“When we would go to visit her, we would find fossils washing up on the beaches,” he said. “I would collect them there, and I guess that’s how I started getting interested in that back when I was a kid.”
Miller lived in Connecticut and spent her entire fourth-grade summer on Cape Cod.
“I didn’t really like to swim, so I would walk the beaches and pick shells up, but it’s kind of escalated,” she said.
Miller moved to Kentucky to attend Western Kentucky University and stayed in the area, working as a naturalist at the Barren River Lake state park in western Kentucky.
“I started fossil-collecting much like I would collecting shells on a beach, because I would walk Barren River Lake and pick up all kinds of fossils,” she said. “I started to read about them and study them and found, when I moved to Lexington, I found the fossil club and could expand.”
The lifelong hobbies of collecting shells and fossils brought Schrantz and Miller together years ago when they met in the Kentucky Paleontological Society. Now they venture out together to quarries and road cuts on weekends to seek ancient artifacts.
“The fact that I don’t have any kids, that helps; you have more time for hobbies,” Schrantz said. “And Susan’s kids are grown and out of the house, so that gives us time to do that kind of stuff.”
Fossils include preserved ancient life forms — body fossils — as well as evidence of activity of ancient life forms — trace fossils such as footprints, tracks or burrows.
“The fossil record is biased toward things with hard parts,” Schrantz said. “You can imagine something like a coral or a clam, something with a hard part would preserve better as a fossil than something gushy and squishy like a worm or a jellyfish or something like that; in fact, that’s true.
“Very, very rare are fossils of worms because they just don’t preserve well, but we have lots of fossils of worm burrows, trace fossils, so we know they were there. Even though you don’t have the fossil of the worm itself, you have the fossil of the tunnel or the burrow it dug.”
Schrantz said Kentucky has good rocks near the surface that contain fossils, many of which are exposed by road cuts in the hilly terrain. He characterized Kentucky as “probably the best state in the country” for fossils, especially those from invertebrate sea creatures.
“This area used to be at the bottom of a shallow ocean, so all of the fossils you find in rocks around here are, of course, all sea-creature fossils,” he said.
The draw of collecting for Schrantz is getting to see pictures of ancient life that aren’t available anywhere else.
“It’s finding things that don’t exist in the world today. It’s a snapshot of what life was like many, many millions of years ago, and it’s one of the only snapshots we have of what life was like,” he said. “It’s neat that you can find things in the fossils where you look at them and go, ‘Wow, there’s nothing at all like that alive today; that’s pretty cool.’”
The couple share their collections, taking displays to fossil festivals and science fairs. They’re also involved with the Blue Grass Gem and Mineral Club.
“It’s really fun to share a collection and a hobby with people, and I think that’s why we go to the science fairs, to talk to people,” Miller said. “They’re amazed that we can find these minerals and fossils in Kentucky, and we try to get them to join the club and try to get the younger generation interested.”
While the hobby can fill a lot of time and a lot of a house, Schrantz said it does not empty the pocketbook.
“It doesn’t have to cost anything,” he said. “If you get addicted to golf, boy, you’re spending a lot of money. But driving to a road cut and looking for fossils and finding one and cleaning it up with a toothbrush when you find one — it doesn’t cost you anything.”
Miller quickly reminded her husband of a rather expensive amethyst-hunting trip in Georgia, saying the money spent for that venture could have bought some really nice pieces of the purple quartz. But Schrantz promtply pointed out a principle that is likely responsible for much of the couple’s collection:
“Finding it is always neater than buying it.”