Postal workers who deliver Jim and Susan Pendergraft's daily mail must wonder, judging from their patio, what the inside of their house looks like. Fossils are everywhere: patio decorations, lawn ornaments, hanging on walls, collected in boxes, placed on bookshelves and chronologically arranged in museum display cases. In fact, Jim and Susan Pendergraft, amateur paleontologists, have more fossils than furniture in their Largo, Florida home.
"We need more space," says Jim, surveying the front room where most of the fossils are cataloged. Pendergraft became fascinated with huge, hairy beasts, dinosaurs, and reptiles at the age of 5, after seeing, the original 1933 movie King Kong.
"Or fewer fossils," says his wife, Susan. Together they have 25 years of experience sifting through Florida's sands of time. The Pendergrafts collect fossils the way some people collect art. The couple appear an unlikely pair: she is petite, fair-skinned and in her early thirties. He is tall, deeply-tanned, wears a goatee on his chin and a pony tail in his thinning salt and pepper hair, is slim and nearing fifty. She has a degree in anthropology and is working on her masters degree. He finished high school, went into the Navy, and later worked for Pinellas County's Department of Transportation. "I was never one to really like sitting in the classroom," he says.
Susan is a teacher in the gifted program at Seminole Middle School, Seminole, Florida. She and the other gifted teacher, Deborah Love, wrote six-week unit for eighth graders on the major geological time periods in Florida's history. The unit will give the children experience in reconstructing a supermarket chicken from bones (or they can use a wooden kit if they are vegetarians), they must then set the formation in sand and glue, make up a mystery of how this animal died, cover it with sand and pass it to another classmate to excavate. The next student must dig out the bones and repair any they have broken and reconstruct the animal. The eighth-graders will use the Internet to interview real paleontologists at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and will explore different methods of fossil preservation.
Jim and Susan met and started roaming the phosphate dunes and western Badlands together in the early 1980's. She had recently graduated from high school, and wasn't sure what she wanted to study in college when she met Jim. She soon became intrigued by his fossil-hunting hobby. It wasn't long before she donned the protective layer of sun screen of any serious fair-haired amateur paleontologist. Eventually they married.
Today their house is a natural history of souvenirs from their fossil hunting adventures. The cardboard boxes contain the small stuff -- hundreds of sharks teeth, arrow heads, small bones, coral reef shells and fossilized molds. Glass display cases hold original jaws from mastodons, cave-bears, giant ground sloths, bones of three-toed horses and ancient armadillos as big as "Volkswagons." In the dining room, on top of a waist-high bookcase, are two complete mastodon jaws, in the center is a three-foot mastodon tusk.
Jim is a full-time fossil hunter. He regularly scours all over the state of Florida, all along the east coast and the Badlands of South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana on his never-ending quest for a "mother lode of fossils."