Soon after Glenrock’s Paleon Museum opened, Robert Bakker walked into the prep lab and saw 23 women gathered around tables, working meticulously.
It might have looked and sounded a little like a sewing bee. But instead of sewing machines, the women were cleaning fossils with brushes and picks.
“My bone biddies,” Bakker, a renowned paleontologist who worked with the museum at the time, called out to the group.
One of the early helpers at the Paleon Museum in Glenrock straightened and looked at him with steely blue eyes.
“I beg your pardon,” she said, clearly unimpressed by the paleontologist’s choice of phrase.
Bakker didn’t utter the words again. But three years later the museum volunteers decided they might as well accept the title bestowed upon them. The volunteers of the Paleon Museum have been known as the “bone biddies” since.
Numbering about a dozen today and ranging in age from 11 to 91, they give tours, run the gift shop, clean the fossils, work on scrapbooks that tell the museum’s history and generally maintain the museum. They sew for the museum too — quilts for a fundraising raffle or dish cloths for the gift shop. From the director and curator to the the gift shop, the museum is entirely run by volunteers.
“It keeps us younger than we might be,” Reynolds said.
Small but mighty
The bone biddies are experts on the specimens displayed in the museum, even though facts often change with new research.
Their customary roar used to get children’s attention at a Tyrannosaurus Rex display might change, for example, based on new anatomical studies suggesting the iconic species may have actually chirped, tweeted or muttered, volunteer Barb Reynolds said.
Reynolds is one of the original bone biddies. The museum started in 1994 when a triceratops was discovered by Sean Smith, now curator at the museum, according to the city of Glenrock website.
The small museum on a corner of Glenrock’s main street boasts a large number of fossils and several rare and even one-of-a-kind items.
The volunteers call their fossil collection and the museum itself “small but mighty.”
The museum, for example, houses the only lower right jaw bone of a torosaurus known in the world, a fact confirmed by paleontologist Peter Dodson, who worked on the movies “Jurassic Park” and “Land Before Time,” Reynolds said. Crews discovered a few more in the area as well, Reynolds added.
A slab of rock on the floor of the museum features one of three T. Rex tracks — as opposed to single footprints — in the world. A doctoral student recently worked with Sean Smith to calculate the T. Rex’s speed and explore other behaviors of the species, Reynolds said.
When she’s not busy during the school year, 11-year-old Vivian Smith works in the prep lab and starts tours in museum lobby at the touch table. People can handle geological items like a large chunk of bubble agate formed millions of years ago, she said.
Vivian has grown up in the museum with her father, Sean Smith, and her grandparents, Bert and Don Smith, who also volunteer.
The volunteers consider one another family as well. They took turns holding Vivian when she was a baby, they said. Now the girl is called a “mini biddy” and she in turn calls her fellow volunteers her “modern fossils,” she said, grinning.
The biddies volunteer their time for a variety of reasons.
Crissie Wobig started volunteering about eight years ago after she retired as a classroom aid at local schools. She needed something to do in the summers after her husband died 20 years ago, she said.
Barb Scott calls herself “a lab rat.” She works on cleaning and gluing fossils. Scott started volunteering 20 years ago after a friend and longtime bone biddy recruited her. She also served on the board for 18 years, she said.
Lila Swan has been a bone biddy for about two decades too. A friend asked her to keep her company in the gift shop one day, but then she walked into the lab, she said. She spent years cleaning fossils instead, and joined the museum board. After developing lung problems exacerbated by the dust, she now works on orders and keeping track of the money.
Sean Smith gave the museum new and flooring and paint in the past year. The museum’s executive director, Stuart McCrary, built new display cabinets for the museum and gift shop, and he creates casts of fossils for the museum to sell.
“It’s a group effort,” Reynolds said. “We all have a slot.”
She’s often the go-to tour personnel.
“As you can see the Megalosaurus is kind of an ugly dude,” Reynolds said, while giving a tour to a reporter last week. “Some were handsome — Ceratosaurus was so handsome.”
She described one plant-eating dinosaur who swallowed rocks to grind its food, she said. Reynolds’ research showed that the Brontosaurus produced 1,000 pounds of poop. But a visitor last summer informed her that new research showed the total to be closer to 1,500.
“And so we learn something interesting every day,” Reynolds said.