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Bonner Family Fossil History

Fossil Hunters Since 1925

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Marion Bonner became interested in fossils in the fall of 1925 as a freshman at Wichita County High School in Leoti, Kansas. His science teacher, Arthur Wedel, knew about the Cretaceous chalk beds in Logan and Gove counties and would take groups of students fossil hunting. Marion found a fossil fish skull on his first day out and was “hooked” on fossils from that day forth. He taught himself by acquiring fossil books and learning all he could about the Niobrara Cretaceous fossils of western Kansas.

George Sternberg was active in the Kansas chalk at that time and Marion witnessed a few of George’s digs. In 1928, Mr. Wedel loaned Marion and other students his Model T car to take the long drive to Hays to see the museum at Fort Hays Kansas State College. They camped out, did some fossiling along the way, and met George Sternberg at the museum. Marion and George would not get reacquainted until 1955.

During the 1930’s and 40’s Marion’s time was mainly spent farming and running The Plaza movie theater in Leoti, but he still found time to do some fossil hunting. After a stint in the army during World War II, he returned to Leoti, built a new large house to accommodate his growing family, and resumed farming and the theater business.

Fossil hunting was a family affair for the Bonners. Marion and his wife Margaret along with their children (in order) Orville, Clare Jane, Letty, Steve, Chris, Chuck, Dana, and Melanie, spent many family outings picnicking and fossil hunting in the chalk canyons of western Kansas.

An event in the fall of 1955, made Marion Bonner’s fossil career far more serious. Marion found a near complete short-necked plesiosaur, Dolichorhynchops, which he and his son Orville collected and worked on that coming winter. They took part of it to Hays to show George Sternberg, which turned out to be a marvelous way to reintroduce themselves. Marion donated the specimen, one of the best in the world, to the museum; it is now on display in the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays, Kansas.

George Sternberg and Marion became good friends and George recommended Marion to membership in the Society of Vertebrae Paleontology. It was exciting for Marion and Margaret to travel to meetings with George and his wife Anna to New York, Chicago, Ann Arbor, and Denver (just to name a few). George introduced Marion to many famous paleontologists.

The rest of the Bonner family retained an interest in fossils to varying degrees. Margaret and the children all found important fossils over the years. Orville got his masters degree from Fort Hays and completed thesis papers on Marion’s Dolichorhynchops plesiosaur and a Nyctosaurus flying reptile found by George Sternberg. He worked for a little over a year as a fossil preparator at the University of Michigan Museum before spending over thirty years as head preparator at the Museum of Natural History in Lawrence, Kansas. He retired in 1997 but still likes to talk about fossils.

Another son, Chuck, took a different direction with his interest of fossils. Instead of a degree in paleontology, Chuck got a masters in painting at Fort Hays State. While at school, he worked at the Sternberg Museum for five years, which included a lot of fossil preparation. After school, Chuck pursued his art career and helped his father collect fossils during the summer months. Chuck’s brother, Dana, also did some fossiling at this time and was fortunate in 1982 to find a rare Xiphactinus fish with a Gillicus fish inside.

Chuck continued to find and collect fossils with his dad until Marion’s death in 1992. He has carried on the family tradition of fossil hunting. In 1991, Chuck and his wife Barbara Shelton, along with their son Logan, opened the Keystone Gallery, a combination fossil museum, art gallery, and gift shop. They are still active in fossil hunting and conduct guided fossil hunts in the area.

Another sideline to the museum is a lecture and slide presentation. These involve western Kansas Cretaceous fossil information and history, hunting and collecting methods, Barbara’s scenic Kansas photography, and Chuck’s artwork.

Chuck and Barbara have given presentations at the Cincinnati Museum Center (Cincinnati, Ohio), Yale Peabody Museum (New Haven, Connecticut), and the Stanton County Museum (Johnson, Kansas).

If your group or organization is interested in one of our fossil talks, please call or e-mail us to reserve a date and inquire about the fee for the presentation.

Photo Gallery

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All photos in this gallery ©Bonner Family

Fossil Hunting - 1925Fossil Hunting— 1925

Top row: Andy Askey, Marion Bonner, Oscar Chapman.

Bottom row: Howard Spear, Gerald White, Jennings Bonner.

Photo taken by Arthur Wedel, their teacher at Leoti High School.

Xiphactinus Skull - 1928Xiphactinus Skull—1928

Huge fossil fish skull found and collected by Marion Bonner in 1928. Marion’s niece Janice stands by the specimen.

H.T. Martin Letter - 1929H.T. Martin Letter—1929

A discouraging response from University of Kansas paleontologist Handel T. Martin to an 18-year-old Marion Bonner.

Click on the image for a better look and transcript.

Orvie's First Fossil - 1946Orvie’s First Fossil—1946

10-year-old Orville Bonner working on one of his first fossil finds, a Pentanogmius.

The Bonner Fossil Girls - 1954The Bonner Fossil Girls—1954

Letty, Clare Jane, and Chris Bonner enjoying a day in the fossil beds.

Collecting a Fossil Sea Turtle—1956

At the Quarry Inspecting the Turtle
Marion Bonner, Steve Bonner, and George Sternberg at the turtle quarry. Marion inspecting the turtle. This specimen is now in the Sternberg Museum of Natural History.

Plesiosaur at HomePlesiosaur Donated To The Sternberg Museum of Natural History—1955-1958

Marion and Orville Bonner with plesiosaur at home in Leoti, Kansas—1955.
Plesiosaur in Lab Plesiosaur with Marion

In the laboratory at Fort Hays State University with the plesiosaur—1956.

George Sternberg, Orville Bonner, Leford Wendell, and Marion Bonner.

Marion proudly standing beside the plesiosaur (Dolichorhynchops) he found and collected.

M.C. Cunningham Letter - 1955Fort Hays Kansas State College President Cunningham's heartfelt thanks to Marion Bonner for his donation of a plesiosaur Dolichorhynchops to the Fort Hays Museum.

Click on the image for a better look.

Family Members with Plesiosaur

The finished specimen now on display at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History—1958.

Margaret Bonner, Melanie Bonner, Marion Bonner, Clare Jane (Bonner) Askey, and Kari Askey.

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©2015 Keystone Gallery / Photos © Barbara Shelton unless otherwise noted

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