My daughter, Rory, is a fifth grade Alexandria public school student with just a few months left before making the big jump to middle-school. Recently she had a field trip with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in order to study, first hand, the plant and animal life of the bay. Thinking about this called up memories of school field trips I took when I was her age. Growing up in the Hampton Roads area, many of my field trips were related to the bay and its wildlife. But the one field trip that stands out as my favorite of them all was to a rather unique treasure of Hampton Roads: Rice’s Fossil Pit.
I had been a student at Hampton Roads Academy only a few months when the trip happened as part of Mrs. Sailor’s sixth-grade science class, as I recall. We were told ahead of time to bring in a digging implement of some sort. I remember going to A&N with my mother and finding a military-style collapsible shovel / pick, which I still have today.
We bussed out there, down Fox Hill Rd. to Harris Creek Rd. ( map ), and as we pulled up to park all I could see was trees. As I approached on foot, however, the pit revealed itself. It was a striking sight — 70 feet deep and a huge distance across with terraces along the edges winding down at different heights. I remember feeling amazed and awed at the site of it.
Jane Rice, daughter in-law of the man who brought this pit to the public (more on that in a moment) recently described the experience of the pit in a manner with which I completely agree.
“To me, it was always like walking back through time into the prehistoric era,” says Rice, who accompanied her mother-in-law into the pit almost every day for an evening stroll.
“When you looked around, it was almost unbelievable. It was like being in a different world.”
We wound our way to the bottom of the pit and began digging. The prospect of finding something ancient was extremely exciting for me. The day was a scorcher but that didn’t slow down our digging.
As morning turned into afternoon, a number of my classmates were finding various fossil fragments, including one boy who found an amazing looking colorful gemstone. Unfortunately, I walked away empty-handed, but that didn’t make the experience any less exciting or memorable. Leaving, I vowed to return on my own, and soon.
Sadly, I never did. And, it wasn’t until I searched around online, trying to plan a trip down there with my wife and daughter, that I discovered that the pit was no more. Rice’s Fossil Pit had closed and, in fact, is now a 7-acre lake.
In the early 1940s, William Macon Rice and his wife Madeline moved to Hampton from Lynchburg, VA, purchasing 18-acres of land off of Harris Creek Rd. He began operation of what was originally a borrow pit on the land in 1948. In short order he began finding fossils in the soil, but being new to the region he assumed such things were commonplace. It wasn’t until a few months later that it became quite apparent that his land was special; at a depth of 18 feet, a crane uncovered an enormous skull. At 25 feet it was revealed that what had been discovered was an entire 60-foot-long bowhead whale.
Rice called the Smithsonian who sent a team of scientists down to the pit and over the course of several weeks they excavated the enormous 20-million-year-old fossil from the Miocene epoch. It turned out a new species of bowhead whale had been discovered.
The whale was taken to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. and given the scientific name, Balaena ricei, in honor of the Rice Pit. On the heels of that discovery, a 25-million-year-old, 500-pound piece of star coral was uncovered. That particular type of coral is known to have grown in tropical waters at depths of around 130 feet, revealing just how different the Hampton Roads area was 20-million-years ago, when the ocean shore was somewhere between Richmond and Roanoke.
Scientists came from far and wide to explore the pit in hopes of discovering strange, new species. The Rice family was fascinated with the pit and its fossils, as well. Their young son Kenny was constantly exploring the pit and learning all about the fossils he was finding. Sadly, a tragic tractor accident at the pit claimed 14-year-old Kenny’s life. Several months later, on January 1, 1967, William and Madeline Rice opened the Kenneth E. Rice Memorial Museum and the pit to the public in honor of his son. Guests were charged a small admissions fee, but got to keep whatever they might find. The Memorial Museum grew to contain the largest collection of Miocene fossils in the world.
William Rice died of a heart attack in 1979. His wife, Madeline, ran the pit for a decade after his passing, but her failing health finally forced her to close. In 2007 the family sold the land to neighboring Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, which plans to expand its campus onto the land, leaving the pit as a lake to attract local wildlife.
In further exploring the circumstances surrounding the closing of Rice’s Fossil Pit, I discovered that Jane Rice, daughter-in-law of William Rice, gave a presentation at the Hampton History Museum in June of 2013, in conjunction with their exhibit The Fragile Balance. Thanks to YouTuber xgeckomanx who captured the presentation on video, I am able to share it here. (See part 1, below.)
I would love to hear any memories readers who have visited Rice’s Fossil Pit at some point in their lives might be willing to share. I regret not being able to share the experience of exploring the pit with my own daughter, but I will never forget that wonderful place that once was.
