In This State: Whales, arrowheads, minerals come life at the Perkins

Robin Hopps, at the Perkin’s Museum of Geology at the University of Vermont, shows off the footprints of an unidentified dinosaur, marks embedded in now-polished rock. The footprints, known as trace fossils, were discovered in Central Massachusetts. Photo by Dirk Van Sustern

Robin Hopps, at the Perkin’s Museum of Geology at the University of Vermont, shows off the footprints of an unidentified dinosaur, marks embedded in now-polished rock. The footprints, known as trace fossils, were discovered in central Massachusetts. Photo by Dirk Van Sustern

Editor’s note: In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places. Details are at http://www.maplecornermedia.com/inthisstate/.

Sometime this winter a batch of panels with maps will be assembled upright on the polished granite floor of the Perkin’s Museum of Geology at the University of Vermont. The map, the result of years of work by dozens of geologists, shows the location and types of bedrock, some formed 1.4 billion years ago, across the state.

A digitized version of this map already is available to the public, but this will be the debut the hardcopy: The Perkins Museum will be the official site for the “Bedrock Geologic Map of Vermont.”

“Big whoop!” you say?

Well, the permanent exhibit will be a big whoop, if not for everyone, certainly for the volunteer directors, benefactors and loyal patrons of the Perkins, who consider the place a gem of an educational resource.

Popular though it is, the Perkins is not always busy. Only two couples and a deliveryman stopped by during a three-hour span last week.

And by no means is the one-big-room museum to be confused with the likes of, say, the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center on Lake Champlain, or the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich, with all their elaborate interactive opportunities.

(Actually, the little Perkins does have at least one “interactive” exhibit: three wooden crates, each with samples of metamorphic, igneous and sedimentary rock –samples to be touched, examined and compared.)

Despite its simplicity, the Perkins, named after Dr. George H. Perkins, the state’s geologist at the turn of the 20th century, has a certain cachet among the earth-science aficionados of the state.

“We get preschoolers, from nearby, and elementary school kids and high school students,” says Robin Hopps, the geology department’s administrative assistant, who handles the scheduling and many other administrative duties.

“Students from UVM and Community College of Vermont come here to see samples,” says Hopps.

Charlotte Mehrtens: “We run this place on the fly.” Photo by Dirk Van Susteren

Charlotte Mehrtens: “We run this place on the fly.” Photo by Dirk Van Susteren

So too come the Boy Scouts and the “amateur rock hounds,” some of whom drop off rock samples for identification.

Hopps also fields phone calls like: “Does Vermont have Marcellus shale?” That’s the kind of shale deposits found in New York and Pennsylvania that contain big natural gas reserves, the kind that invites fracking, the extraction process that gives some environmentalists the willies. Hopps tells them the state doesn’t.

Like every museum these days, the Perkins finds itself wishing to do more with less, so any scrap of positive publicity is welcomed, even notice of something as obscure as a bedrock map.

Charlotte Mehrtens, a UVM geology professor who for years has been involved in the museum, says the map will be an important resource, whether viewed on computer or in person, helping scientists and policymakers better understand the landscape above the bedrock, aiding with everything from flood control, to road building, to identifying agricultural potential.

Mehrtens, Hopps and others in the Geology Department fold Perkins work into their regular professional duties. There’s no staff, no admission charge, no one to even immediately answer the phone. Visitors just stop in and poke around.

A view of the skeletal remains of the Charlotte Whale, the 11,000-year-old whale, whose discovery helped confirm the existence of the Champlain Sea. Photo by Dirk Van Susteren

A view of the skeletal remains of the Charlotte Whale, the 11,000-year-old whale, whose discovery helped confirm the existence of the Champlain Sea. Photo by Dirk Van Susteren

“We run this place on the fly,” admits Mehrtens.

The Perkins Museum of Geology gets no special appropriation from the university but is funded out of the Geology Department’s regular budget.

So the museum, explains Mehrtens, depends much on benefactors for its myriad programs, as is the case with the bedrock map, which is being supported in part by Vermont’s Lintilhac Foundation.

The museum is not above dragooning: Hopps says she occasionally snags a graduate student to lead a tour.

For those interested, the Perkins has more than rocks. There’s that whale, or at least the skeletal remains of one, the famous “Charlotte Whale,” a 14-foot beluga-like creature that once swam in the Champlain Sea.

The whale, perhaps as familiar to Vermont schoolchildren as Ethan Allen, was uncovered in eight feet of clay in 1849 by a crew of railroad workers excavating for a railbed in Charlotte. The laborers at first thought they had the skull and bones of a horse or ox, but someone wisely summoned Zadock Thompson, the famed 19th-century Vermont naturalist.

With help from Harvard scientists, he identified the remains as belonging to an 11,000-year-old whale, which helped to confirm that a good chunk of what was to become Vermont had once been covered by ocean waters. Thompson reconstructed the whale, and it wound up at the Perkins for all to see.

How about the displays of arrowheads or minerals? Or the information about plate tectonics? Or the mammoth tusk, with the inscription: “Although the original location of the tusk is undocumented, it is quite likely a tusk found in the mid-1800s in Richmond, Vermont.”

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Another caption under a display showing fossil remains of ancient creatures that formed the Chazy Fossil Reef on Isle La Motte: “The oldest reef horizons on Isle La Motte consist of branching ‘twigs’ of bryozoan colonies (Champlainopora chazyensis) on top of a pavement of strophomenid brachiopod shells.”

Just goes to show the Perkins, is, after all, not entirely accessible.

But for kids, and the dinosaur lovers among us, there’s the hologram of the life-size skull of a snarling Tyrannosaurus Rex, one of those 7-ton meat-eating monsters that roamed the land before disappearing 65 million years ago.

A visitor can also peer through windows into a partitioned section of the museum to see the progress of graduate students, who for several years have been working to reconstruct the skull of a triceratops. Dug up, wrapped in plaster, the skull was trucked to UVM for study and reconstruction nearly a decade ago from its location site in Montana.

Among the visitors to the museum on that day last week was Albert Chicoine of Milton, who arrived to see if anyone had any conclusive scientific information on the rock he found in a field and brought to the Perkins before Christmas.

A mystery rock, a possible meteorite, rests on a table in the Geology Department’s administrative offices. Photo by Dirk Van Susteren

A mystery rock, a possible meteorite, rests on a table in the Geology Department’s administrative offices. Photo by Dirk Van Susteren

“It’s twice as heavy as lead, and so hard I couldn’t chip it with a hammer,” said Chicoine. “I (then) put a sledge hammer to it, and it just bounced off, making a high ringing sound.

“Three guys looked at it here, and made it out to be a meteorite,” he said. “They saw burn marks.”

The rust-colored rock, magnetic and about the size of a football, remains a source of wonder. A potential paperweight to beat all comers, it rests on a table in Hopps’ office, with a question mark printed boldly on a nearby sticky note.

“What’s that?” visitors might inquire, which is the right thing to ask of anything at this museum.

Dirk Van Susteren of Calais is a freelance writer and editor.

Dirk Van Susteren

Comments

  1. Susan Weber :

    Ah, that apostrophe! Always after the “s” in Perkins, right?

  2. Watch out, whale lovers! There is a move afoot in the legislature to raise the Mount Holly mammoth to equal footing (or finning) with the Charlotte whale as the Vermont State Fossil!

  3. Wendy Wilton :

    I fondly remember this little building right near Billings and Ira Allen and its wonderful collection from my college days at UVM. A great place to go if you needed a break from the books.

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