My articles are under the heading “Mitch’s Universe.” The reason for the name is that the meteorites, tektites, and ephemera are all from my personal collection with only a few exceptions – hence my universe. I am fortunate to have them and happily share them with you through my articles.
H.H. Nininger and the American Meteorite Museum
In the early 1920s, Harvey Harlow Nininger taught biology and geology at McPherson College in Kansas. In August 1923, Nininger read an article by Professor A.M. Miller about meteorites in “Scientific Monthly.” He could not remember anything that so completely captivated him. Nininger recalls that during his childhood meteors were regarded in about the same light as ghosts and dragons: mentioned rarely and never discussed seriously.
On the evening of November 9, 1923, Nininger was walking home with Professor E.L. Craik from a lecture, when they paused in front of Professor Craik’s home to chat. Suddenly a blazing streak of fire pierce the sky, lighting the landscape and vanished. Nininger would observe, “Apart from the excitement of trying to plot the course and recover the meteorite, I found myself completely engrossed, during all the time I could spare from my college and family duties, in an effort to learn as much as I could, as fast as I could, about this new subject.” This set in motion Nininger’s lifelong pursuit of meteorites.
After researching and communicating with others, he concluded that the meteor fell in the vicinity of Coldwater, Kansas. Ultimately, two meteorites were recovered near Coldwater. Nininger bought an oxidized forty-one pound iron meteorite from Deacon A.M. Brown who had plowed it up four years earlier. Nininger paid a dollar a pound for the find.
Eleven months after the 1923 fireball, a farmer plowing his ground hit an eleven pound stony meteorite. Nininger would not credit either of the Coldwater meteorites to the fall he witnessed due to their weathering.
To put into perspective the lack of knowledge or interest in meteorites at the time, after Nininger studied Dr. O.C. Farrington’s “Catalogue of the Meteorites of North America,” he wanted to know more about meteorites, so he headed to the University of Kansas which he assumed would have a wealth of information. When he arrived, Nininger was dismayed that the members of the geology department were unable to answer any of his questions. They not only professed ignorance but showed a total lack of interest in the subject. They showed Nininger a fifty-one pound specimen which was unlabeled for years, and they thought it was the Tonganoxie, Kansas, meteorite but were not certain. Nininger could see it was a pallasite and not a siderite iron, so it could not be Tonganoxie. Nininger thought it could only be a Brenham, Kansas meteorite. Nininger headed to the astronomy department and met a professor who showed him the only meteorite in his possession. It was a small common etched iron meteorite. Nininger commented that he wanted to know more about stony meteorites. The professor admitted, he did not know that there were any stony meteorites. Nininger was deeply disappointed. He concluded that the subject of meteorites was simply not being taught. Nininger reminded himself, that he was a biologist, and meteorites were the concern of astronomers and geologist, but if nobody has been trained to observe, collect and study them, then he might just start working on the subject. When Nininger took $41 from the family budget to purchase Deacon Brown’s meteorite, he started having sleepless nights wondering how he would finance this new hobby that had become his all-consuming interest. To put the $41 Nininger spent in perspective, the average income in the U.S. in 1920 was $3,269. The average rent in NY City was $60 per month, a washing machine was $81, a Hoover electric vacuum cleaner was about $39, a meal for two was about 70 cents, and a Chevy cost $525. Nininger also noticed the high prices charged for meteorites in the scientific supply house catalogs. This may have sparked the idea to sell meteorites to supplement his income.
The experts at the time proclaimed that meteorites were scarce. Nininger suspected this was not true. Were his two Coldwater finds that took less than a year just luck? The two Coldwater finds were twice as many meteorites discovered in Kansas as in the previous fifteen years.
Since it took nearly a year to locate and recover the two Coldwater meteorites, Nininger wondered if he could speed up the process, so he gave lectures in rural high schools and grade schools, so the children would spread the word among their parents.