Sources, more info:
- Rice’s Fossil Pit– Virginia Miocene Fossils (Rocks & Minerals, 1977)
- Tourist Brochure of Rice’s Fossil Pit (Hampton History Museum)
- Rice’s fossil pit is still making history (Daily Press, June 2013)
- Rice’s fossil pit remembered in Hampton lecture (Daily Press, June 2013)
- Farewell To The Rice Pit (Secret Mountain Laboratory, 2007)
- The Hampton History Museum presents Remembering Rice’s Fossil Pit (Video, June 2013): Pt.1, Pt.2, Pt.3, Pt.4, Pt.5, Pt.6
Update [Aug. 5, 2019]: Added photo of school children climbing the pit walls in search of fossils taken from the “Daytripin’: Short Treks Around Hampton Roads” piece by Pam Marshak in the June 7, 1981 issue of the Daily Press newspaper.
March 23, 2017 at 8:31 pm
Hampton Roads native, now living in NOVA too….this is so interesting! I want to say I’ve read something else about this pit (from you), but not recalling at the moment.
Thanks for sharing. Fun stuff.
March 24, 2017 at 2:20 am
My father grew up in Hampton in the 70s and has distinct memories of this place and taking school trips there. By the time I was born in the 90s it had long since filled up to become a lake. I fished there frequently in the late 90s through probably the mid 2000s.
It enjoyed a second life as a local fishing hole for those in the know, with tons of very large bluegill and large mouth bass (though they were trickier to hook from the shore). Also plenty of lovely blackberry bushes grew around the parameter. You could sneak in right on Willow Oaks Blvd, there were ruins of a chain-link fence that had been trampled to the ground in several place. I have distinct childhood memories of my father and I hiding in the bushes with our fishing rods whenever the folks that owned the place came out to move soil or check for trespassers — they chased us off many times. I was always told it was because they were worried about any insurance liability of people drowning in the place, seeing as it was so deep (or, alternatively, that the owners wanted to keep it as a sort of monument to their son who died in the pit).
Either way, a few years after Gloria Dei came to own it they started putting up new fencing making it much harder to access. They lined the entire pond with “NO FISHING” signs (one about every 15 feet) and started patrolling more regularly. It basically made the place nonviable to fish anymore, so we moved on.
I haven’t even thought about it in a few years, though I drive by it all the time when I’m in town. Thanks for the post!
May 15, 2017 at 3:43 pm
What a great post! I went to the fossil pit when I was in 5th grade and remember coming home very dirty and with lots of dirty fossils and shells. I think I visited in 1983 or so… I was born in Hampton, grew up in Gloucester, and now live in Germany. I just visited a museum here where they had fossils and was reminded of that fossil pit.
Thanks for writing such an informative post about it. You brought back lots of memories.
June 3, 2017 at 11:03 pm
So, those “youngsters” are me and my brother. We went to church with the Rices and yes, I still have fond memories of digging for fossils and even fishing once or twice in his catfish pond (our dad even took the picture). So they didn’t like people in the pit without their knowledge, fishing or not, for insurance and also because they lot thier son in the pit. Anyway, enough sad news, thank you for a view of us in the pamphlet!
June 5, 2017 at 9:10 pm
That’s great! You were famous!
Sad, indeed, about Rice’s son. Thanks for sharing the memories.
June 24, 2017 at 7:15 pm
As a geology major at William and Mary I did my paleontology thesis on Rice’s Pit in 1975. Fond memories of digging in the fossils!
June 24, 2017 at 7:16 pm
I suspect the Geology Dept at W&M may have that document if you are interested.
August 7, 2019 at 8:11 pm
Loved the field trips we took to the fossil pit. I always came home with an over load of those cone looking shells. LOL
Thank You for the story. Great info. Sad about Kenny. 🙁
July 12, 2017 at 12:51 pm
I was online looking up the pit in the hopes of taking my son a rising 8th grader at a STEM school and thought how cool it would be for him to experience what I did as a child going to the pit for a field trip. I don’t remember if it was 6th or 7th grade that I went but I distinctly remember being excited to get to the grade that goes on the fossil pit field trip.
July 22, 2017 at 9:28 am
Thank you so much for this article! I remember going to a “fossil pit” in Hampton in fifth grade–on a field trip from Lynchburg–but was never able to remember the name, or any real information, except that they had once found a whale there. This brought back a great memory. Sad to hear it is now closed; I had always hoped to return in my adult life.
