Fossil Man

By on August 1, 2011

Photo: Tom Cesario of Sugar Grove is known as the ‘Fossil Man’ by the Elburn quarry, because he comes to scope out fossils. He travels all over Illinois and the country looking for fossils and is part of the Chicago Palentologist Association. Here he holds a dinosaur bone, which is part of
his vast collection. Photo by John DiDonna

Sugar Grove resident houses rare collection that spans the ages
by Lynn Meredith
SUGAR GROVE—If you ever had any doubt that life on this planet dates back far beyond the dinosaurs, far beyond the glaciers that swept through our part of the country and far beyond five geological extinctions, all you have to do is take a look at the extensive fossil collection amassed by Tom Cesario of Sugar Grove. Known as the “Fossil Man,” Cesario houses rare and extremely old fossils of plant and animal specimens, along with all sorts of whimsical dinosaur collectibles, in his basement.

“I like the old stuff,” Cesario said. “I collect from before the extinction.”

One of five extinctions of life on the planet, this one occurred between the Triassic and Permian periods, or about 250 million years ago. At this time, dinosaurs—while not in this immediate vicinity, which was 60 feet under the ocean—roamed the earth. When the extinction wiped out the dinosaurs, it took all but a small selection of plants and animals with it.

“Only about five percent of what grew at the time made it past the extinction,” Cesario said.

The remains of those species can be found in the fossils that fill up a long wall in Cesario’s basement. He has cabinets with pull-out drawers and maps of the sites where the rocks were found. Every inch of the basement study is filled with fossils of whale bones, shark teeth, shrimp, mollusks, tortoise shells, bison skulls, sloth hip bones, ferns, seeds, jellyfish, starfish, even the ripple marks of the ocean: the selection is too numerous to name, but apparently not to number. Each and every rock is numbered and referenced to its plat in a scientific book and filed in notebooks.

Cesario has been collecting fossils since he was 5 years old, from the day he and his brothers found some old coffee cans filled with shells, rocks and minerals, and fossils in an alley in Berwyn, Ill. He has made learning about fossils his life study and has come up with some tremendous finds.

“This fish is the rarest. There are only three known of that type,” he said. “These stromatolites are the oldest. These are 600 to 700 million years old. They still grow in parts of the world.”

He has some sponges that are very rare and 430-500 million years old, the largest shark spine ever found, and leaches that are 320-350 million years old. The list goes on, but some finds are worth quite a lot, like some fossilized wood from Brazil.

“This goes by the ounce. Cocaine is cheaper than this,” he said.

As he pulled out one drawer of concretions, plants and animals that got covered with iron and steel 300 million years ago, he commented on its value.

“This drawer could put your kid through college,” he said.

Finding these fossils is a long process that requires patience and hefting ability. Cesario has spent a good deal of his time at Mazon Creek at the site of strip mines in Coal City and Braidwood. They used to be lush pickings, but now they have become overgrown or were developed into real estate. Now he takes a boat out to two islands that remain to continue to hunt.

In order to get to the fossils, he has to collect likely rocks into buckets, bring them home and leave them outside to freeze. Then he has to haul the buckets down to the basement sink to thaw them. He repeats the process until they start to crack, and then he taps them apart. The imprint of the plant or animal is on the inside of the rock. To get an idea of how many rocks he must go through, he’s had 100 to 175 five-gallon buckets of rocks in a year. His peak year was 1988, when he collected 176 buckets of rock.

“For every 100,000 rocks I go through, I get one fossil. For every million rocks I go through, I get one amphibian,” Cesario said. “For every 100 buckets of rock, I have 60 buckets of scrap that gets dumped into foundations.”

He has found two amphibians in his career.

Although he has no formal training, his basement also houses an elite collection of reference books, such as geological surveys from 1889, books on the evolution of insects and the fossils of Mazon Creek.

“They don’t even print stuff like this anymore,” he said.

Cesario is happy to talk about all that he has learned over the years. He even inspired one young girl to become a paleontologist.

“She came out hunting from the time she was about 8 years old. You could tell she had the bug,” Cesario said.

For him, the field will never lose its appeal, and his basement will continue to make room for more.

“There’s a lot of mystery in this. We’ll never know everything,” he said. “When I open these things, I’m the first person (first human being) to see that imprint.”