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12 November, 2011


My hometown of Dresden is noted for more than just Uncle Tom's Cabin, championship baseball and hockey teams, its popular raceway and casino -- and pretty girls.  It is the site of a spectacular meteorite drop some 72 years ago.  This will not come as news to most of my older Dresden readers, but it will be news for many other followers of Wrights Lane.

Information for this post comes from various news sources, including an article written by Howard Plotkin in The Journal of Astronomical Society of Canada.  Plotkin is a University of Western Ontario Professor of Philosophy with more than a passing interest in meteorites. He was the organizer of an exhaustive search in 2002 and 2003 which, after so many years, successfully rounded up previously unknown fragments of the Dresden "fire ball".  Here is the amazing story:

Luke Smith (right) and farmer friend Marshall McFadden admire the Dresden meteorite resting between then on a porch step.  Later that day, Smith persuaded the original finder, Dan Salomon, to sell him the space rock for a paltry $4.00.
A spectacular fireball roared across the sky in southwestern Ontario as dusk fell on the night of July 11, 1939 and was seen by thousands of persons there and in Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and even as far away as Pennsylvania.  The fireball underwent three explosions, and ended up dropping a 40-kg (88.25 lbs.) meteorite in the sugar-beet field of Dan Solomon, about 10 km southwest of Dresden, as well as several small fragments in nearby fields.

The meteorite, known officially as the Dresden (ON) Meteorite was high in nickel and iron content with many other properties and classified as H6 Chondite.  It remains the second largest individual meteorite to ever fall in Ontario and the fourth largest from all of Canada.  Through an interesting route, it ended up at the University of Western Ontario (UWO) and was put on display in the Biology and Geology Building.

The first recovered fragment of the Dresden meteorite was a small piece reported to weigh about 1 lb (454 g) dug out of the ground by Bruce Cumming on his sugar-beet farm, about two km south of Solomon’s farm.  Cumming reported (Chatham Daily News, July 12, 1939) that he and his family were attracted outdoors when the entire countryside was lit up by the glare of the falling meteor. He reported hearing a roar "like thunder" when it seemed to pass directly overhead, then "a strange noise like the staccato firing of a machine gun, or the sputtering of an airplane engine," and then a "dull thud", as the meteorite hit the ground about 100 metres from his house.
This fragment of the Dresden
meteorite was found in a Grand
Bend flea market in 1993.

The family quickly formed a search party, and headed out in the direction the noise seemed to have come from. Their dog Shep accompanied them and led them directly to the spot where the meteorite had landed and buried itself to the level of the dirt and mashed one or two small sugar beets to a pulp.

The main mass of the meteorite landed in Solomon’s field, only 200 metres from where his wife Hazel was standing with their children.  Her description of the event clearly reveals how terrifying it was for her:  "My little girl, two years old, saw it first, coming out of the northern sky. I was weeding in my garden at the time.  When I first looked up it was about the size of a baseball.  It kept getting bigger and bigger until it was about the size of a bushel basket. I started to run toward the field at the back of the house. I was too scared to know what I was doing. When it got directly over me it stopped and made a noise just like a big rotten egg being broken -- a sort of hollow plop. The thing shot off toward the west. Just at the same instant or maybe a second afterward, I heard a terrible noise in the field right ahead of me. It sounded like a big airplane tearing along the field. That scared me worse than ever and I turned and ran back toward the house. My four children were with me. My husband returned from Dresden a few minutes later, but I wouldn’t let him go to the field until the following morning."
Dan Solomon up to his chest
in the meteorite hole.

On the morning of July 12, Dan Solomon set to work to retrieve the main mass of the meteorite. He found that it had made a hole 30 cm by 45 cm.  Dirt was piled up all around the hole and chunks of earth were thrown 13 metres away. He enlarged the hole and began digging.  At about two metres, the top of the meteorite became visible. His children looked on with fascination, as did a crowd of interested neighbours, including Charles "Chuck" Ross, then  a young editor of the Dresden News, who had raced to the scene. Ross helped Solomon hook a chain around the meteorite, and with neighbours’ help they were able to extricate it from its hole.