August 31, 2017 at 2:09 am
It was a field trip Norfolk Public Schools took every year. From 1971-1974, every year I took a bag lunch, a spoon and my dirtiest sneakers and oldest clothes. My favorite field trip. Boy did we have fun and got dirty! At 52 I can still remember that place and the fun I had!💕
September 13, 2017 at 2:43 am
Me too. I went to James Monroe Elem. And loved that trip. I alwaus wamted to go back.
June 1, 2019 at 2:06 pm
Do you remember who took you there? My dad, Sweetie Howlett, who taught P.E. there used to take students and I went too! It was a summer school program.
March 11, 2018 at 1:34 am
Me too. I went to Bayview Elementary. The place seemed huge! It was a great trip every year!
September 12, 2017 at 6:14 pm
Visiting your website and enjoying your story as a result of the Facebook page “I Grew Up In Virginia Beach.” Someone there had recently posted a memory about the Skicoak Indian Museum, which I had forgotten in the 45 years intervening. But I always remembered Rice’s Fossil Pit, that my teacher at Alanton Elementary School took us on a field trip. I’ve posted back a link to your story and hope it generates additional memories & information for you. Thanks for the archives!
October 20, 2017 at 3:30 pm
I went to school in Suffolk.. I remember being so excited to finally be in the 5th grade. We didn’t want a trip Disney or DC…we wanted the fossil pits. Thanks for the memories
November 16, 2017 at 12:41 pm
I remember going to the pit in two field trips. Once when I attended Phillips Elementary and (the then called) Benjamin Syms Jr. High. Great memories. Kenneth was in one of my classes.
September 18, 2018 at 5:55 pm
I too went to Phillips Elem. & Kenny sat in front of me in 8th grade Earth Science at Syms. Kenny was such a nice, quiet boy. What a tragic loss.
November 16, 2017 at 6:47 pm
I still have fossils from Rice’s Pit in my home today. Really enjoyed the digs from the time my family moved to Fox Hill, until the late 70’s. I drove past the entrance last month, the memories will last until our generation moves on.
November 17, 2017 at 12:22 am
Went to school in Portsmouth . I still have some of the fossils I found on my 6th grade field trip. I’ve never forgotten that day back in 1975.
November 17, 2017 at 4:02 am
My Mom and grand mother took me to the pit. My love for rocks and fossils was embedded deep within because of the trips there. We would spend time with the Rices’. It was a fun in the sun digging for treasure. Thanks for the memory!
November 17, 2017 at 11:45 pm
I loved the pit! Lived in Suffolk and it was the 6th field trip. It made me decide that I wanted very badly to be an archeologist from that day on. Unfortunately my dream got swept under the rug. It was a life changer for me!
November 18, 2017 at 1:55 am
I remember going here on a field trip when I was in the 4th grade. So that would have been 76-77. All I remember finding were a bunch of shells.
November 19, 2017 at 1:19 pm
Oh wow! So I had this frequent memory of being very young but my babysitter taking her granddaughter and I on a hike through the woods (she lived right off of Harris Creek), and coming through a clearing and seeing this HUGE hole. I’m sure it was a lot bigger in my tiny mind but I was amazed by it! I told my mom and my grandma but they seemed to just brush it off, so for a long time I thought I just dreamt it.
Thank you for confirming I’m not crazy! This place was real!
November 19, 2017 at 4:07 pm
Having arrived into my 5th decade, I find myself becoming more and more nostalgic about the 60’s and 70’s, and your story fits right in with that! I was a student at Phillips Elementary right down the street when having made this field trip. I,too, was in awe of the massive, deep hole in the ground and couldn’t wait to “dig in “! If memory serves, I went twice with school and once as a young adult with my Dad ( we only made it to the museum that day). I feel that the experience had a strong effect on how I see the world and life today! I didn’t become an archeologist or paleontologist, but I have worked in construction for 30 years which has given me many opportunities to make discoveries of both modern historic and prehistoric finds! Simply said, Rice’s Fossil Pit is in some part why I Love “digging in the dirt”! Thank you very much for your story!
November 19, 2017 at 4:37 pm
Went to Rice’s all of the time , lived growing up in Fix Hill and all of the find memories of the pit. Found many fossils there , including a buffalo tooth. Unfortunately everything has an expiration date. But memories live for ever.
November 19, 2017 at 4:40 pm
Went to Rice’s all of the time , loved growing up in Fox Hill and all of the find memories of the pit. Found many fossils there , including a buffalo tooth. Unfortunately everything has an expiration date. But memories live for ever.
November 19, 2017 at 5:25 pm
I grew up in Hampton and attended Sinclair and William Mason Cooper Elementary Schools. I remember taking a field trip to the fossil pit.
We had a great time. I don’t recall that we found any fossils.
Thank you for the memories. I enjoyed reading the history behind it.