Although Nininger wanted to give meteorites his full attention, he knew he would have to continue his teaching job, lecture for fees, and sell specimens as he obtained them. After Christmas in 1929, Alex Richards, one of Nininger’s students informed Nininger of a 12 ounce (340 gram) stone picked up by a neighbor, a 6th grade boy, who had heard Nininger lecture about meteorites at a Paradise school more than four years ago. The boy had found the stone while in the field husking corn. He thought it looked like what the little professor was talking about and brought it in with the corn. He then got embarrassed and thought his family might laugh at him, so he tossed the meteorite into the cow lot. After Alex’s neighbor told Alex the story, they went out to the cow lot and retrieved the meteorite. Nininger returned to Covert, Kansas describing the find and suggesting that there were probably other meteorites out there. At the close of the lecture, a young fellow left and returned with a seventeen pound meteorite that he had found the previous summer but hid it so his family would not ridicule him. Within a few months, a half-dozen meteorites totaling 140 pounds of Covert meteorite were recovered. All of these had been lying around for years and were only reported after it became known that a local boy had received money for his “rock.”
The Covert meteorite was an important meteorite because it gave Nininger assurance that his theory would be fruitful, and now he was determined to resign his teaching position, as soon as his finances were in order, and devote his full time to meteorites.
Nininger thought effective lecturing would answer the problem of ignorance and disinterest about meteorites. By spreading the knowledge and interest in a community, it could lead to one meteorite find which might lead to another. The reward given for the discovery would dispel any attitudes of ridicule or disbelief. It became standard practice for Nininger to pass along actual meteorites to members in the audience for them to examine what a meteorite might look like. He counted on his purchases of meteorites to encourage farmers, ranchers, and students to search for them.
On February 17, 1930, the Paragould, Arkansas meteorite fell. It was visible over many miles covering portions of several states. A few hours after the heavenly display, Raymond Parkinson, a farmer, who was awaken by the light and explosion, went to his field for his horses and came across a freshly made hole. He recovered an 85 pound stony meteorite. Parkinson sent Nininger a sample asking if he would be interested in purchasing the stone. Nininger and his wife Addie left their children next door with Addie’s sister and left for the 700 mile journey. Nininger found Parkinson, who was depressed. He informed the Niningers that he left the meteorite for display at the high school, and the principle and science teacher sold it for $300 to Stuart H. Perry who lived in Michigan. They were shipping it out in a typewriter case by express.
The Niningers visited the site of the find. They talked with witnesses and returned home. Shortly after returning home, they found out that an 800 pound stone had been recovered from a depth of eight feet just three miles from where Parkinson had found his stone. The 800 pound meteorite was found on Joe Fletcher’s property. W.H. Hodges, a neighbor who passed through Fletcher’s pasture gate noticed a hole eight feet in diameter and told Fletcher about it. They went to the hole and poked a stick in the hole through the water and hit rock at about twenty inches.
Nininger instructed an attorney to purchase the 800 pound meteorite. The owner informed them that there was an offer from an institution. Nininger contacted the institution informing them that he was largely responsible for the recovery of the stone. The bidding ceased, but not before the price has reached $3,100 which was more than the Niningers could afford. The final price was $3,600 for the Paragould meteorite which the Niningers had to borrow money to obtain the specimen.
While the Niningers were in town purchasing the 800 pound meteorite, word spread through town of the generous price being paid for the stone. An angry Parkinson went to the high school and beat the principal and took him to the police station and told his story. Parkinson paid a $2.50 fine to sympathetic authorities. Parkinson was ultimately awarded the $300 that had been paid for his meteorite.
At the time, Paragould meteorite was the largest known fall to be seen. Nininger sold the Paragould specimen for $6,200, and with the $2,000 profit began his dream. Paragould had profound effects on the Niningers, and he never regretted parting with it, but he had paid a price too high, and was forced to give it up or his dream of making meteorites his new career. The Covert and Paragould meteorites are arguably the two most important meteorites Nininger obtained. The meteor that Nininger saw on November 9, 1923 did not have a meteorite recovered from it, so it does not count. The recovered Coldwater meteorites were from a prior meteor. Now, with the profit from Paragould, and the stock of meteorites, the Niningers had built up enough savings for him to resign his teaching position and pursue his dream.
