In 1970, New Yorkers Herb and Joan Zuhl were vacationing in Arizona when they saw people digging up petrified logs in a field. “I had never seen petrified wood before,” Herb says. “I thought, ‘They’re uncovering a log that’s been buried for millions of years.’”
Intrigued, the Zuhls rented a backhoe from the rancher who owned the land and dug up their own petrified log, one weighing 30,000 pounds. “We got in touch with a monument works in New York,” Herb says. “They sliced the log just like a loaf of French bread and then polished the slices.”
“We saw the possibility of starting a business,” Joan says. When they offered the finished pieces for sale, she adds, “Designers and decorators in New York went wild for them.”
That led to summer excursions throughout The West seeking more petrified logs. Joan, an artist, arranged for pieces to be shown in a Madison Avenue gallery. Their new business succeeded, and the Zuhls broadened their horizons, taking their petrified wood artworks to gem and mineral shows throughout the West. That’s also where they began collecting dinosaur fossils and minerals.
In time, Herb says, “We decided the sell the business. We got old.”
“Don’t say old,” Joan corrects. “We didn’t get old. We got older.”
The couple retired to Las Cruces and sold their business, but they still had a lot of leftover inventory. A number of museums expressed interest in acquiring their collection but didn’t have room to display it. “The Houston Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian both took some pieces,” Herb said, while Joan adds, “We gave a large log to the Smithsonian and it sat outside the Natural History Museum for years.”
In the end, the Zuhls donated their collection to New Mexico State University. Some pieces were put in the new library named after the couple. But, Herb adds, “They created a building for us and we set up the museum with their help. And that’s what you have today.”
The Zuhl collection of petrified wood, dinosaur and other Paleozoic fossils, and mineral crystals can be seen in the Alumni and Visitors Center weekdays from 8 A.M. to 5 P.M.