November 20, 2017 at 5:13 pm
you went to Cooper? I taught across the street!
November 20, 2017 at 1:14 am
Just wanted to point out that it’s Jane Rice, not Jan Rice.
September 18, 2020 at 2:11 pm
Ah, thank you. I’m sorry to have somehow gotten that wrong.
November 20, 2017 at 9:21 pm
Lived nearby growing up (Apollo Drive) and went here once on a school field trip and once with the boy scouts. I hate to admit that we even jumped the fence a few times for a little unofficial exploration.
One of those was when Mr. Rice was still alive and I remember him being extremely enthusiastic about his fossil pit. My discovery of the day was the best of the students, but I have no idea or memory of what it was or what happened to it, but he made a pretty big deal over it.
The second time I went, Mrs. Rice gave the tour and told us about the death of her son. She told us that a tractor rolled over him and Mr. Rice ran over and lifted the tractor off of the boy, but it was too late. She claimed that her husband had superhuman strength when he lifted the tractor.
November 22, 2017 at 4:48 pm
Lived on Harris creek road growing up and went there several times.
November 23, 2017 at 2:47 am
I, too, share those memories of Rice’s Fossil pit.
November 23, 2017 at 4:48 am
I went to Rice’s Fossil pit as part of a class field trip when I was in elementary school. I didn’t find anything, but a girl in my class found a wooden spoon that was thought to go back to either the 18th or 19th century.
November 23, 2017 at 4:57 pm
I remember going there as a kid and digging around and finding shells. I had them for a long time but somewhere in moves they got lost. I remember what they looked like though. I can also close my eyes and remember what the pit looked like too. I wish it was still here for all the kids today (and us older ones) to enjoy.
December 10, 2017 at 3:43 am
Like so many others, I went on a school field trip to Rice’s when I was in elementary school in Norfolk or Virginia Beach. I guess it was some time in the mid-sixties. Anyway, I came away with a jawbone from some prehistoric beast.
As I am now in my sixties, that experience seems like ancient history to me now. For all the years I had no idea where it was located. As a kid it seemed so far away. You can imagine my surprise to read, in your article, that I have lived a mile away from where it was located for the thirty years I have lived in Hampton. Thank you for dredging up those far ago memories.
December 20, 2017 at 10:01 pm
A Hampton native (who now lives in Australia), I visited Rice’s Fossil Pit several times as a child, both with the school summer science program and as a private visitor with one or two friends. I didn’t come away empty handed at all! I found lots of ancient sea shells: scallop shells as big as my two hands together, lots of spiralled, pointy snails that I’ve later learned are called Turitellas, and one or two bigger, cylindrical univalves. My friend Randy found a shark tooth.
Also, in flat, flat Tidewater, we were always hurting for a place to ride our sleds whenever it snowed. (It snowed more often in the 70s than it does now.) I never tried it, but in my late teens, I had some friends who grew up in Fox Hill, and they told me how when they were younger, whenever it snowed, they would sneak into the Pit and make toboggan runs down its walls.
December 22, 2017 at 12:45 pm
I went as part of a class at the Nature and Science Center now known as the Virginia Living Museum. They had classes during the summer me and my brother would go to. The class on fossils was great and right at the height of my dinosaur obsession! All I found were a lot of shells, no whale bones or skulls. But that didn’t dampen my enthusiasm. I was digging in an actual fossil pit! It wasn’t like I was in the back yard, I had to find something. I think one kid found a sharks tooth. I remember being scraped up and dirty from digging but who cares? It was way better than another field trip to Jamestown!
December 26, 2017 at 2:37 pm
My second grade teacher, Mrs. Burnett, took us from James River Academy to the Hampton fossil pit, in 1972. I have such great memories of finding so many fossils with sea life and seeing petrified wood. The gem shop was awesome as well. What great memories to be running around and finding spots to dig!!!
January 7, 2018 at 3:23 am
I was a 5th grader at Linkhorn Park Elementary in Va Beach in 1979. I have vivid memories of the field trip we took to Rice’s Fossil Pit during that school year. I will always attribute that trip to what originally opened my eyes to archeology and the amazing physical history buried beneath us. As a result, I went on to take archaeology classes and participate in digs at historic sights in Maine. What a great memory! Thank you.