Nininger did not expect meteorites to be an easy living, but it would be interesting and would add to the knowledge of meteorites. Nininger would often tell his students, “Do something that needs doing!”
The Niningers balanced adventures and hardships obtaining meteorites. Nininger wrote about the Ford he used to get around Kansas and neighboring states, “In 1922, I had purchased an already old Model-T. It had no arrangement for carrying spare tire; instead, I carried a good set of tire tools and patching materials, and certainly made good use of them.” Nininger planned a trip to Mexico with Alex Richards. For the trip to Mexico, Nininger had his students build a car with seven speeds forward and five speeds backwards, extra clearance and a skit plate for its vital parts. The Chamber of Commerce man in Laredo, Texas, warned them about their trip to Mexico. He marked on the map areas where bandits were reported to be the worst. “He cautioned us about food, water and disease. He inspected our Winchester automatic rifle and told us we would need it – if the authorities would permit us to take it along.” During their various meteorite hunts, the Niningers would not have the luxury or money for hotels and instead camped. During the Great Depression, Nininger, with limited funds, offered people one dollar per pound for meteorites. People thought Nininger was crazy for buying rocks at a dollar per pound during a time of high unemployment, and the stock market crash.
Gary Huss remembers that life was pretty normal for him, and they grew up in a middle-class neighborhood playing baseball in their backyard with the neighborhood kids. Since his parents, Margaret, and Glenn Huss, worked from home, there was the benefit that they were always around. Back then, it was unusual for both parents to work from home. During the summers, Gary would accompany his father to “look” for meteorites. They did not actively search for meteorites, but instead spoke to farmers about them. When an actual meteorite would show up, Glenn would purchase it, and most farmers were happy to sell them. Huss would visit the neighbors again reporting the new find. The farmers would continue searching and sending in more samples. Due to Gary’s father’s efforts, many areas became active sources of meteorites.
In 1929, after Nininger resigned his position from McPherson College, he moved his family to Denver, Colorado. Nininger was hired by the Colorado (Denver) Museum of Natural History (now Denver Museum of Nature & Science) to oversee their meteorite collection and become the nation’s first Curator of Meteorites. In 1935, Nininger taught a night course on meteoritics at the University of Denver. The first class on meteoritics offered by a college. Nininger had amassed the world’s largest private collection of meteorites, a portion of which became the Denver Museum’s meteorite collection. Nininger added to the Denver Museum’s collection, through purchases, trades, donations and recovery, in addition to adding to his own collection. World War II put a halt to Nininger’s work for the Denver Museum, and in 1946, he moved his collection from the Denver Museum to his American Meteorite Museum, near Canyon Diablo meteor crater in Arizona. This is when Nininger started to label his collection “The American Meteorite Museum.”
The Nininger Meteorite Collection was operating up to 1937 as “The Nininger Laboratory;” from 1937 until 1946 as “The American Meteorite Laboratory;” and from 1946 as “The American Meteorite Museum.”
Prior to Nininger establishing the American Meteorite Museum, Dr. Lincoln La Paz of the University of New Mexico offered Nininger a position at UNM’s newly established Meteoritical Institute, if Nininger would agree to donate his meteorite collection. Nininger declined the offer. Nininger and La Paz clashed at the 1946 annual meeting of the Society for Research on Meteorites, when Nininger presented a paper discussing the scientific importance of meteorites. Nininger believed that La Paz urged Fredrick Leonard to criticized Nininger’s use of the term “meteorite,” and La Paz went on to accuse Nininger of mounting “falsely labeled specimen[s] of worthless shale” rather than meteorites on the covers of Nininger’s “A Comet Strikes the Earth.” Not everyone was a fan of the American Meteorite Museum. La Paz ridiculed Nininger’s museum as a “glorified hot dog stand” and “a disgraceful commercialization of science.”
Dr. Fletcher Watson of Harvard University in his book “Between the Planets” (1941) writes that Nininger was accounting for half of all the meteorite discoveries in the world at that time.
