Workers at the Gage Ranch, near Marathon, were eating lunch beside a stock tank on August 2, 1946, when a large meteorite slammed into the pond, splattering them with water, mud, and moss. When Dr. Gayle Scott, a Texas Christian University geologist, heard about the dousing that evening in Marathon, he telegraphed—strange as it may seem—a dry-goods salesman in Fort Worth for guidance. Oscar Monnig not only sent advice, he showed up in person four days later. He identified the fragments of the meteorite (which had split into many pieces when it splashed down), classified them as a rare variety, and bought a few pieces for his own collection.
By the time he died in 1999, Monnig had amassed one of the world’s largest private collections—fragments of some 400 individual meteorites—of these extraterrestrial visitors, cosmic rocks that survive their plunge through Earth’s atmosphere. Today, many of those pieces are on display at the Monnig Meteorite Gallery, on the campus of Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.
Exhibits in the gallery, which opened in 2003, describe how these chunks of cosmic rock form, how they fall to Earth, how they are discovered, and man’s strange reactions to them. You’ll also learn the different types of meteorites (some are made of iron and nickel, some of various types of rock, and a few are a combination of these).
Most important, though, the gallery captures Monnig’s passion for meteorites through detailed stories about his discoveries and quotes from Monnig himself. “If I collected all the henhouse doorstops in Texas,” Monnig says in one display, “I’d have a major meteorite collection.”
Oscar Monnig began his collection in the 1930s, a time when scientists paid little attention to meteorites. His work eventually made him the top meteorite expert in Texas and one of the top experts in the world.
Monnig traveled across Texas and Oklahoma for his family’s wholesale dry-goods business, meeting farmers, ranchers, and newspaper editors in every town. He would leave a stack of small flyers at each general store that asked people to notify him if they found certain odd rocks. If the rocks were meteorites, he bought them. The purchases not only swelled Monnig’s collection, they provided much-needed cash for Depression-era farmers.
“He bought one meteorite in the early ’30s from a family in the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma,” says Arthur Ehlmann, curator of the Monnig Collection and a longtime friend of Monnig. “A letter in the Monnig files here at TCU from the farmers says the $35 check from Oscar was the largest check they received all year. And he never turned anybody down. We have more than 500 pieces of the same meteorite from Dimmitt. I asked him why he bought them all, and he said, ‘If I ever turned anyone down, it would shut them all off. As long as I have a shed to put them in, I’ll buy them.’”
Monnig made sure that his collection would have more than a shed for a home. He began donating meteorites to TCU in the 1980s, and he left the bulk of his estate—more than $4 million—to build a public viewing gallery and to protect the collection.
The state-of-the-art facility offers videos, interactive computer terminals, text panels, murals, and other eye-catching displays to convey the story of meteorites. But the stars of the gallery are the meteorites themselves. Some are small, rough chunks blackened by high temperatures, caused by friction during their high-speed descent through the atmosphere. Others are polished sections of cut surfaces, showing flecks of colorful minerals or the interlacing geometric patterns that identify iron-nickel meteorites.
While most of the meteorites are fragments of asteroids—mountain-size boulders that orbit the sun—a few are pieces of Mars or the moon. The gallery’s Mars display includes a small pinkish fragment that visitors may touch. It was discovered in Libya in 1998; Arthur Ehlmann acquired it in a trade.
Much of Monnig’s original collection is highlighted in the Texas Room (the gallery has two other rooms, the Impact Room and the Theater Room). A display notes that more meteorites have been discovered in Texas than in any other state—278 as of 2000—and the Oscar Monnig collection includes pieces of 201 of those. A state map shows where the meteorites were found—most of them in relatively flat areas of the Panhandle and West Texas, where Earth rocks are less numerous and meteorites stand out.
Glass cases in the Texas Room hold iron meteorites from Palo Duro Canyon and Floydada, stones from the towns of McKinney and Bluff, and other small samples. In the central case, a heavy chunk of iron from the meteorite that blasted out the 164-foot-deep Odessa Meteor Crater sits atop a five-pointed star. Each point aims at another rare or beautiful Texas meteorite, including the only known piece of a meteorite that many people saw fall near Kirbyville in 1906, and a slice of one called Pena Blanca Spring—the 103-pound rock that fell on the Gage Ranch in 1946 and elicited an excited call to the state’s top meteorite expert, Oscar Monnig.
The Oscar E. Monnig Meteorite Gallery is in the Sid W. Richardson Science Building, Bowie St. at University Dr., on the TCU campus in Fort Worth.
Public parking is limited, so visitors must compete with TCU students and staff for street parking (except on Sat.). Hours: Tue-Fri 1-4, Sat 9-4. Weekday-morning tours are available to groups of 10 or more by appt. Closed on university holidays. Admission: Free. Call 817/257-6277; monnigmuseum.tcu.edu.