January 21, 2018 at 7:53 pm
Wow.,this brought back memories,we went there on a 4th grade field trip in 1975 and our guide was the owner William ,I remember we all found something digging that day,no one came back empty handed,I’m trying to remember the name of the elementary school piedmont elementary? My dad was in the military stationed at Langley so we moved every few years
January 21, 2018 at 7:54 pm
Wow.,this brought back memories,we went there on a 4th grade field trip in 1975 and our guide was the owner William ,I remember we all found something digging that day,no one came back empty handed,I’m trying to remember the name of the elementary school piedmont elementary? My dad was in the military stationed at Langley so we moved every few years
January 26, 2018 at 1:08 am
Curious if fossil pit kept any kind of record of fossils found there. My grandmother visited the pit long before my time and came out with a fossil. She told me that at the time when she found it, it was one of the oldest fossils found there. Gramdma has passed now and I inhereited her fossil.
February 2, 2018 at 1:34 pm
I would have loved to go there! As a W&M Geology major my research was completed next to the landfill site off Big Bethel Road next to 64. Lots of similar invertebrate fossils there, too. Thanks for sharing this!
February 2, 2018 at 3:16 pm
Nice! Actually, I would’ve thought you did go there, and maybe on the same trip. 🙂 If you’re who I think you are, weren’t you also at HRA in 6th grade? E. Sailor’s science class?
March 9, 2018 at 4:26 pm
I remember our school field trip there in the late 60s early 70s. It spurred my love of dinosaurs. I had so much fun there! It’s sad to find it has closed. I’ll always cherish the memories!
March 20, 2018 at 1:22 am
Thanks so much for this article. I went twice as a youngster while in school at Deer Park Elementary and Magruder Elementary in Newport News. This brought back fond memories. Don’t know if I was a lucky one, but I did find a whole scallop shell about 8 inches across on the lowest level they allowed us to dig. Sorry to here it’s no longer there.
March 24, 2018 at 12:18 am
I was searching for the name of this place after watching a show about the wooly mammoth, and I found your article. I remember packing a bag lunch and bringing a large spoon for the dig, no cool camping shovels for me, unfortunately. We went as a class in the 4th and 5th grades (I think) from Little Creek Elementary in Norfolk. I know that I found some shells but no bones, but I think that my mom threw them out at some point. I really loved this place. Too bad there’s nothing unspoiled like it for the kids today. It would have been great to go back. Such good memories. Thanks for this reminder.
April 27, 2018 at 4:05 pm
I was offered $35 for a fossil shell I found at the Rice’s Fossil Pit during a field trip in the 5th grade (I think). It was 1978 (I think).
I found a Maryland state fossil (ecphora gardnerae) and someone who worked at the pit told me they were offering to pay $7 per inch for that species of fossil snail. It was 5 inches long and in great shape. I think in today’s dollars that would have been about $105
We were there on a field trip and I remember climbing about 20 feet up one of the walls of the cliff to get it. I don’t remember if I saw it and climbed up to get it or wanted to search a spot that nobody else was looking. It was the only fossil I found and I don’t think the rest of the class found much. I decided to keep it and it was one of the best strokes of good luck in my life surpassed only by the $45 I won at bingo a year later. Anyway thanks for this site and for reminding me of the good times I had during my childhood.
May 1, 2018 at 1:03 pm
I grew up in Richmond and was very interested in fossils. As a child I had been to Rice’s Pit many times. I always enjoyed going there and finding fossils. I remember we went one time and there was a large area roped off where I think a whale had been discovered.
Today I’m doing a rock and fossil presentation for our local school and I pulled some of the fossil’s from Rice’s Pit. Boy did this bring back memories.
I hate to hear that my grandkids will never be able to enjoy the joys of finding fossils at Rice’s Pit.
May 20, 2018 at 3:15 pm
I went to Syms Jr high right around the corner. We skipped school and would sneak into the pit and build forts into the side of the pit. I remember seeing someone on a tractor often digging and we would hide.Miss those days!
May 23, 2018 at 12:00 am
Man i loved this place. the little catfish pond, when they rang the bell them little suckers went wild.I found the clam shells. also found an egg nest . but they were so fragile the broke even when dusting them lightly. I was going to Shelton park elementary in Virginia Beach. mid 70s. Its one of my best memories. sad its gone i think that place touched many people growing up.
June 29, 2018 at 3:40 pm
I went to Seatack Elementary which is now a police training station I believe. We went to the Fossil pit when I was in 5th or 6th grade. I loved that field trip! For some reason me and my classmates thought we would find valuable fossils digging in the heat of the day. This brings back so many memories! Thanks for sharing!
July 20, 2018 at 10:39 am
I live in and grew up in Norfolk, VA. I have been to Rice’s several times on school field trips and now I am 51 and this place just came to mind. I only have fond memories. I wish that I still had my “treasures” that I came home with.
