Evanston Rock City

Scott Gordon

The now-extinct squids, scorpions and dragonflies that inhabitedpresent-day Illinois 300 million years ago often often are upstagedby larger creatures like dinosaurs. But they live on in southEvanston.

“Unfortunately, the dinosaurs are the ‘in’ thing,” says DaveDouglass, owner of Dave’s Down to Earth Rock Shop and PrehistoricLife Museum, 704 Main St.

While major museums draw in visitors with towering reptiles andshelve the smaller creatures, Douglass favors trilobites — extinctmarine ancestors of present-day crustaceans.

“If you’re looking at fossils, these kinds of things fill in awhole gap in time,” he says of the variety of fossilized plants,insects and reptiles displayed in his museum. “One thing’s not moreimportant than another.”

Douglass, 54, began fossil-hunting as a hobby at 8, and heconvinced his parents to join him in the search. Douglass and hisparents each discovered fossil specimens of previously unknownspecies during their family vacation fossil hunts.

These fossils — each of whose scientific names contain the word”douglassi” or “douglassae” — are on display in the museum. So isDouglass’ own specimen of the official Illinois state fossil, anextinct, nearly unclassifiable marine creature known only as”Tully’s Monster.”

Douglass started out as a geological sciences major atNorthwestern, but during his sophomore year in 1970, he decided hereally wanted to open a shop — mostly so he could finance otherfossil-collecting trips. He opened his first location on ChicagoAvenue, selling items he mostly had collected himself.

“It wasn’t a moneymaker for a lot of years,” Douglass says. Whenhe first opened the store, there were at least 14 other rock shopsin the Chicago area, but now his one of the few left.

“(Other rock shops) were too narrowly focused on just peoplethat were cutting and polishing rocks,” Douglass says. “The hobbyaspect of it was starting to die down.”

He says his shop is “not only for collectors but for moreartistic-type specimens anybody could put on their mantle.”

The shop sells colorful stones, meteorite fragments, decorativefossils and an assortment of artifacts and jewelry. It attractscollectors, jewelers and school kids on field trips.

About half of the fossils in the free museum, located in thebasement of the store, were excavated by Douglass and his parents.All the fossils there are genuine, not casts or replicas, whichDouglass says are usually the fossils people see displayed in majormuseums. Douglass says people studying fossils who are disappointedwith the Field Museum sometimes end up at his museum.

David Jablonski, a professor of geophysical sciences at theUniversity of Chicago, says Douglass has an impressivecollection.

“It’s well set up for people to enjoy the collection, and I hopeit’ll make people want to learn more,” Jablonski says.

The museum draws at least two school groups a week, Douglasssays, and he’s glad people pay attention to the creatures he putson display.

“It’s nice when we get the kids coming, because they get soexcited,” Douglass says. “I think I got about 30 or 40 10-year-oldkids who are going to buy the place when they win the lottery.”

After Douglass stopped being a full-time student, he continuedtaking classes part-time for a while, but never did complete hiseducation at NU.

“I think I still have about a year to go,” he says,laughing.

And looking for fossils, which he loves most, is “nothing youcan really learn in books and stuff. It’s a lot of talking topeople” and finding out where to look.

Even without a complete formal education, Douglass was stillknowledgeable enough to record the audio commentary that plays inhis museum and tracks the displayed fossil specimens throughseveral geologic periods.

He moved to his current location in 1987, and opened the museuma year later. He now has three employees and three generations ofregular customers.

Seattle resident John Snyder, whose wife originally is fromChicago, has been visiting the rock shop occasionally for more than10 years.

“This is the nicest rock shop I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been to alot of them,” Snyder says. “Whenever we visit, we always comehere.”