After World War II, Nininger now 59 years old, wanted some security for his declining years without the constant funding and re-funding of trips to locate meteorites. The Niningers were owners of one of the greatest meteorite collections and thought it should be devoted to the advancement of knowledge through research and education. For more than a decade, the Niningers thought about living near Arizona’s Meteor Crater. The Niningers discussed with members of the Barringer family, who owned Meteor Crater, and the Tremaines’, who owned the Bar T Bar ranch that surrounded the Barringer property, about a partnership and establishing a museum on the rim of the crater. They were unable to strike a deal.
In the summer of 1946, the Niningers had leased a building on Highway Route 66 in Arizona and were ready to establish their own museum – the American Meteorite Museum. The American Meteorite Museum was located off Highway 66, looking across the crater from about five miles away. Prior to Nininger taking over the building, it was referred to as the “Observatory.” Tourist climbed the tower to get a view of the crater. Nininger heard others describe the building as beautiful, but to him it was an architectural monstrosity; however, there was no question as to the beauty of its location.
The museum exterior was faced with flagstone as was its floor. The walls had red mud made from the local red dirt to hold the stones in place. When the building was first built, prior to the Niningers moving in, after the first rains, the mud did not hold, so the original builders had replaced as much of the mud as they could with concrete. They replaced most of the mud, but not all of it, which Nininger discovered when it rained. The space was twenty by forty feet. Nininger received old exhibit cases for his museum from the Denver museum where he previously worked. The Denver museum was getting new exhibit cases in the mineral department, so the old ones were being discarded. The Niningers had to move 16,000 pounds of meteorites 750 miles from Denver to the new American Meteorite Museum home in Arizona. Hugoton weighed nearly 800 pounds and Morland one hundred pounds less.
The display room took up most of the space. The book shelves were used to separate the sleeping quarters from the kitchen. There was a butane gas cooking range. Evenings found them in the back room cooking, eating and reading by lantern. They discarded the electric refrigerator in lieu of blocks of ice from Winslow (19 miles away) on hot days. The building leaked every time it rained. The winters were very cold and the summers extremely hot. Life at the museum was anything but luxurious.
Half the tourists who came to the front of the museum read the sign with the admission fees of 25 cents for adults and 15 cents for children turned around and left. Despite this, on the first day, they had sixty visitors to the museum. Admission increased steadily, but there were days when there were a dozen or less tourists. In the museum, a visitor could hold in their hands a piece of matter from outer space. Nininger gave frequent lectures throughout the day. Frequently, there were groups of school children, and often scientists. The first year, there were over 33,000 visitors.
There were only three other museums in the United States that had comparable meteorite exhibits to be seen – Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, New York’s American Museum of Natural History and Washington D.C.’s United States National Museum (Smithsonian Museum).
By the end of June 1949, a new nearby highway would divert the traffic from Highway 66 which would substantially lower the number of tourists that visited the museum. It was the beginning of the end. After the new highway opened the days were described by Nininger as lonely and sober. The Niningers sought to bolster their dipping admission revenue by selling meteorites. Wards Natural Science took sales under consignment, and this accounted for up to half of their income. During the summer of 1950, the Niningers were considering constructing a new building that would front the new highway. In 1950, Nininger published “The Nininger Collection” catalog of meteorites to try and sell the collection to an institution. Two things saved the museum from being closed. The first was their inability to sell the collection, and the second was they were locked into the lease.
Since there were few visitors, Nininger carried out crater investigations. During the last two months of the lease, Nininger found a location in Sedona, Arizona to relocate the Museum. The Niningers moved tons of meteorites to the new Sedona location. Nininger thought the new museum was fresh, clean and bright but lacked the picturesqueness of the old museum. The museum had normal electricity, and the downstairs apartment was comfortable compared to the mud walls of the old one room museum. The new museum was busy enough to confirm they had made the right decision. In 1955, Nininger’s daughter Margaret and her husband, Glenn Huss came to Arizona to assist the Niningers at the museum. Glenn was interested in meteorites 15 years earlier since hearing one of the school lectures.
