BRIGHAM CITY -- Here's another reason for Brigham City residents to be proud of their old, majestic sycamore trees -- the Box Elder Museum has a sycamore leaf from a tree that lived 30 million years ago.
Brigham City of long ago had turtles and palm trees, crocodiles and sharks. And trilobites, those mysterious scarab-like creatures, wandered the hills above Honeyville some 500 million years ago.
In fact, says curator Ron Cefalo, this natural history museum boasts one of the best trilobite collections anywhere.
The museum has evolved rapidly since it opened in 2009 in Brigham City's King Building with a few fossil exhibit. Since last November, the museum, now in the city's Hervin Bunderson Center, boasts three large rooms filled with exhibits, as well as a former janitor's closet that is now outfitted with ultraviolet lamps to show off rocks with glow-in-the-dark shades. A fourth room specifically for vertebrate and dinosaur fossils will be opening in September, with an articulated dinosaur skeleton.
Yes, for a place full of dead things, the Box Elder Museum is sure lively.
It's living evidence, says Cefalo, of a true community effort. More than a dozen Eagle Scout projects have painted, wired and built exhibit cases. Art students from Box Elder High School have created a mural of the peaks above Willard and the ancient flora and fauna. Rock and fossil collectors from around the area have dug into their private collections to donate pieces to the exhibits.
"They have a fantastic piece in their homes, and the only people who see it is them," says Cefalo. "But in a museum, all the children come through, all the people come to see it -- it's an education for everyone."
The museum began with the gift from Lloyd Gunther of part of his world-class trilobite collection. The Brigham City resident is "truly the king of trilobites," says Cefalo.
Many of Cefalo's own collections are also in the museum -- including his fossil turtle set, collection of ancient horse bones and display of fossilized teeth -- as well as a dozen or more donated collections from other Box Elder residents, many of them Cefalo's former students.
"These people have recognized that it's nice to have their collections in a public place where lots of people can see it," says Cefalo.
Cefalo, a former science teacher at Box Elder High School, has taken a generation of young people out rockhounding during summer breaks; Cefalo himself has "hiked every canyon from Collinston to the other end of Weber County." You'll see pieces from those jaunts, such as petrified wood, the green gemstone veracite, and slabs of native copper shinier than a new penny.
To listen to Cefalo is to hear his excitement about the natural world.
Right now, he's pointing to a fossilized copper snail -- but how many decades of high school students have also heard the excited "This is awesome!"? He points to fossilized bones from an ancient horse, with an animated "This is so unique!" The exclamation point is obligatory.
"We have fossil fish and palm leaves from near Kemmerer, Wyo.," he enthuses. And "insects out of the Green River Formation that are some of the finest insects that have been found."
He adds, "We have oodles of materials."
"We have two goals: One, to upgrade the quality of the materials we have here; the other is to have it friendly to all ages," he says. "We're eventually going to have a lot of hands-on materials."
Box Elder County is known around the world for its trilobites, which are found in the shale of the Wellsville Range north of Brigham City. "It's kind of funny," he explains. "Wellsville, and above Honeyville and Deweyville, have all those fossils, but when you go south of Box Elder Canyon, that's where the minerals start in. There are no fossils until you get down to Ogden Canyon, where the whole geography changes again and we're back into fossils."
Head up to what is commonly called Sardine Canyon, and near the snowplow sheds you'll find fossilized horn coral -- "Some of the best horn coral in the world is found there," he says. "We're talking 6- to 8-inch horn corals that are immaculately preserved."
Go west to Park Valley and Grouse Creek, and you'll find "some of the best gemstones around." The Lucin area, in particular, has green veracite so lovely it can be seen in royal European crowns. "It goes from light green to dark green to almost jet black," Cefalo says, pointing to examples. "It's absolutely beautiful."
The geodes -- or thunder eggs, as they're often called -- come from the Grouse Creek.
The museum even has samples of what Cefalo calls "slick 'n' slide," produced by the earthquakes and fracturing that created the Willard peaks. "The magnesium and the iron were pushed against each other so tightly that they actually melted as they slid past each other," he says. "One of the few places in the world you can find it is along the Wasatch Fault near Willard. We have people come from all over the country to study it."
Cefalo's storage rooms are filled with samples of rocks and fossils that are awaiting their day in the display case. Some will be traded to other museums; others will become kits of local rocks that the museum plans to donate to area schools, "so they can say, here's smoky quartz from the Devil's Playground in northern Box Elder County, here's green quartzite from Park Valley."
Cefalo believes that there are still lots of treasures for rock and fossil hunters in the hills of Box Elder County. "It hasn't all been found," he says.
Some of the pieces yet to be found, like those in Cefalo's display cases, will be museum-quality.
On the other hand, "Some of them are just really nice rocks. I call those 'leaverite' -- leave it right there."
For more information, for guided tours or to donate material to the museum, call Ron Cefalo at (435) 723-3158.