GREENFIELD — While he was digging a lake in a swampy area northwest of Greenfield in 1977, Ralph Strubbe uncovered something that stopped the skilled excavator operator in his tracks.
First, enormous rib bones — “so big, I was sure it wasn’t nothing local,” he said.
Then, a huge rock — or so he thought, until he trucked it home in his loader and hosed it off to discover the skull of a mastodon.
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The 150-pound skull sat in the laundry room of his Greenfield home for a very short while, before the experts came calling, Strubbe said.
The owner of the property on which Strubbe was digging the lake called a professor at Indiana University, who drove out to Greenfield that very night to see the skeleton.
That mastodon skeleton now shares space with other exhibits on the third floor of the Indianapolis Children’s Museum.
As Strubbe celebrates his 100th birthday, he remembers those moments that defined his life over the years — and Hancock County.
Not only did Strubbe’s excavation business shape the Hancock County landscape, from gravel pit lakes to the basements of houses along U.S. 40, his discovery shaped the historical relevance of the central Indiana region.
The rest of site, painstakingly uncovered by archaeologists and Indiana University students who flocked to the area, revealed another mastodon skeleton and the skeletons of several other prehistoric animals.
In addition to acknowledgement at the exhibit in the children’s museum, Strubbe was given a lifetime honorary membership to the Indiana Historical Society for his find.
Strubbe’s excavation business, Strubbe Excavating, is responsible for a number of projects that remain today, including the gravel pit lakes seen near New Road.
Strubbe, who lives near one of the lakes he once dug, still remembers every detail of his life, from the addresses of all the houses he’s ever lived in to the paper route he covered when he was 9 years old.
All that remains of the house he was born in is a water pump near a grove of trees, but Strubbe is still going strong.
Family members say his positive attitude and a good dose of stubbornness have contributed to his longevity.
He worked for the excavating business until he was 92 years old.
He wasn’t the one who gave out, either.
The excavator equipment broke, so he figured he might as well retire, he said.
He was the picture of a cheerful worker throughout the years, said granddaughter Lori Gossett.
“He never said he was going to work,” she said. “He always said, ‘I’m going to go play in the dirt.’”
As a young man, Strubbe worked at Rollerland, a skating rink in Indianapolis, when the weather was too poor to put in hours at the gravel business. Some days, he spent 12 hours on roller skates, he said.
He met his first wife, Norma Neal, at the skating rink.
“I saw her operating the soda fountain, and it wasn’t long before we were married,” he said.
He gave her a ring June 20, and they were wed on Independence Day.
They were married for 26 years before she died of heart failure.
After Norma died, Strubbe married her sister, Peggy, and helped her raise three of her children from a previous marriage.
They were married for 20 years before Peggy passed away. Strubbe was single for nearly a decade before he married his current wife, Julia, whom he met online, in 2003.
Strubbe’s daughter, Paula Hammond, said it’s no surprise her father has lived so long. Several of his siblings lived to be in their 90s, she said, and they shared many traits.
“They were all very stubborn,” she said. “It’s about hard work, clean living and a stubborn personality.”
Family members are hosting an open house to celebrate Ralph Strubbe’s 100th birthday.
When: 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. June 18
Where: Curry’s Chapel, 3488 N. 375E