Saturday, August 11, 2007

Farewell To The Rice Pit

Well, another piece of my childhood gone.

About a gazillion years ago, way back in the nascent hippie days (mid-'Sixties), long before VCRs and DVD players, before video games and XBoxes and Wii, before iPods and iPhones and cable and Tivo, even before cell phones and personal computers and the Intarweb, there was a magic era known as the Golden Age of Hobbies.

Okay, it wasn't magic and it wasn't golden. As pre-sexualized adolescents (remember: this was loooong ago--sex hadn't been invented and dinosaurs ruled the earth along with Top 40 AM radio) we were restless, irritable, discontented, and bored. We had to fill our time with something, so many of us turned to hobbies--amateur radio, model rocketry, relic hunting, coin collecting, stamp collecting, rock collecting, trading card collecting, Little League, Boy Scouts, comic books, 4H, anything to fill the time before we could get down to the serious business of driving cars, drinking beer, dating, and getting into real trouble.

I collected fossils.

Oh, geez, did I collect fossils, Virginia having a slew of nice collecting localities at the time; unfortunately, my mother was not particularly thrilled at the idea of her basement/rec room accumulating a bunch of dirty rocks. She didn't discourage my interests, exactly, but she made it clear that prehistoric sea shells, ancient bones, and small mounds of shark teeth were not part of her decorating scheme. Nor were trips to, let's say, rustic, out-of-the-way places involving dirt, mud, stagnant water, and marginal sanitary conveniences her idea of a way to spend the weekend

But with the help of my friend Rob and his father I was able to collect. In Highland County, in Westmoreland State Park, at Carter's Grove Plantation, and, most especially, in the Rice Pit in Hampton, VA, I managed to dredge up enough fossils to keep my mother in a tizzy for months.

Now, about the Rice Pit--for a science-mad kid who didn't get out much except on parental expeditions to visit elderly relatives, the Rice Pit was damn near close to Nirvana! Here was a Great! Big! Deep! Muddy! Sandy! pit chock full o' neat stuff to collect and treasure, assuming, of course, that marine specimens from the Miocene epoch dieseled your innards. No one cared how dirty we got--getting dirty was part of the fun--and no adults hovered over us monitoring our every move. They were there, but remained in the background. Plus, there was a vicarious thrill, an element of danger, for lurking in the bottom of the pit, they said, were pools of quicksand. The bottom was off-limits and that was about the only rule of the site.

Can you tell this is one of my fondest childhood memories?

I don't know what got me to thinking about the Rice Pit recently, but I had been and when I launched a Google search I found this:

Whatever happened to ... Hampton fossil pit that drew history hunters?

The Virginian-Pilot
© June 25, 2007


For a couple of decades, kids came from schools throughout Hampton Roads to dig for history in a giant hole in the ground.

The Kenneth E. Rice Memorial Museum and Fossil Pit closed about 1989 when owner Madeline Rice decided she was too old and arthritic to keep it going.

Soon, water filled the 70-foot-deep hole, closing the circle on what the Smithsonian Institution once declared one of the richer fossil finds in the world.

The trove was discovered when businessman William Macon Rice was digging up fill dirt in his backyard borrow pit for the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel and exposed the complete skeleton of a 60-foot-long whale.

Rice called the Smithsonian, and three scientists showed up the next day. It took them a couple of weeks to exhume the 20-million-year-old fossil, which they took back to the museum.

Other scientists followed and were astounded by the number of marine fossils in the small area, thought to have been a sub aquatic depression that collected whatever fell to the bottom during the millions of years the area was beneath 100 feet of ocean.

The family became entranced by the pit, learning the Latin names and history of the things paleontologists turned up.

Their then-8-year-old son, Kenny, spent most of his spare time in the hole, becoming a self-educated fossil expert. He'd dig them up and trade with archeologists for petrified wood, gems and other fossils.

When he was 14, he was driving a tractor to the pit when the machine rolled over the edge and killed him. His father was standing nearby but couldn't save the boy.

Six months later, on Jan. 1, 1967, William Rice opened the fossil museum and pit in honor of his son.

He charged the public a small fee to take their chance at digging up fossils and allowed them to keep whatever they found.

Soon schools brought students on field trips to the pit and museum. Rice usually was right beside them, telling the children the story behind the fossilized seashells or fish bones they found.

William Rice died of a heart attack in 1979, and his wife nearly shut down the pit. She operated it alone for another decade, leading schoolchildren through the museum, then taking them down to the dig.

When she couldn't maintain the pit, she unsuccessfully tried to get the city of Hampton to take it over. Eventually, it filled with water.

She died in 2000, and two years ago, her son William sold the pit, museum and surrounding land to the Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, which intends to expand its facility, according to Linda Robinson, principal of the church's school.

"We're going to put a family life center there and are developing plans to expand our playground," she said.

The pit will be left as a lake, she said, a place to attract deer and geese and ducks instead of history hunters.

When Robinson first came to teach at the school, she said, she went with children into the pit as they dug for fossils. Those children, now adults, often return and ask her about the pit, she said.

She hopes some day to be able to direct them to a display that recounts the pit's past. The Rice family gave the church the fossils that were in the museum, she said, and Gloria Dei intends to build an exhibit for them in one of the new facilities.

Eventually the pit filled with water. Gloria Dei Lutheran Church bought the land in 2005.
Tony Germanotta | The Virginian-Pilot

Gone. There, but no longer accessible. At least it wasn't filled and turned into a strip mall; judging from the photo, the area is now quite attractive.

But it's not the same.


Cathy VanPatten said...

Aw... that's too bad. At least it's a pretty place. And I wonder if one could just sneak into the woods and start digging...Nah, don't think the church folk would like that.

