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‘Irreplaceable Works of Art’

Petrified wood treasures and dinosaur tracks create a paradise of geology

Kent Barker

Newly mechanized tractors were supposed to be great labor savers, so farmer Leslie Hart was surprised when his plow struck something so massive and hard it spun his tractor completely around. It turned out that he had run aground on a fossilized tree. Able to dig deeper than ever before, farmers in rural Somervell County began uncovering a bounty of petrified trees beginning in the 1920s.

Glen Rose residents found the wood in magnificent abundance. “Petrified wood was strewn all around the county,” resident Lynn Lane remembered. The wood was gathered up and hauled into town, where local stonemasons had a field day.

Inspired by rustic designs developing in national parks, the masons created cottages, gas stations, restaurants, walls, flower beds, fountains and gateposts of petrified wood—more than 65 examples in all—during the 1920s and ’30s. More than 45 of them remain standing today in Glen Rose to be admired by builders, geologists, fossil hunters and appreciative Texans. Craftsmen often combined the wood with other fossils like ammonites, quartz and translucent isinglass for startling effect.

In a 1929 Dallas Morning News article, William Cochran reported that building with petrified wood was “sweeping over Glen Rose … Every new building is incorporating some of this ‘wood’ from the near-by petrified forests into its walls or fences. Every owner of a house needing repairs is lying awake at night studying out how he may most attractively weave some stone logs or chunks or stump or chips or splinters into its walls and make it distinctively Glen Rosian.”

Glen Rose

The origins of Glen Rose’s petrified wood date back some 115 million years ago when advancing seawaters created the white-walled mesas of the Paluxy River valley. Giant sauropod dinosaurs and meat-eating theropods lumbered through mucky marshes, leaving behind their footprints and sometimes their bones. In nearby terrestrial areas, ancient trees fell and rivers washed them downstream. As sand or the rising sea buried the timber, it began to harden, forming the petrified wood found in the region today.

 

Southern Methodist University scientists recently identified petrified logs discovered in the Glen Rose area as 112 million-year-old specimens of an extinct conifer family. Found nestled with the bones of three sauropods, the largest log was 9 feet long and 13 inches in diameter—indicating a tree about 70 feet tall.

During the height of Glen Rose’s prehistoric stone building frenzy, mason Gran Norman constructed Lane’s Garage downtown. He adorned its walls with heavy petrified logs laid in diagonal patterns and scattered pieces of sparkling translucent white quartz among the stone.

Locals found the glinting white quartz, also known as isinglass, embedded in knotholes within pieces of petrified wood and imagined that “some prehistoric giant had hurled them at the tree … and they had stuck in the trunks and been caught there,” Cochran wrote.

The Snyder House, a bungalow built with Craftsman-style architecture in 1929, used whole petrified wood logs as columns to support its front porch.

A most eye-catching prehistoric relic still decorates the bandstand, which members of the Glen Rose Community Band built on the lawn of the county courthouse in 1933. Amid chunks of petrified wood, musicians proudly embedded the track of a three-toed carnivorous dinosaur along the base of the bandstand’s south wall.

Because most petrified wood is quartz, which ranks high on the mineral hardness scale, masons in Glen Rose sought creative ways to utilize whole pieces. Norman crafted a rustic, ragged cornice of vertical slabs of petrified wood atop the walls of Sycamore Grove, a speakeasy and gas station built in the late 1920s. Texas Co-op Power featured a photograph of the now abandoned and dilapidated historic filling station in its October 2008 issue.

Building with fossils allowed residents to express Glen Rose’s emerging early 20th-century identity as a “Paradise of Geology.” Local awareness of the town’s prehistoric past began in 1909 when teenager George Adams stumbled upon mysterious, monstrous tracks embedded in limestone along Wheeler Branch of the Paluxy River. Southern Methodist University geologist Ellis Shuler identified the tracks as those of a dinosaur and published his findings in 1917 in the American Journal of Science.

But Glen Rose’s rich geological resources brought tourists to this village nestled along the scenic Paluxy River years before the dinosaur track discovery. The area’s pungent sulfur water began attracting health seekers as early as 1882.

By the 1920s, the chamber of commerce touted Glen Rose as the “Petrified City” and “one of the oldest resorts in the Southwest,” because “Even Dinosaurs Chose It as a Vacation Spot.”

The trend of building with petrified wood began in Glen Rose in 1927 and quickly diffused throughout North Central Texas and beyond. In Decatur, which is about 95 miles north of Glen Rose, the owner of a tourist camp gave his cottages and service station facelifts with petrified-wood exteriors in 1935. The Decatur tourist camp and its unusual petrified wood buildings became a popular Texas travel destination from the late 1930s through the 1950s. Although closed, it still is visible at 900 U.S. Business S. 81/287. But there is life here: The old Texaco station has been converted to an office, and travelers can grab a bite at the Whistlestop Cafe.

Petrified wood, meanwhile, can be found all over the country. In fact, petrified palmwood is the Texas state stone—even though it is actually a mineralized fossil.

Today in Glen Rose, as Sycamore Grove, the former speakeasy (shown at right), slowly deteriorates, local historians advocate for preservation of the area’s unique architectural heritage. That includes the quaint Tudor Revival houses made out of petrified wood that look like something Hansel and Gretel would occupy.

In 1992, owners demolished a petrified-wood commercial building known as Nowlin’s Garage to build a parking lot downtown. At the time, Lane wrote an open letter to residents of Glen Rose, urging them to cherish their unique prehistoric buildings and sense of place.

“These petrified wood structures are irreplaceable works of art,” Lane wrote. “The materials they are made from are no longer available, and the artful masons who constructed them are dead. Once gone, we will never see them again.”

For information on Glen Rose, its prehistoric wonders and where to find petrified wood structures, contact the Glen Rose Convention and Visitors Bureau at 1-888-346-6282 or visit www.glenrosetexas.net.

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Mary G. Saltarelli is a historic preservation consultant in Granbury. She is currently working on a book about petrified wood-built resources in Texas and requests that readers notify her regarding locations of other petrified wood buildings at maryestellegott@sbcglobal.net.