It's from the Oligocene Epoch. Of course it is.
Sandwiched between the Eocene and Miocene eras some 30 million years ago, the Oligocene is the sort of geologic period that gets memorized in the moments before and forgotten quickly after an earth science exam.
Extinct creatures such as Brontotheres, Hesperocyon and Metatheria — early relatives of rhinoceros, canines and marsupials, respectively — roamed the Earth back then. Grasslands such as the ones that span the American Midwest today grew rapidly in the Oligocene, too. And during this period, the final epoch of the Paleogene, the first evolution of the alligator also emerged.
So maybe it’s fitting that at the University of Florida, home of the Gators, the focal point of campus — the place where students meet up, study, congregate and hand out fliers — is a 10-ton, 25-million-year-old Oligocene-era rock that sits at the center of Turlington Plaza.
Unless you're a Florida fan in the know, the gray slab of oblong sedimentary rock is largely unremarkable. It’s dull, unassuming and one of the few colorless aspects on the otherwise foliage-filled campus. But in Gainesville, where blue and orange cover most every square inch, the bland piece of chert rock surrounded by circular benches attracts plenty of attention.
Officially dubbed “Turlington Rock,” here they simply call it “The Potato.”
“It’s a novel thing,” Tony Randazzo, UF professor emeritus of geology, said. “Not only does it hold geologic history, but it’s become an emotional identity point for students and alumni here.”
The origins of “The Potato” on the university’s campus are not rooted in some deep history or a thirst for intellectual curiosity. Instead, its arrival in in Gainesville is tied to an even-greater force: publicity.
When the Geological Sciences Department at Florida was moved to a spot in the newly built Turlington Plaza in the 1980s, the staff sought to establish a physical presence outside the building. They wanted to drum up excitement; they chose a rock.
The geologic relic on which they settled comes from a limestone quarry in Hernando County, where it was discovered with great elation by UF professor James Eades. He knew, immediately, that the rock was special, but not because of its massive size or its age.The slab of chert stood out to Eades because of what is preserved inside it.
Just 100 miles from the Geological Sciences building in Turlington Plaza, Eades had discovered a set of 25-million-year-old marine echinoid fossils.
When the rock arrived on campus, the department was giddy; it had found its physical presence, and an exceptional one at that.
“It had all of these beautiful fossils,” Randazzo said. ‘We would take our classes there and show the students. We didn’t have to take a big field trip. It was right outside our door.”
The excitement over the rock within the department was eventually matched by the student body. Turlington Plaza, and the landmark at its center, soon became a hub. It was a place for students to relax or read the newspaper. The rush of bodies that come through in between classes make it a prime location for protests and demonstrations, as well.
It became a place to make exchanges, too — textbooks, homework and, perhaps sometimes, an illegal product or another.
“It was a place you’d come hang out between classes,” Wes Daniel, a relative of the Turlington family, said. “It was a center place. You’d say, “Hey, come meet me at the the rock.’”
One Halloween, a particularly spirited group of students chose to decorate the millennium's old rock as Mr. Potato Head. The tradition persisted for several years until the university banned Halloween festivities on campus. That’s how the rock got its name.
Daniel, a UF alum, made sure to stop at Turlington Plaza with his son early Saturday afternoon; he wanted to snap a photo in front of the campus landmark. Daniel was far from the only one.
On homecoming weekends in Gainesville, such as the one unfolding Saturday during Missouri’s visit to “The Swamp,” droves of alumni rush back to “The Potato” to experience the nostalgia of their college days. For students present and past, the rock in the middle of the campus represents much more than meets the eye.
At a university filled with monuments — it has statues of football greats such as Tim Tebow and Steve Spurrier, and an art installation titled “Alachua” — the plain old slab of rock might be the most iconic.
Supervising editor is Michael Knisley.