September 13, 2018 at 2:36 pm
Grew up in Hampton. Went to school with Kenny. I remember visits to the pit and Mr. Rice. And I still have vivid memories of the shock and saddness when the principal told us all of Kenny’s death.
October 13, 2018 at 9:24 pm
My dad was in the Navy and we lived in Norfolk. I went to Poplar Halls ES and I will never forget our class trip to Rice’s Pit! I found several fossil shells and kept them for years until they got crushed during one of our moves. I’m sad that it’s no longer there.
October 15, 2018 at 8:40 am
I moved to Hampton in 1965 and lived on Linden Avenue, a block from Hampton Yacht Club. I dug at Rice’s Pit numerous times; my finds became the basis of a huge fossil collection today. I met Kenny several times and was deeply saddened by his death. The pit was a wonderful place to hone a young kid’s excitement and interest in paleontology. At age 38 in 1990, I graduated the College of William & Mary, where I studied geology and paleontology. Today I have my own fossil pit in King William County…and Rice’s was an important seed planted in a young boy’s interest and pursuit. Imagine that!
December 19, 2018 at 3:09 am
I went to Point O View elementary in Virginia Beach when we went to Rices in the early seventies. Remember taking my pail and trowel, digging for fossils. Sad to hear it’s closed now, good times!
February 16, 2019 at 4:59 am
I am so happy to see Rice’s Fossil Pit so happily remembered by as many of my mid-’70s elementary school peers as I remember it.
I attended J.E.B. Stuart Elementary School, in Norfolk, during that period and remember that trip as the best field trip ever. (My class went to NYC for a longer trip prior to 6th grade graduation, which was in a class by itself for “self-enrichment,” but that takes nothing away fro our trip to Rice’s earlier on.)
Digging and finding all kinds of fossil whatever! It was awesome, weather great, everyone in a fine and happy mood, and it was just so cool to know you were finding stuff that was SO old and so cool.
Innumerable thanks to the Rice Family for making such a great and memorable experience available to my friends and peers. Norfolk was one of the greatest times of my younger life, and this school field trip was a definite highlight of that period.
Who remembers the visit from the Bicentennial Train? That was pretty cool, too!
March 10, 2021 at 2:12 pm
Even elementary kids in the 80s went, I know not from experience because it was my mother who went, Rice is my great uncle 🙂
April 6, 2019 at 7:22 pm
I actually grew up about four or five blocks away from the pit from the time I was around eight or nine (1967) until I enlisted in the service (1976).
I distinctly remember numerous field trips there during my elementary and jr. high school years which were always a thrill for me.
Usually, all I would come away with was a small bag of nondescript shells and my school clothes covered in gray dirt.
Although, on one field trip I did happen to dig up what one of the pit’s resident experts described as a fossilized fish spine with some sort of bony growth on it.
That, right there, started my lifelong fascination with all types of fossils.
Another very fond memory of the pit for me was somewhat less school-related.
Growing up in the Willow Oak neighborhood, I (as well as most of the other teenagers around at that time) knew that the Willow Oak swimming pool property bounded the northern property line for the pit and it was an easy jump over the rickety old fence to get into the place.
Since it wasn’t patrolled and was fairly well hidden, it made a great place to go to sneak a few cold beers or makeout with that special someone.
Now, I don’t condone underage drinking or trespassing, but back in the mid-seventies, in Fox Hill, it’s just what some of us did on the weekends.
I make no apologies for my misspent youth, but I do have many fond memories of “The Pit”.
April 26, 2019 at 2:55 pm
oh wow did this bring back a memory or two. I also went there on a field trip and dug for fossils. pretty cool place.
June 1, 2019 at 2:09 pm
My colleague just sent me this link because i brought up bringing a group of students here. Back in the 60s my dad taught at James Monroe in Norfolk and he would take his students on a summer school field trip, which I got to go on! I remember riding the bus with a bag lunch and a group of kids, it was one of my fondest memories digging in that pit!
June 5, 2019 at 3:11 pm
Our family lived in Willow Oaks in 1968 was when we moved in, it was just across the street from Rice’s pit, we used to go in there a lot when we were teenagers being bad,but when I was in elementary school we went there on a field trip once. That was the only time that I went down in there was in elementary school, it was really deep. It was a special place for all of us locals, brings back a lot of memories!!
June 6, 2019 at 1:28 am
I remember as a young girl, hearing the news that prehistoric whalebones had been discovered just around the corner from where I lived. My father drove me to the location, which was still crowded with fascinated local individuals. I will never forget that moment and the knowledge that these unbelievable artifacts would be sent to the Smithsonian Museum. Fast forward to junior high school. As a young teen at Buckroe Junior High, our class went on a field trip there. I can still recall digging for historic treasures. Memories forever etched in my memory. Then, many years later, as an individual who did estate liquidation, I would be hired to find “homes” for many items in the Rice family home and from their museum. Such wonderful and bittersweet memories flooded my memory, recalling those earlier days of my youth. I feel so fortunate to have been exposed and involved in such a local and national treasure.
