Fossil hunter Ashwill seeks to honor his mentor
For nearly 30 years, local geology and fossil enthusiast Mel Ashwill said he has been trying to get public recognition for the contributions of Jefferson County native and fossil hunter Phil F. Brogan, by naming the fossil-containing bolder display at Juniper Hills Park in Brogan's honor.
While several monuments and geologic sites honor Brogan in Deschutes County, where he lived as an adult, there are none in Jefferson County, despite the fact that he grew up in Ashwood, dug fossils here, and wrote about this area in his book "East of the Cascades," and in excerpts of "Jefferson County Reminiscences."
"Born and raised in the lonesome area east of Ashwood, Phil is well known widely as an author, journalist and geology buff. During the early days of geologic exploration and study, hundreds of nationally or worldly known scientific people headed first to see Phil," Ashwill said in a letter send out to community leaders a year ago, to spur action on recognition of Brogan.
Now at age 95, Ashwill is finally beginning to see his dream come to life as several people are working on the sign project.
In the meantime, Ashwill, who counts Brogan as one of his mentors, is an amateur paleontologist in his own right, also deserving of recognition.
Ashwill said he began collecting fossils in 1946, but didn't get serious about it until moving to Madras in 1965.
"I was always interested in it, but they didn't teach geology when I was in high school," he said. Even when he attended George Fox College and Pacific University, there were no geology instructors.
Instead, he earned a degree in music education and taught music for 23 years, spending the last 12 at Warm Springs Elementary.
In 1965, when his family moved to Madras, Central Oregon Community College hired geology teacher Bruce Nolf, and Ashwill was finally able to get formal training in Nolf's courses. "I got the equivalent of one year of geology, and the rest of my education was through reading and association with professionals," he said.
After retiring in 1978, he had time to do more fossil collecting, and returned to COCC to take classes in botany, since his focus was on fossilized plants.
As his collection grew, Ashwill got to know several professionals in the field. "I'd get advice from them, and give them information about fossils in this area," he said, adding, "One of my mentors, Steven Manchester, is now the curator of fossils at the University of Florida."
"They were interesting people and very helpful. One encouraged me to write a paper on fossil finds, so I published a few," he said, noting they appeared in the "Oregon Geology" journal, and "Mid-American Paleontological Society Digest."
In his articles, he tried to reconstruct the climate, ecology and life forms of the ancient past, based on the fossils that were found.
Another mentor he admired was Phil Brogan. "I met him just once. We corresponded quite a few years in connection with my hobby and he helped me a lot, sometimes suggesting localities he knew about," Ashwill said.
Brogan had a career as a reporter for the Bend Bulletin, and wrote popular features on Central Oregon archaeology, geology, and natural history.
"In his last years, when he was 85, I met him at his home in Bend, which was across the pond from the Pine Tavern. He gave me a large vertebrae of a mammoth he had excavated in a railroad cut along the Deschutes River in Jefferson County, and it is part of my collection," Ashwill said.
A few years after his visit, Brogan's wife died and he moved to Colorado to be near his son, who had carried on his dad's interests by becoming an oil geologist.
Eager to share his love of fossils with others, Ashwill displayed his collection while teaching in Warm Springs and after retiring, at COCC events, and the annual Extension outdoor schools for fourth- and sixth-graders.
In 1991, he traveled to San Diego to accept a national honor, the Harrel L. Strimple Award from the Paleontological Society of America for important contributions to paleontology, or the study of fossils. Other honors included having a fossil flower, the "Florissantia ashwillii,"named in his honor by his mentor Steven Manchester, because Ashwill had provided fossil specimens for the research.
1991 was the same year Ashwill's efforts helped save huge boulders of fossilized leaves during construction of the highway on the Warm Springs grade. He drew attention to the site and worked with the State Highway Department to save specimens.
In 1935, when the highway was first put in, Dr. Chaney, a renowned paleontologist, came to Madras and did an extensive study of the rare leaf fossils embedded in a 5.3 million-year-old mud flow around milepost 110 on the Warm Springs grade. After reading about it, Ashwill gathered specimens from the area, and knew of their importance.
"The fossils were all leaves and seeds. Most common in the collection was cottonwood, quaking aspens, and willows – streamside trees of this country from 5 million years ago," Ashwill said.
"I talked to the contractors, state highway people and the Ramseys, whose property the fossils were on, and we got 40 big chunks of rock. I went down and identified them, he said, noting some were given to the Museum at Warm Springs, fairgrounds, Juniper Hills Park, and other areas for display.
Meanwhile, he said several professors and botanists came to Madras to view the fossils and use the information in their studies. The fossils came from an ancient mud flow, buried beneath lava flows.
"That (fossil) flora was treated by many paleo botanists for information on change of climate," he said.
There is another, equally significant mud flow at the bottom of Gateway. "At Everett's gravel pit, there is an old river area where partial skeletons have been found of a giant salmon species, now extinct, that were 10-feet long," he said.
One time a professor from Berkeley came to view the Deschutes fossils. "I drove him to Gateway, and I gave him two big crates of specimens. He also had samples from Nevada and California and was doing a publication on climate change, but he died before it was completed," he said.
One of Ashwill's prize specimens was collected at another gravel pit near the bottom of the Gateway grade. "A county grader had been cleaning the road and I saw something sticking out and stopped and a I found a fossilized camel leg bone!" he said, adding he subsequently found the leg bone of a three-toed horse.
Teeth of camels and rhinoceroses have also been found in Gateway. "Brogan had the jawbone of a rhino he found there," he said.
At his advanced age, Ashwill is glad something is finally being done to recognize his mentor Brogan.
"I had given up on it. It's grand it's going to happen at all. It seems important to me," he said.