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By Tina Casagrand
On a late morning inside Springfield’s Riverbluff Cave, three men are shaving clay with hand trowels and plucking fossils from the walls. Having uncovered parts of a mammoth skull, Matt Forir—keeper of the cave and founder of the Missouri Institute of Natural Science, which has a ninety-year lease on the cave that Greene County owns—is searching for the rest.
“We’re mammoth-hunting,” he says, squinting one eye. “Big game hunting, if you will.”
The construction lights lend him an air of drama, like telling a ghost story with a flashlight.
The mammoth is the latest project in Matt’s lifelong history of exploration. Not only does he dig, he educates and devises ways to help others have the same joy of discovery. Sometimes that means placing a fossil in the hands of a child. Sometimes that means taking locals to the badlands region to dig for dinosaurs. Today, it means crouching through a cave tunnel and leading his volunteers like an army officer through the Riverbluff Cave, one of Missouri’s greatest geological discoveries.
The cave was sealed for fifty-five thousand years until a road crew discovered it on September 11, 2001, after exploding two dynamite charges. Following the terrorist attacks that morning, the federal government placed a ban on all explosives, which prevented the crew from planting and exploding ten more charges. An hour after its discovery, as the rest of the country was glued to the news, Matt, the geologist for Greene County’s Resource Management office, was exploring the cave with his colleague Lisa McCann.
“This is where we stopped that first day,” Matt says, gesturing toward a short cairn of rocks. “If we had just walked a few steps farther and shined a lamp in this direction, we would have seen this.”
His headlamp beams over a pit and onto a wall. It illuminates claw marks. Deep. High above the heads of the volunteer crew.
“Man,” crew member Joel Alexander says with an Arkansas drawl. “That was a big critter.”
Matt says a short-faced bear, which stood twice as tall as a grizzly and went extinct nearly twelve thousand years ago, left the marks. The crew gazes in a hushed awe. Someone asks how deep the marks go. Matt shrugs and points to a mud pit.
“You can go down there and see.”
On top of founding and running the Missouri Institute of Natural Science, which hosts a museum and arranges biweekly digs like this one, Matt still serves as Greene County’s geologist, teaches cave studies at Drury University, and runs a business that plots sinkholes beneath peoples’ properties. In the past, he’s worked in construction, done crime forensics, participated in too many dinosaur digs to count, and earned the title of, as he’ll say with false haughtiness, “the world’s foremost authority on Missouri cretaceous turtles.”
The turtle is a fitting totem for a man whose personality is purposeful, private, and a little hard-edged. His laugh is hearty, sometimes at the expense of others. He’s prone to cursing and derides panda bears as a “Darwinian dead-end.” He admits to being polarizing, having upset locals by making decisions like closing Riverbluff to cavers and refusing to work with volunteers who lack commitment. It’s a strict and stubborn personality he attributes, in part, to his upbringing.
“I grew up near St. Louis in the little town of Jennings,” he says. “My parents were bluecollar workers. Everyone was poor.”
As a boy, when he learned about dinosaur digs in Colorado, he pleaded with his parents to move there. They looked at him like he was crazy. He settled for fossil hunting in Missouri instead. His first two specimens, found in a creek when he was four, are on display in the museum.
“I was certain this was a worm,” he says, pulling a crinoid from the display case. He takes out another plant fossil, which has five segmented fronds. “And this was the fossilized foot of a lizard,” he says. “That’s how I explained it. There was nobody around to correct me.”
Matt withdrew into fossils and books about dinosaurs as his father’s alcoholism progressed.
“You could tell how drunk he was by how he parked the car after work and how long it took him to get out,” says Matt’s mother, Barbara Forir. “If he was really drunk, he would just pull up in front of the house; if he was just a little drunk, he’d pull into the driveway and back in. But if he slid out of the seat, oh boy. The kids would go downstairs and slip out the backdoor.”
She says that at these times, Matt retreated to neighbors’ houses and was always hard to read.
“Maybe that’s why I’m quiet,” he says. “That’s how I protected myself. At school, I could be the class clown, the smart one, the rough, tough biker.”
But that’s all that Matt revealed to his peers: the outside, the act.
After stints in construction and carpentry, Matt ended up on the doorstep of St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley. There, he met Bruce Stinchcomb—the geology professor who changed his life.
“Geology is funny,” Bruce says. “People that are doers and like the outdoors get bitten by a bug with it. Matt was certainly one of them.”
Bruce took his students to digs and caves in southern Missouri and led trips out West. His labs were always hands-on, and he encouraged his classes to have open discussions.
“Oh man, did I take to it,” Matt says. “I traveled the world.”
He resolved to see as many rocks, fossils, and caves as he could, and Barbara says every flat surface in her home had a fossil on it—treasures from Matt’s latest trips.
“For the first time in my life, I didn’t have to hide,” Matt says. “I’m not Matt Forir, the son of an alcoholic. I could be whoever I wanted.”
Despite years in the American West and an deep affection for the badlands of Wyoming, Matt settled in his home state.
“So many people say the grass is greener, but Missouri has done a lot for me,” he says.
In 2005, he founded the Missouri Institute
of Natural History on the south side of Springfield.
There, displays tell the story of evolution in Missouri, huge Ozark crystals shine in glass cases, and casts of major discoveries from Riverbluff can be touched and photographed. Many friends and connections helped get the museum started, and local rock hounds volunteered to run the building.
“If this place had existed in St. Louis for me, I would have had a better time as a kid,” Matt says.
That’s why the museum is free. Bruce says he is proud of the work his former student has done: “It is a local museum, and it is part of the culture of community.”
“Sharing Riverbluff is such a treasure,” says Joel, a recent college graduate who joined Matt’s crew after visiting the museum. He has since been on dinosaur digs and worked in a cave that was a hideout during the Civil War.
“I help everyone I can; that’s part of the reason I built the museum,” Matt says. “I want this place to breathe in and out.”