One afternoon at the American Meteorite Museum in Sedona, Nininger greeted a visitor from Jordan, Dr. Dashani, Director of Antiquities in Jordan. He was intrigued by the meteorites. He asked questions about how Nininger acquired the collection and why they were operating the Museum. Nininger confided in him that they were about to bring the museum operation to a close. The visitor asked, “Why?” “You say, you are not able to make it pay. Why doesn’t your government give money for it? It gives money to our country to finance various cultural activities. Surely, your government would finance your museum?” Nininger from time to time wondered the same thing. He found it difficult to explain to a stranger from another country why this was so.
Nininger thought to himself why the museum should not be closed. Since 1923, the Niningers were responsible for recovering at least half of all meteorites discovered in America. The collection had furnished much of the research on meteorites by various institutions. The first few years in Sedona were productive, but by the fall of 1957 it had become evident that the winter months never were going to pay the expense of running the museum. Nininger, now seventy years old, wrote to museums and institutions to see if they were interested in purchasing his collection.
Dr. Fred Whipple had written on behalf of Harvard that they regretted that they would not be able to purchase the collection. Professor Whipple created the “dirty snowball” theory of comets among his other notable achievements. In 1956, Max Hey, Curator of Meteorites at the British Museum stopped by the museum to examine the specimens. He suggested the British Museum may be interested in acquiring a large part of it. The British Museum asked for an extensive price list of specimens that would amount to a “vertical split” of the collection. The Niningers selected 256 out of the 680 finds/falls, which amounted to about 1,200 specimens, of which they offered at a total discounted price of $155,000. Before final acceptance by the British Museum, there was interest from Arizona State University (ASU) and the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian was interested in the entire collection and Nininger gave them a discounted price of $200,000 but informed them that another institution’s prior offer was pending. Nininger’s preference was that the collection stay in the U.S. and that it end up in Arizona due to the importance of crater research. Both American institutions were dependent upon finding funding, and both solicited a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSF wanted a system of checks and balances, and it did not favor the Smithsonian having a monopoly on meteorites in the U.S., therefore, they gave the grant to ASU.
On June 13, 1958, a counteroffer came from the British Museum for the “vertical split” of 1,200 specimens for the amount Nininger offered less a seven and a half percent discount or a total of $140,000. The Niningers accepted the counteroffer for approximately 21 percent of the collection. Nininger sent the main mass of more than 600 pounds of Morland to the British Museum. They kept the larger nearly 800 pound stony meteorite, Hugoton. The Niningers received payment from the British Museum and for the first time in 35 years, they were debt free.
Nininger calculated that over half a million visitors had visited the museum over the 4,600 days of operation. Margaret and Glenn Huss were still operating the museum. Nininger was hoping the museum could be self-supporting. The Niningers sold the remaining part of the collection to ASU at a discounted rate of $275,000. After the sale of main Nininger Collection to ASU, the Niningers stopped using the American Meteorite Museum labels. The museum was closed, and Margaret and Glenn were headed to Denver to start the American Meteorite Laboratory. The Addie and H. H. Nininger American Meteorite Museum era ended, and the era of the Margaret and Glenn Huss American Meteorite Laboratory began.
I would like to thank my friends, Dr. Gary Huss, and his sister, Ms. Peggy Schaller, for their input into this article. Also, they assisted me in determining who’s writing were on the labels, envelopes, etc. They were best guesses, however, they were fairly confident on the authors of the writings which adds to the rich history and story.
“Find A Falling Star” H. H. Nininger (1972)
Emails between Dr. Gary Huss, his sister, Ms. Peggy Schaller,and Mitch Noda
Country Living July 30, 2020
Harvey H. Nininger – Wikipedia
A Summative History – Denver Museum of Natural History
Denver Museum of Nature & Science Reports Number 17, December 11, 2019
ASU Arizona Archives Online – H.H. Nininger Papers 1864 [sic]– 1991 (Bulk 1914-1984)
“The Nininger Collection of Meteorites” H.H. Nininger and Addie D. Nininger (1950)
Dr. Fletcher Watson of Harvard University in his book “Between the Planets” (1941)