Celebrating Penn Dixie’s Heroes

Celebrating Penn Dixie’s Heroes: Eileen Eich, Liz Gonsiorek, and Sheila Kelly

By Elizabeth Schiavoni, Development & Marketing Officer

I met Eileen Eich on the Penn Dixie site in the Summer of 2017. She spoke excitedly from her wheelchair about climbing over the piles of rocks and collecting fossils on the site in the 1970s, before it was a Fossil Park and Nature Reserve. Accompanied by her daughter, Judy Klump, who shared fond memories of the site and the role her mother played in creating the site’s operating organization, the Hamburg Natural History Society in 1993.

In the single month I spent with HNHS, up to meeting Eileen, I consistently heard the same levels of enthusiasm for the fossil pits and the people who love them from volunteers, members, and visitors. As a lifelong volunteer for community resources, I was curious about the origins of this dedication. Available copies of the Hamburg Sun and Buffalo News from the 1980s and 1990s and Town of Hamburg meeting minutes tell a story of environmental activism and unwavering citizens answering a call to civic duty.

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Standing: Sheila Kelly (left) and Liz Gonsiorek (right). Seated: Eileen Eich.

The next time I saw Eileen, Judy was helping her with the door of the Town of Hamburg Community Center on a warm evening in September. The HNHS staff and President of the Board of Directors waited in the billiard room to hear the story of the founding of the organization from her and two other unwavering citizens invited by Judy.

Liz Gonsiorek regularly wrote about the threat of industrial development on the Penn Dixie site in local papers as developers showed interest from 1989 to 1992. While talking about pleasant walks on the site Liz noted her motivation, “I’m always interested in more green space and preserving that type of activity for people.”

Sheila Kelly also signed on opinion articles for the preservation of the land with Liz and Eileen. She later stayed with the HNHS in different leadership roles until the mid 2000’s. She was honored for her outstanding service to the organization in 2002. Eileen, Liz, and Sheila all attended town meetings arguing against development and for preservation. Liz reflected, “I was really happy that other people were interested in doing something like this.”

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The original HNHS banner hangs in our office above Dr. Holly’s desk.

The circle of community leaders in cushioned chairs by the fireplace represented generations of support for preserving the Penn Dixie site. The conversation was peppered with light and joyous, recollections of time on the site with family. Judy joking, “I never went there,” for partying when her elders brought up the bonfires. Liz sat with a thick file folder on her lap, pulling out articles, records, and pictures throughout the night. The interview moved down the timeline as Sheila described the group of volunteers drawn to preserving the land becoming the HNHS.

The Town Board appointed Eileen, Sheila, and five other volunteers to a committee on the possible development and management of the site on March 9th, 1993. That May they took their case to the Bayview and Big Tree Neighborhoods surrounding the site during informational meetings for homeowners. The Town purchased the land to be deeded to the HNHS on February 27th, 1995. Sheila believes the date of the first HNHS site cleanup on July 11th, 1996 marks the true beginning of the organization. Liz agreed. “It took a long time to get to the point where we could say we’re going to have a cleanup,” Said Sheila. “I don’t know how many dumpsters of tires and construction debris we picked up. I think some cars were buried in the mud,” she added.

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Penn Dixie library display from the 1990s. Picture provided by Liz Gonsiorek.

Discussing the level of safety on the site since the volunteer powered cleanups throughout the 1990s lead to the topic of restrictive covenants. Anything going in on the rest of the land that wasn’t the fossil park, “had to be low industrial,” Sheila explained. The present executive director Phil Stokes asked, “So you got it so that the other developments around there wouldn’t be polluting the air?” Liz put it succinctly, “you’re not going to have this park and then have another chemical plant go in.” She thumbed through her file and revealed the relevant paper dating the restrictive covenants to 1992.

I asked about the group acquisition of the wetlands adjacent to the fossil pits in the following years and Sheila confirmed the restrictive covenants made that easier. She continued, “But we were really busy then. I mean we went everywhere. We had poster boards.” Liz put her finger on a picture of the group’s display and passed it around the circle. The text “A Geological Treasure! Right Here in Hamburg!” surrounds a treasure chest on a board above a case of rocks and fossils. Judy looks at the picture and remarks, “I used to do that with Mom. We went to different libraries.” Judy dates the experience to 1995 and 1996 when her own son was 3 and 4 years old and would help with their educational outreach.

We chatted about the town officials, science teachers, dedicated volunteers, and first staff members that aided the group’s growth in those first few years. Eileen conveyed her delight that people came, “from Las Vegas and California, just to visit us.” Eileen also commented on Sheila’s long term commitment to the organization. I asked Sheila if there was anything that she ever wanted to see happen when she worked with the group that didn’t happen. She couldn’t think of anything. “I think they really exceeded expectations. I never thought in my imagination that it would ever be this big.”

August 25: World’s Largest Fossil Dig

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Unearth the Unexpected and help set a GUINNESS WORLD RECORDS™  title for the World’s Largest Fossil Dig at Penn Dixie — the #1 fossil park in the U.S.

Join us on Saturday August 25, 2018 as we make history.

Admission is reduced to $5 per person and includes a commemorative shirt, fossil collecting bag, and all of the amazing Penn Dixie fossils that our guests may collect. No fossil digging experience is necessary as volunteer stewards from several community groups will be on hand to facilitate the dig. Or, invite your friends and register a team of up to ten diggers for just $40. Stay after the dig to collect fossils and enjoy food trucks at Penn Dixie Fossil Park and Nature Reserve.

