosities” marveling at what now lies before us.

The skull of a humpback whale (left) reaches to the ceiling. We had no idea “the whale that sings” was so big. The Waco skull weighs 3,000 pounds and is 19 feet in length. Beyond, the walk leads to the Cretaceous Period, the Hall of Natural History and the Emergence of Man — and a creature you might not want to meet while swimming.

Our guide, Mark E. White, assistant director of promotions and events at the Mayborn Museum Complex, takes us into the section for children, the Ollie Mae Moen Discovery Center in the Harry and Anna Jeanes Discovery Center building. (What a mouthful of names, but if writers stop giving credit some donors might stop giving. We understand.)

Baylor is the oldest continuously operated university in Texas. Its Mayborn complex is so large it needs its own signposts.

Children can see models of the heart, listen to amplified heart sounds that reveal a systolic murmur to our ears, and they can study medical exhibits, including a doctor’s bag in a cabinet once owned by G.W. Baines, a Baptist minister.

Baines was president of Baylor University during the early Civil War, when education suffered because, in the first year of the war, 151 male students and several faculty members left to join the Confederate cause. Baines’ great grandson was Lyndon Baines Johnson, our 36th president.

In other rooms for children a spot stands where kids can pull a big soap bubble over themselves. They can also study simple machines and learn about the Western pioneers.

Little ones can discover Children of the World. In science sections they can find out about Optics. In Sound they can tap dance on a piano keyboard as Tom Hanks did in the movie Big.

Adults might be more interested outside in the Bill and Vara Daniel Historic Village. (Bill Daniel was a former governor of Texas.)

The village doesn’t compare with the magnificent places on the East Coast like Colonial Williamsburg, Sturbridge Village or Plymouth Plantation, but it does show rural Texas in the 1890s. The village of 15 wood-framed buildings was moved 236 miles from its original location in Liberty, Texas in 1986 and relocated to this site in May 2012.

The church dominates — as churches do in any European community or in Southern Baptist Texas territories — but the fun place to visit is the commissary.

When the village was relocated it gave Baylor the opportunity to climate-control some of the buildings and create ways cell phones can access the details of a building and its contents, but children can still do simple things like ring the schoolhouse bell.

There’s a barn, a smithy and, of course, a commissary. A student docent is sitting outside studying her lecture notes.

“Hi!” we say, “If it’s true that some students are very leftwing, we guess you are the Commissar!” We laugh at our lame joke and she gives us a weak smile and leads us into 1890.

“During the late 19th century the general store or commissary served as the hub of town activity,” the placard says. “Acting as post office, bank, polling place and stage coach stop as well as shopping center, it was a place for socializing as much as a place for purchasing.”

The store sold anything and everything: furniture, fans, lace gloves, combs, glasses and women’s garters — all laid out in front of curious visitors

We ask the student docent if she would pose for us wearing an 1890 bonnet, but she says a Communist Commissar wouldn’t do that. She wouldn’t even pose with a corn cob pipe. She’s keeping score and that makes it 1-1!

Kid gloves, badger shaving brush, suspenders, cufflinks and starched collars. Each case reveals something of previous owners. The schoolhouse seats are not exactly comfortable — we doubt a student ever dozed off here. The carriage house has several items of interest to physicians, including a doctor’s buggy.

A placard talks about this term “doctor’s buggy.” To protect against weather it had a folding leather top termed the Yandell, designed by a physician of that name. It had large wheels to create speed and was light to handle terrain that heavier vehicles could not. Storage below the seat held the doctor’s bag and supplies.

Behind the phaeton stands a horse-drawn ambulance. The notice board says one of the first hospital-based ambulance services began at Bellevue Hospital in New York City in 1869 with horse teams ready to respond within 30 seconds of being called. The belief then (now confirmed today in war) was that the faster the service the better the patient outcome.

To the left stands a hearse.

“It evolved from the simple flat-bed wagon,” says our commissar student docent. “The word comes from the Middle English, which referred to the type of candelabra placed on top of a coffin and — sometime in the 17th century — people started using the word to refer to the carriage itself.”

She hesitates, then grins: “My brother is a med student and my father and grandfather doctors so my family is used to teasing. So I can say, ‘Isn’t it cool for the hearse to be standing so close to the doctor’s buggy.’ My father use to tease my grandfather that in his day when a doctor and a funeral home director passed in the street one would wink at the other!”

Score 2-1 for the Communist!

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.