For decades, scientists and students from the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology in Rapid City have been hunting fossils on Kenny Browns ranch near Hermosa.
But nobody loves the hunt for ancient bones more than the 71-year-old rancher himself.
It’s a love affair with science, the land and the far-distant past that began for Brown 61 years ago. He was a fourth-grader at a country school hear Hermosa when a South Dakota School of Mines paleontologist came to the school with dinosaur bones and a challenge.
“He told me if you find anything like this, we want to know about it,” Brown says. “And I said, “How do you do it?’ And he said, ‘Well, if you’ve got some of that black shale with yellow bentonite in there, that’s the place to look. Well, it wasn’t long before I found one, and I brought it down to the school, and been at it ever since.”
The retired rancher is still at it as a volunteer each week in the paleontology lab at the School of Mines, working close-up and in painstaking detail to free fossils from surrounding rock without damaging their scientific value.
“It’s a thrill,” he says. “It’s been quite a hobby. I mean, ranching’s been my life, but this is my hobby.”
It’s a hobby that began with that visiting Mines scientist and connected Brown to fossils and to the School of Mines for the rest of his life. A ranch kid who would turnto that profession for his living, Brown and his family began inviting Mines scientists and students to the ranch while he was in high school.
And they liked what they found in the fossil-rich hills along Spring Creek about 17 miles southeast of Rapid City. There Mines staff and students have hunted fossils for decades, with consistent success.
Brown says he has been honored to share his ranch with scientists not just from Mines but from across the nation and even other nations. What he loves most, however, is sharing it with Mines students, many of whom may end up using the hands-on experience at the ranch to shape their own careers.
“This particular area is probably richer (in fossils) than most places in South Dakota,” Brown said. “So I’ve been lucky that I’ve had a place where we can find so much.”
The students consider themselves lucky, too.
Junior geology major Kelly Lubbers of Chicago chose South Dakota Mines because of such opportunities. As president of the Paleontology Club, she brought Mines freshmen on a field trip to the ranch on Sunday.
It was part of the school’s first adventure weekend, and Brown’s place didn’t disappoint.
“They come out here and they get to prospect and maybe dig something up,” Lubbers said. “And it really gives the new freshmen a lot of experience and really excites them, and they get to meet new people.”
People like Kenny Brown, who shares his land and his passion for hunting fossils.
“It seems like every time we find another bone, it’s just a whole new world,” he says.
To make sure that world of discovery remains open to the School of Mines, Brown has written his will to leave the fossil-rich deposits to the school. But to make sure there are no complications for the use of the 60 to 80 acres where the fossils are most accessible, he’s leaving the entire ranch to Mines.
Brown said that will assure access and allow school officials in the future the option of selling portions of the ranch not needed for the digs to raise money for other research-related needs.
“They can come out and use that to have student learn, or travel, or whatever they need it for,” Brown said.