The Fort Dodge Museum, as far as historical reconstructions go, is pretty customary. This well-curated reconstruction of a pre-Civil War military fort has been around for decades. Historic additions like log cabins, a one-roomed schoolhouse, and a general store are standard fare in these places. But there is something unusual, a hidden treasure in the back of the grounds, that makes this place special.
An octagonal building stands just outside the back gate of the fort with no particular signage to warn you of what you are about to experience. Entering the front door, you come to a significant depression below floor level. The building was constructed around a now-walled pit, the location of what appears to be a significant archaeological dig. Within the pit lies a petrified giant, over 10 feet tall. Everything about the giant is giant; His ears are huge, his head is massive, his arms lengthy, his feet colossal, his intimates… well, everything is huge.
In 1868, New York tobacconist George Hull, visiting his sister in a nearby Iowa town, started a debate with a traveling revivalist who loved to quote scripture in Genesis about giants in the earth. An idea sprung into Hull’s head, a grand hoax that might make him some money and expose the fool-preachers buzzing around America. Hull was a fired-up agnostic, an instigator, and an avid entrepreneur.
He traveled to the gypsum quarry in Ft. Dodge, bought a five-ton block of rock for a barrel of beer, and had it shipped to Chicago where he hired an artist and stonecutter to create a giant in stone. He instructed them to take the utmost care in aging the stone and making it look a real as possible. The petrified “giant” was shipped to a farm near Cardiff, New York, and buried in a field for a year. With a few paid insiders, Hull pulled off one of the greatest hoaxes in American history. For over a year, Hull fooled scientists, scholars, preachers, and common folk into what they thought was the eighth wonder of the world. Hull especially loved preacher’s proclamations of the petrified giant as clear proof the book of Genesis was true.
Hull made boatloads of money on people paying a dollar piece to see the archaeological miracle. Mark Twain wrote a couple of articles and a short story about the Petrified Man. Twain appreciated a good gaff on the American people. P.T. Barnum tried to lease the Cardiff Giant, as it became known, but when rebuffed by Hull, he had his own made declaring it the real giant. Years after the hoax was exposed (the giant became known as “Old Hoaxy”) it continued to travel across the U.S., displayed at state fairs, carnivals, and even a World’s Fair. Today, Hull’s original giant resides in the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown, New York. Barnum’s fake of the fake is in Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanic Museum in Farmington Hills, Michigan.
Fort Dodge’s own giant was “discovered” in a block of Fort Dodge gypsum, right on this spot, exactly 100 years after the first fake giant was found in New York. Artist Cliff Carson said that as he took his chisel to the gypsum, the stone fell away revealing a giant big toe. A few more hits revealed a huge foot. He had discovered the real giant, encased in gypsum. A Blue-Ribbon Commission, after carefully examining the body, declared this was a true petrified stone giant.
A few minutes with the giant will make you a believer in the real Cardiff Giant. All the others are hoaxes.
Know Before You Go
The Fort Dodge Museum is open every day from 10:00 - 5:00. Entrance fees range from free to $10. There is nothing on the website about the giant. This is to keep it a surprise for visitors.