And go figure on Rob. What, does he have a portrait in the attic? Dag.

G. W. Ferguson said...

Portrait in the attic. Has to be. No other reasonable explanation. Well, then again, formaldehyde is common in bio labs...

Cathy VanPatten said...

LOL!! Or perhaps that much-vaunted "clean living" one occasionally hears about. Heh.

G. W. Ferguson said...

Hey, he's become a NASCAR fan--how much clean living is there in that?

Cathy VanPatten said...

NASCAR??? Well, I guess a professor and molluscologist (sp?) need SOME relief from intellectual pursuits... but NASCAR???

That's what he gets for accepting a position in South Carolina. I hope his children are suitably embarassed!

G. W. Ferguson said...

"Malacologist," actually.

Once upon a time I took a course entitled "Medical Malacology" taught by Emile Malek and sat beside James Maleckar. It's a goofy, goofy world.

Unknown said...

I spent many an hour getting covered in muck and crud at Rice's Fossil pit and and deeply regret it passing. I had hoped to share its treasures with my own son, but he wasn't born until 1992! Thanks for resolving the mystery of its passing.
Cathy, wanna pitch in on a used excavator and we'll just tell the church folk that we are digging a basement addition for them?

Anonymous said...

I used to walk to Benjamin Syms Jr High scool with Kenny. I remember the terrible accident that took his life. He was my best friend then and I still remember him. Back then, My family and I were the first original members to build Gloria Dei Lutheran Church with Pastor Edward Counts.

Anonymous said...

Having a renewed interest in fossils at the ripe old age of 55 I too remember going to the pit with my father-in-law years ago. It was nice to finally know the fate of the pit after searching around the net for awhile. Do you know of other places that still exist where you can get fossils beside along the James River? Like your blog site and best of luck to you.

Out Of Orion (Ox3) (Music)

G. W. Ferguson said...


It's funny you should mention this because at the ripe old age of 53 I've developed a hankering to do some fossil collecting again.

Once upon a time (1960s) we used to collect along the river at Carter's Grove Plantation--parked with the tourists, followed a footpath through the woods and to the river bordered with veritable cliffs of Miocene fossils. I have no idea if one can still do that without trespassing.

Of course, there's always Westmoreland State Park, if you don't mind a drive. And jellyfish.

Guess I'm going to have to buy a copy of Fossil Collecting in the Mid-Atlantic States!

Sydney Cohen said...

Found your blog while googling Rice's Pit. I remember skinning knees climbing up the sides of the pit looking for treasures- leaving with a pail full of brachiopods.. Visiting long before I could drive a car, there was no way I ever could have figured out where the place was when I was old enough to be nostalgic about it. I did accidentally (and definitely illegally) find it with a friend about 10+ years or so ago and the place was all aqua colored water. There were still sea fossils on the ground near it. I caught a lovely case of poison ivy in the process. I am disappointed that the city of Hampton let the jewel get away but in these litigious days I am sure that it would have been prohibitive to insure it. Thanks for the memory.

Barbara Hadley said...

I recall whetting my appetite at Rice's pit on a school expedition. The taste never left and has persisted for all of my 53 years (aren't we a creaking lot). I've mercilessly dragged my children over crusty marl hillocks (sometimes in strollers), in pursuit of the magical shark's tooth, bone or shell. I still hear about local sites and spend every moment available crawling around them (although the kids won't let me go alone anymore). Let me know if you find any new sites!

Unknown said...

Great post! I was doing research on the Carter’s Grove plantation for a paper that I am writing when I came across your post. Collecting fossils sounds like a lot of fun. My boyfriend is really into fossils, I will have to send this post to him. Thanks so much for sharing.

Anonymous said...

I lived a few blocks from there in willow oaks from 69-79 as a kid.We used to sneak in there and mr.rice would chase us off.Rumor had it he would shoot kids with rock salt,but we never got any.We did hear a shot one time and it scared the hell out of us and we never went back unless it was a school trip.

Anonymous said...

Aye! I dug into the walls of the pit as a young lad numerous times. I would come home with a couple plastic buckets of shells that my mom would mysteriously have disappear in a few months. Greetings to the Doctor of Doom from your FB pal Tzila... whoever Aka David Johnson, etc.

Unknown said...

I have lived in Hampton my whole life,51 years.
When I attended Willis Elementary School we went there for a field trip. I remember being in awe other the whale. It is a shame my kids never got to experience it. But then again I leave in Hampton, they have no respect for history. Darling Mansion, Herman House, my childhood friends house on Newport News Ave(it was a hospital for black Union Soldiers).Hampton settled in 1610,it is the oldest continuous English speaking settlement in America. What do we have to show for it now. Donna Hargus Warren

Richard C. Scottsdale AZ said...

I remember a 1968 field trip with my 5th class from Arrowhead Elementary School VA Beach We got to stop and dig for fossils while on the way to Williamsburg Va. What an exciting field trip digging fossils out of the Pit, sad to see that it closed

Julian DeLuna said...

I always wondered what happened to the Fossil Pit and now I know. I have fond memories of being in 4th grade in Virginia Beach Windsor Oaks Elementary School and having our field trip there. In 6th grade we went to Fort Monroe and sadly that too is now closed.

Unknown said...

Fort Monroe is not closed. It's a national historic landmark, and it's actually more accessible than when I was a kid and it was a commissioned base (my grandfather was stationed there and retired in Hampton, so he and my grandmother were members of the Officers Club and the pool. I still live in Hampton, and Fort Monroe is wonderful. Especially now that so much work has been done to restore the beach and add historical context to buildings and landmarks.)