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Warren County Local History by Dallas Bogan

Fossil Collecting Was Popular Hobby After Civil War

Dallas Bogan on 28 August 2004
original article by Dallas Bogan
Return to Index to see a list of other articles by Dallas Bogan

For a period of twenty-five or thirty years after the Civil War a great number of Warren County men became interested in the collection and study of fossils. Perhaps a dozen or so of these men made extensive collections and possibly nine or ten of them were acclaimed as discoverers of one or more new species.
Lebanon had the distinction of having more of these collectors than any other place in the country. Possibly the reasoning for this was that Lebanon's locality furnished this group with such a great variety of fossils. The City of Cedars was located amidst the upper beds of the Lower Silurian strata.
The names of these prestigious collectors were: J. Kelly O'Neall, a lawyer; Dr. S.S. Scoville, a physician; Dr. D.T.D. Dyche, a dentist; Prof. Heber Holbrook, teacher at the Normal School; William H. Bean, a horticulturist; and Judge William W. Wilson. All these men had fossils named after them.
The subject of our article this week, Israel Hopkins Harris, had the finest collection of Lower Silurian fossils in the world.
He was born in Centerville, Montgomery County, Ohio, November 23, 1823. His father, James Harris, was a prominent businessman who owned stores in Centerville, Waynesville and Bellbrook.
Israel received his education at high schools in Centerville and Franklin. Apparently receiving a superior education in these schools prepared him for further learning.
He entered the junior class at Yale in 1844 and graduated in 1846. Yale at the time was the leading college in the country and Israel could possibly have been the first in Warren County to graduate from this prestigious institution.
His father had since moved to Waynesville, and upon graduation Israel returned to live in the small village until his death.
He did not study for a degree in any type vocation. Upon returning home, at his fathers' wishes, he became assistant in the family dry goods store at Waynesville. He continued in this business for a period of about nine years.
Banking was the next calling for him. He became a partner with Jarvis Stokes in 1855, and after Mr. Stokes' death he continued the business in his own name.
He was quite successful in this enterprise and was soon proclaimed one of the wealthiest and most respected men of Wayne Township.
Harris' interests in specimen collecting were probably sparked during his college years. However, he never went full force in this pursuit until he became a successful businessman.
For forty years he was a collector. Not until his later days did his prominence become known worldwide.
Waynesville was quite productive in fossils. One small trilobite, the Calymene senaria, was found here in greater numbers than anywhere else in the world. Harris' collection contained not less than a thousand specimens of this fossil.
Besides his fossil collection he had a large selection of flint and stone artifacts of the Indians and Mound Builders. He also had a great amount of minerals and shells in his repertoire.
One rare fossil specimen in his collection had accordingly been named "Fucoides harrisi," in honor of the founder.
According to Dennis Dalton, Waynesville area historian, Harris offered his entire collection of fossils to the village of Waynesville if they would supply "a suitable home" and "guarantee its proper care and preservation."
Council refused the gift and the fossils were consequently willed to the Smithsonian Institute.
In the 1870's a discovery was made that the mussel shells of the Little Miami produced pearls of high value and were the most favorable of all fresh water pearls in the American rivers. Oliver Watson wrote in the Dayton Sunday News, September 3, 1925, that: "Of all pearl producing streams in America, the Little Miami stands first in point of production, quality and value. One reason is that conditions are more favorable for the formation of a pearl on account of the pure condition of the water and the strong limestone deposits which add materially in the coating and polishing process through which the pearl passes."
Dalton says that the Little Miami Pearl Fisheries were owned and operated at Waynesville by Harris. He also says this operation nearly depleted the river's supply of this precious jewel.
Harris encouraged the locals to uncover the pearls by paying the highest prices for the finest specimens.
Dayton jewelers, along with Harris' bank, paid the top prices for the pearls. Harris was said to have never "allowed a good pearl to leave his place after once it was offered for sale, and in a few instances paid much more than the customary price in order that his collection might not lag."
His collection numbered in the thousands. They were displayed, viewed and admired in all the top cities in Europe.
After this stint they were returned to the United States and exhibited at the World's Fair at Chicago and St. Louis, and the Pan-American exposition at Buffalo.
His will, dated October 5, 1895, two years before his death, stipulated that the entire collection, the geological, mineralogical and archaeological specimens, "shall be kept intact and to itself and shall be forever known as the I.H. Harris Collection."
His entire collection, except for his pearls, was left to the Smithsonian Institute. It consisted of more than 20,000 specimens and included the finest collection of the Cincinnati group of fossils in existence. It contained many different finds such as star fishes, crinoids and trilobites.
In 1888, he sold over 2,000 pearls to Tiffany & Company of New York, which were put on display at the Paris exposition. This fine collection was awarded a gold medal and was viewed as the finest collection of fresh water pearls ever assembled.

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This page created 28 August 2004 and last updated 28 September, 2008
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