Later that day, Henry Lozon reported he had recovered a fragment weighing about 5 lbs (2270 g) 80 metres from his house, and it was rumoured that two other nearby neighbours, A.V. Scott and George Highgate, had also dug up fragments of the meteorite on their farms.  According to a report in the Globe and Mail ( July 13, 1939), they "were awaiting offers" for their specimens.

Solomon didn’t have long to wait for an offer for his 88.25-lb (40.07-kg) meteorite. Luke Smith, a former Chatham dentist turned oil and gas prospector,  and his friend Marshall McFadden, saw the meteorite as it was being cleaned and
quickly paid Solomon a visit. Smith decided (Toronto Daily Star, July 13, 1939) he wanted to purchase the meteorite: "I thought an oil man should not miss a chance to get that close to heaven.  Besides, it’s a nice relic." According to one story, he was told that someone had already offered Solomon $3.00 for the "souvenir", so he raised the ante to $4.00.
Beth Ross, sister of Dresden
newspaper editor Charles Ross,
in the process of cleaning the
Solomon farm meteorite.

Solomon’s son Wilfred later said that Smith and McFadden pestered his dad incessantly to sell the meteorite. Solomon, by all accounts a very gentle, soft-spoken man, gave in to this pressure, and agreed to sell it to Smith for $4.00. But within a very short time, Solomon began to realize how terrible a deal he had made.  A desperate plea to retrieve the prized specimen from Smith was to no avail, however.

Many in the area at the time protested that Smith had taken unfair advantage of Soloman, but he held fast claiming that a deal is a deal and "the law of supply and demand held good, even for meteorites."  He subsequently refused a number of offers to purchase (including universities in the U.S. and the Smithsonian Institution) in the $200.00 range, holding out for his price of $800.00 to $1,000.00.

Newspaper accounts about the meteorite appeared daily.  So did hordes of motorists, some from as far away as Ohio, who lined the concession road in front of Solomon’s farm for days on end, eager to see the meteorite. Although they were disappointed to find out that it was no longer there, many helped themselves to small chips of the meteorite that had splattered off when it plowed into the ground, or had been rubbed off it by the chain used in its excavation. Wilfred Solomon remembers selling small chips to  passing motorists for a few pennies each.  Many of the tourists were from the U.S., prompting one newspaper (London Free Press, July 22, 1939) to wryly note: "...American tourists have gone home with a large number of fragments from the recent spectacular meteor. This addition to Canada's tourist income will never be known, probably."
On the lighter side:  Dresden Virtual History Group contributor Frank Vink, recalls with humour that his father, whom he expected watched too many Flash Gordon movies, was sure that the meteorite was an invading "rocket from China".  His grandmother even got her rosary out, convinced that it was "the end".

"A piece (of the meteorite) landed in the field of a neighbor on the Prince Albert Side Road in the 13th Concession of Chatham Township.  When the neighbor retrieved the remnant, he put it into his flower garden," Frank adds.

In early October, it was announced in the London Free Press, (Oct. 7, 1939) that the meteorite had "been purchased outright and now is in the possession of the University of Western Ontario."  Although the price was not given, the newspaper article read: "The purchase of the famous fireball was made possible through the kind offices of the directors of the London Life Insurance Company."

Through the efforts of Don Spanner, the London Life Archivist, UWO author Howard  Plotkin found out that its Board of Directors contributed $700.00 to the university to buy the meteorite from Smith. London Life's gift was motivated in large part by E.E. Reid, Managing Director, who was also a member of the University’s Board of Governors.  Reid stipulated he wanted the meteorite displayed in the new observatory soon to be erected on the campus, a gift from the estate of actor Hume Cronyn. In 1970 the meteorite was moved from the Observatory (a plaster cast of it remained there), and placed in a glass showcase outside the office of the Department of Geology.

It was not until some 60 years later that members of the late Dan Solomon's family were honored by the University of Western Ontario for their father's historic discovery and the innocent, ill-advised deal that saw him give away the Dresden meteorite to the shrewd opportunist, Luke Smith.  (See photo)

Two sons and a daughter of the late Dan Solomon attended a tribute evening for their father, hosted by the University of Western Ontario. A fragment of the meteorite that landed on the Solomon farm in 1939 was presented to the family along with a plaque commemorating the occasion.

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