June 6, 2019 at 4:59 pm
I lived a few houses down from the pit from 1972 to 1986. My mother worked at a small beauty shop right out side the entrance. I visited here very often and have very fond memories. My friends and I found a lot of cool things digging around. The museum was very interesting and Mr. and Mrs. Rice were very nice to me but you never wanted to go in without Him knowing, That is when you saw the grumpy side. What a great read.
June 8, 2019 at 1:40 am
I remember going on a class field trip as a young girl in elementary school in Yorktown. It was a great time. I had a small shovel and looked forward to finding some fossils ,but I only found some shells but it was ok. It was still enjoyable.
June 9, 2019 at 11:01 am
What a wonderful childhood memory. I too came on field trip from school and I remember feeling as if I were digging for treasure — it was so thrilling. Since my family lived in nearby Newport News brought visitors there once as well. I haven’t lived in the area for many years and when my grandsons were born I just knew we’d have great adventures at Rices Fossil Pit. Was so sad to learn it was closed then but still “treasure” awesome memories made digging for artifacts of another era in time.
June 11, 2019 at 4:24 pm
Fossils weren’t the only thing found in the pit. I remember my father and I were at a friends house who had just received several loads of fill dirt from Billy Rice. We were surprised to find several arrow heads mixed in with this fill.
August 5, 2019 at 7:13 pm
I wondered what had happened to the “pit”.
I taught in Suffolk and took numerous classes there on field trips. I still have fossils from there.
November 7, 2019 at 2:57 am
For some reason today, my mind flashed back to High School 1972-1975 (Floyd E. Kellam) and a field trip we made to the fossil pit. So I started looking on line so I can get the address and location since I’m coming back to the Beach area in 2020 and I like retracing places I was at when I was younger. Now I’m sad that I will not be able to do this. I enjoyed myself that day. I don’t remember if I found anything or not but it was fun digging and exploring. Well this dream has come to an end. Some other things have come to an end but I still will return in 2020.
December 25, 2019 at 4:28 am
Oh my goodness. I can’t believe I found something about the pit. I remember this field trip in the fifth grade (1979)! So sorry that it is closed. The family brought so much joy to so many.
February 29, 2020 at 1:45 pm
I visited Rice’s Pit in the 1960s as a fifth and sixth grader from Phillips Elementary and then Francis Asbury. What terrific memories. I think they charged 15 cents or a quarter for admission. Thank you for this story.
March 8, 2020 at 5:18 pm
Yes, I remember as a little girl from Shea Terrace Elementary in Portsmouth, Va. I remember being told the story of the son dying by the tractor in a room like a store or gift shop by the person leading the tour. And I remember that I started digging and found a really long fossil deeply embedded in the side of the pit. The teachers got all excited and the people that worked at the pit did too! My class mates and I worked on digging at the big bone for the rest of the trip before it was time to go. I came home and told my mother and brother about it, and I have always wondered what it was that I started digging up that day. I think I was in Mrs. Brown’s fourth grade class or either Mrs. Hornamen’s fifth grade class. Maybe there is someone out there who remembers this epic field trip.
June 9, 2020 at 8:37 am
I use to walk by there on the way home from school (Sym Jr. High) and remember, fondly, of my field trips there in 1972 and 73. What an experience!!! What was even more exciting was the fact they were from my hometown, Lynchburg, VA!
June 26, 2020 at 2:55 am
I went to the Fossil Pit on a school field trip when I was 12 , around ‘76 or ‘77. I found the same fossil that is displayed on the brochure, Aurina mutabilis. Mr Rice said mine was the second one to be found. Greatest day ever. I still have it, 43 years later , sitting on my coffee table. I love telling the story of how I found it.
September 18, 2020 at 2:40 am
Same here Norfolk school field trip On the early 70s, never forgot. The place seemed enormous back then. I remember the story of the son dying and it sat with me.
Can’t remember finding anything but definitely a memory that was etched in my mind. Need more places like this for our kids to learn about things. I juts happens to remember the name and found this site. Nice someone had memorialized it.
