by Martin Horejsi of Martin Horejsi's Meteorite and Tektite Books
An Article In Meteorite-Times Magazine
A Family Heirloom From Space
The perseverance of meteorite hunting can take many forms. It can be as sedentary as scouring the electronic listings of meteorite dealers, or scrolling and clicking through an ever-changing list of auctions, or hiking for hours-on-end, neck bent, staring at the ground. One can even mine the human resources by walking house-to-house, knocking on the endless supply of doors, searching for that one-in-a-million person who holds the clue to the next meteorite discovery. It is this latter technique preferred by Allen Shaw that led to the discovery of the Independence, Missouri meteorite.
Missouri formally joined the United States about 175 years ago, and throughout that time, a rich collection of meteorites has been discovered there. The state can claim 11 ordinary chondrites of which seven are falls including a rare L3 fall (the only one ever in the US); a stone named Archie that is one of the most beautiful oriented meteorites in the world and showpiece in the Smithsonian collection. In 1877, a carbonaceous chondrite fell in Missouri, and nine irons, one mesosiderite and one pallasite have been found within Missouri’s borders.
With all the exciting specimens from Missouri, one might be quick to dismiss an ordinary chondrite as one of the less interesting rocks to land in the Show-Me state. But the story of the recently discovered fall from 85 years ago brings to life the human elements often overshadowed by science following a discovery. This life can even make an octogenarian a thrilling addition to an already extensive collection.
Time has a way of blurring details and clouding events. And the effects of time are only multiplied when the story is passed from person to person. But in our single-minded pursuit for measurable accuracy, we often fail to count our blessings for the information we do have given that the human life span shrinks to nothingness when expressed in geologic time.
In the summer of 1917, or possibly 1918, or even 1919, a meteorite fell near a man named Edward Keesling while he was cultivating a field in Jackson County, Missouri near the town of Independence. According to Mr. Keesling’s daughter-in-law, a strange sound was heard by Mr. Keesling; a sound like that of “a hot stone submerged in water.” As Mr. Keesling looked for the source of the sound, out of the corner of his eye he caught a movement in the field.
It appeared to Mr. Keesling, again according to his daughter-in-law, that a dark object crashed into the dirt several hundred feet from where he was standing. A thud was heard by Mr. Keesling who at that moment joined the very few people on this planet to both hear a meteorite fall and see it hit the earth.
The meteorite was recovered and except for the occasional person who saw the curiosity sitting peacefully behind glass doors in a kitchen cabinet, remained hidden to the rest of the world for decades to come. Half a century later, in the early 1970’s, Mr. Keesling passed from this world leaving the curious rock to his son. A few more decades later, when his son’s time on this earth drew near to a close, Mrs. Keesling (the daughter-in-law of the meteorite’s finder) answered Allen Shaw's knock on her door.
Shaw was searching for meteorite information in the rural farmlands of Missouri hoping for just such an encounter. Mrs. Keesling, on the other hand, was not quite prepared for the meeting. The special rock had significance beyond its extraterrestrial nature, to that of a special link to loved ones no longer with us. But in reality, it was just a rock, and she knew it.
Time is often the only medicine that heals the wounds of loss. Shaw, with the patience of a Redwood tree, waited until it was appropriate for Mrs. Keesling to pass her special rock on to someone else.
The 880-gram stone was classified by Kentaro Kenada of Tokyo and stamped with the less-than-exciting label of L6, S3, W1. But the streamline body of Independence more than made up for its ordinary interior. The oriented form of the stone bears witness to its stable but noisy journey through the atmosphere. We can only imagine, through the gift of Mr. Keesling’s words, its spinning mass as a hissing corkscrew screaming through the nitrogen towards rich Missouri dirt.
Had Edward Keesling not been a curious fellow, or had he looked up a split-second later than he did, or if he found the black rock to be less-than-worthy of the limited real estate in his kitchen cabinet, or even had he kept what he saw and heard to himself, Independence would have joined the vast majority of its relatives who are lost to the oceans, the plains, and the future generations.
Even thought Independence is an oriented stone, Shaw decided that a few slices from one end would not diminish the oriented form to any unacceptable degree. Several thin slices and a 25-gram end section were removed from the mass. The largest of the slices, one of 19.8 grams, now resides in the author’s collection. While the visual excitement of the surface is of this slice would not win any awards, a slice of Independence is really a portal to another time. One where the US entered the First World War; one when automobile manufactures started using the assembly line; one where the first probe in space was still 40 years in the future. In fact, the fall of Independence landed somewhere about halfway between the Civil War and the Moon Landing.
Those who witness a meteorite fall make their own sense of the event. Whether medicine from God or an unexploded bomb, the people who see a meteorite’s fall have only their culture and education to draw upon for immediate explanation. Many people today see dollar signs spray out from meteorite impacts, but before all the monetary hype engulfed the wonder of meteorites, folks stared at these outer-space visitors with sincere awe. We owe a debt of thanks to all the people before us who gathered specimens, and told stories with no more of self-interest than to satisfy their own personal curiosity or to share their excitement.
It is also important to appreciate the single-minded dedication of people who continue to walk in the footsteps of H. H. Nininger, believing that scattered across the land there are stories and specimens that deserve collecting. Mr. Keesling's rock sat patiently for Allen Shaw to be born, grow up, start a family, learn about meteorites, and eventually walk house-to-house along the dusty farm roads of the Midwest. We should never forget about the tireless effort that keeps the stream of new meteorites and their stories flowing into our collections.