We Remember Fall, 1954: The Discovery of the Ruskovic Mastodon

Above from left: Guy Weller, Ithaca Chamber of Commerce managerial secretary; John Ruskovic, who discovered the mastodon; Claude Hibbard, professor at University of Michigan; Byron Harrell, research assistant. Ruskovic found the remains while on the family farm in Emerson Township. The group sit the spot where the remains were found.

John Ruskovic (left) and his father, Joe, display a few of the mastodon bones found one week earlier on the Ruskovic farm in Emerson Township in October 1954. The large bones each weighed approximately 37 pounds.

Johnny Musser of Alma stands next to bones of the Ruskovic mastodon in 1967. Musser’s grandfather purchased the bones and frequently displayed them at the Strand Theater, where the senior Musser was the owner and manager.

For approximately 9,000 years, it was beneath the surface in a swampy section of a farm in Section 17 of Emerson Township. Until then, it proved to be the most significant archaeological discovery in Gratiot County.

In late September 1954, John Ruskovic was plowing the swampy area of his father Joe’s farm when he hit and uncovered a bone weighing thirty-seven pounds. After contacting the Ithaca  Chamber of Commerce for help, someone came to the farm to see what exactly had been found. A geology professor from the University of Michigan, Dr. Clark Hibbard, arrived just after Joe Ruscovic’s granddaughter, Barbara Hennigar, dug up an almost complete jaw. The teeth were three inches square, and they told Dr. Hibbard that the remains belonged to a prehistoric mastodon.

Archaeologists would later conclude that the mastodon became extinct in the late Pleistocene period and lived in open spruce woodlands and spruce forests. In time many of them would be found in former swampy bogs by Michigan farmers while digging ditches or ponds.

Mastodons had been discovered before 1954 in other places in Michigan. This one was unique as it was almost complete, except for its tusks, upper head, and four upper leg bones. Dr. Hibbard worked with the family to keep the remains covered and fenced off as spectators and schoolchildren descended upon the farm. Adding even more exposure to the find, John Ruskovic took some of the bones to a LIFE magazine program that had been previously scheduled at Ithaca High School. A crowd of 640 people sat through the presentation. An artist showed sketches of what the animal initially looked like while the speaker displayed the bones.

“The Ruskovic Mastodon” would go on a journey after its initial discovery. Two weeks afterward, the Strand Theater arranged to have some of the remains placed in its lobby. Keith Musser, the Strand’s manager, invited people and schoolchildren to come and see the mastodon. In the 1960s, Musser purchased the bones from the Ruskovics for $500. On several occasions, Musser advertised that these could be seen at the theater. One picture taken in 1968 shows his grandson, a young John Musser, standing in the lobby next to the large bones. The bones were stored in barrels upstairs in the theater for some time after this. Eventually, Musser donated them to Alma College, where they remained.

Gratiot County would have other encounters with its prehistoric age, although none of the finds would be on this scale. In 1909 specimens were discovered on the William Pitt farm in Seville Township. Another happened not far from the Ruskovic farm in 1938 when farmer Max Burnham found a large lower tooth of a mastodon weighing five pounds. Burnham found it while excavating a mucky spot on his farm. Another important discovery happened in the Riverdale area in 1965 when Louis Thaller of Riverdale was excavating a hillside. Doctor Ronald O. Kapp from Alma College became interested, researched mastodons in the 1960s, and later wrote about these discoveries.

Copyright 2023 James M Goodspeed