November 24, 2020 at 5:23 pm
What a shock and surprise !! We have lived less than 1/2 mile from the pit since 1985 but until 30 minutes ago had never heard of the pit. Our two sons attended Syms and Kecoughtan Schools but not even an utter from them either. Les and Kerry on The Hampton Roads show mentioned their memories of the Rice Fossil Pit in Hampton and that sparked my curiosity. Google led me to your post which I thoroughly enjoyed learning from. Glad to hear many folks have fond memories of the pit. I wish our boys and we had some of them. Thanks for the post. Dave Sebring, Hampton, VA
January 9, 2021 at 1:19 am
I went there as a kid and found a tiger’s eye. I wanted to be a paleontologist for the longest time and loved Rice’s Fossil Pit. It was the bombdiggity. Quote me on that
February 11, 2021 at 1:38 pm
This was my all-time favorite field trip. I got to go when I was in 2nd-grade when my dad was stationed there. I did find something in the pit, and I thought it was a brain (I was 7, what did I know). I don’t know what happened to my fossil, it probably got lost in one of the many subsequent moves.
I now live in Florida and teach 2nd-grade. I tell my students all about the amazing field trip. I can still picture the yellow bucket and red shovel I used to dig that day.
March 10, 2021 at 2:06 pm
This is my great uncle’s fossil pit 🙂
April 16, 2021 at 5:26 am
Best field trip ever. Alas I do not remember in which grade we went to Rice’s Fossil Pit.
I do remember having the best day digging.
My cache was collected into a coffee can and the fun continued for me for days as I wahed off sand from myriad sharks teeth.
It is so good to hear about others who remember. Thank you for posting these.
Class of 1986 Menchville High
April 17, 2021 at 6:34 pm
Went in grade school probably mid 80’s. Field trip when I was at Willis Warf Elementary . Still think I have a few of them in a box upstairs with all the other rocks and treasures I collected as a kid.
May 11, 2021 at 5:00 am
One of my favorite memories…been there 3 diff times in 4th and 5th grade feild trips while attending Little Creek Elementary in Norfolk…there was a mud pit at the bottom that we’d get to play in and a hose to wash off at the top on our way out…I’m 65 now and live in kansas…
July 27, 2021 at 4:00 pm
When I was in 7th grade I moved to Hampton and my mom took me to this pit. We paid our entry fee and wound up finding a big shell like the one in the picture above. The woman at the museum asked to purchase it from us, but we refused, so we could have it at home. It took me a good half hour to dig the shell out. What a great memory of time with my Mom. Thanks for this web page. I’ve been looking for this pit since I moved back into the area. I’m sorry it is gone.
August 22, 2021 at 12:59 pm
My dad was stationed at Langley from ’76-’81, and we lived just down the road. I attended Samuel P Langley Elementary, and every year our class would go on a field trip to Rice’s – I still have the shells I found there, including a 6″ conch-like specimen. I learned to ride at Northwind Stables, which was adjacent to the pit. This morning, I was following a nostalgic rabbit-hole on google maps, and was shocked to see a lake where I thought the pit should be! It’s sad that schoolkids no longer have the opportunity I had. Great memories, though! Thanks for posting this!
January 9, 2022 at 7:50 pm
I’m a latecomer to this nostalgia party–almost 5 years late! I lived in Norfolk from 1960-1968, and the field trip to the fossil pit in grade school (Larrymore Elementary) was the highlight of my time there. Your description of your experience parallels my own memories–heading out with high hopes and a spade and returning crestfallen and empty-handed! It’s delightful now, so many years later, to read about the background of the fossil pit. I live in Portland, Oregon, and it’s been a wonderful stroll down memory lane today, coming across your website and this particular webpage. Thanks!
July 16, 2022 at 8:42 pm
I grew up in Newport News and every year in grade school we took a field trip to the Fossil Pit and the Planetarium (now the Virginia Living Museum). For the Fossil Pit we took a bagged lunch, a bucket with something to dig with and old clothes our parents didn’t mind us messing up. All I can remember finding is some shells.
October 22, 2022 at 3:47 pm
I took my two boys to spend a day digging for fossils at Rices’s fossil pit. They were about 7 and 8 years old. They are now in their late forties. The oldest about to be a General in the army and the youngest is a statistician.
We had a great day. They were so excited everytime they found something. They did not want to leave.
I still have some of the fossils we found. (Photo included). We all three had the worst sinus infection we ever had from the dust. (We were not smart enough to wear a mask). It is a great memory.
December 21, 2022 at 6:27 am
Thanks for this! My mom took my brother and I there as kids in about 1973-4. I recall at the time they wouldn’t let you dig at the bottom, but you could dig along the sides. I also recall that there was a little window at the office and if you found anything that might be special, they would have a look and possibly buy it from you outright. We didn’t find any bones, but came back with a lot of ancient shells. This really brings back a lot of memories.