Got a business? Become a sponsor and etch your name into history.


Register Here

You’ll receive a commemorative t-shirt, commemorative reusable bag, tool for fossil collecting, and program guide. Stay after the dig to collect fossils and enjoy food trucks at Penn Dixie Fossil Park and Nature Reserve.

You won’t want to miss out on this opportunity to be one of the inaugural title holders in this new GUINNESS WORLD RECORDS™ category for World’s Largest Fossil Dig!

Register today and be part of this exciting moment in history!

Things To Know:

The record attempt will take place at Penn Dixie Fossil Park & Nature Reserve in Hamburg, NY. Arrival, parking, and weather updates to follow via email updates to registered participants.

Schedule of Events:

  • 9:00 am      Check-in at Penn Dixie
  • 11:00 am    Guests travel to designated collecting zones
  • 11:30 am    Fossil collecting begins
  • 12:00 pm    Participants provide documentation of digging
  • 12:30 pm    Optional fossil collecting until 3 pm

FAQ:

Q: Do I need to be an experienced fossil collector?
A: Not at all. We’ll teach you the basics of fossil collecting so you can find real Penn Dixie fossils on August 25.

Q: Can I keep the fossils that I find?
A: Yes! The rules require that all participants submit fossils for verification by certified paleontologists. We will collect two fossils from each guest to submit for verification. After verification, the fossils can be picked up by dig participants. Unclaimed fossils will be used for educational purposes in the WNY community.

Q: Are children welcome?
A: Yes — we love kids! However, very young children may not qualify to be record holders if they cannot meet GUINNESS WORLD RECORDS™ guidelines for the record attempt. These guidelines include full participation in fossil collecting for 30 minutes as well as an understanding of the rules and procedures of the event. Guests who cannot meet these guidelines may attend for fun and may keep the fossils that they find.

Q: Will you have enough fossils for everyone?
A: Absolutely. Penn Dixie is a global geological treasure with an abundance of fossils from a shallow marine environment that existed 380 million years ago.

Q: May I bring food, drinks, folding chairs, a wagon, etc.?
A: Yes, all are welcome at Penn Dixie. Food trucks and bottled water will be available for sale during the event. We will have limited seating and shelter available, however, and encourage those with special needs to plan accordingly.

Q: Is the event accessible for those with mobility impairments?
A: Yes! We have many paved trails and flat areas for fossil collecting. We highly recommend a reach tool for those who cannot bend down.


Dig Leader

Dig leaders


History Maker

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Record Setter

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Fossil Finders

 


Want to help organize our teams of diggers? Volunteer here!

Interested in sponsoring this historic achievement? Click here for more info.

Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for the latest dig updates with #PennDixieBigDig



Register Here

 

Have questions about this historic event? Use our form and we’ll get back to you ASAP.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penn Dixie Seeks AmeriCorps ABLE Member

The Hamburg Natural History Society/Penn Dixie seeks a part time, seasonal candidate to serve as AmeriCorps ABLE Member at Penn Dixie Fossil Park & Nature Reserve during summer 2018.

The candidate will guide groups through the history and science of the site’s resources and assist groups and campers in collecting fossils and rocks and making observations/connections about plants and wildlife. The candidate will additionally work with the Director of Education to develop accessible and inclusive programming and lessons that meet NYS Science standards. The candidate will be outside all day, walking most of the day, and lifting about 20 pounds of equipment.

Enthusiasm for science and nature in interactions with students is required. Start/end dates: 6/25-8/19 Mon-Fri 8:30 am-5 pm. For information about Americorps ABLE and to apply, visit https://www.tscwny.org/

Teen Science Café is Coming to Buffalo

March 8th Interest Meeting at Central Library

Teen Science Café is a series of free, fun, out-of-school events where teens socialize over food with local scientists about current cutting-edge ideas in a relaxed and informal setting. The Buffalo Niagara Teen Science Café is beginning this fall at the Central Library.

High School Voices Needed

Teen Science Cafés are for teens, by teens with the aid of committed mentors. Science Educators from Penn Dixie Fossil Park and Nature Reserve invite Western New York high schoolers to a Teen Science Café interest meeting on March 8th at 6 pm in the West Room of the Central Library by the Fables Café.

What do you want to learn about at the Buffalo Niagara Teen Science Café?

Space? The Environment? Climate Change? Cancer Research? Robotics? Engineering?

Teen Science Cafés are not just for the science geeks; they are for all curious teens, diverse in ethnicity, culture, gender, and motivations for learning about science.

Contact elizabeth@penndixie.org or call the Penn Dixie office (716) 627-4560 with any questions.

Official Penn Dixie Field Guide

Thanks to the New York State Geological Association, we’re pleased to offer a digital version of our definitive guide — Penn Dixie Fossil Park & Nature Reserve: A Window Into The Devonian Period of Western New York. The guide appears in the 89th Annual NYSGA Meeting Guidebook — print copies available here. You may download the Official Penn Dixie Field Guide for educational use only.

The guide was written by Executive Director Dr. Phil Stokes — a geologist — and Director of Education Dr. Holly Schreiber — a paleontologist — and provides a broad introduction to the history and science of Penn Dixie. Topics in the 18-page paper include:

  • Geological setting of New York State in the Devonian Period
  • Plate tectonics affecting the Catskill Basin and WNY
  • Why many different types of fossils are found at Penn Dixie
  • An overview of the main types of fossils found, including brachiopods, bryozoans, trilobites, crinoids, bivalves, gastropods, cephalopods, plants, and fish
  • Images of our fossils with updated nomenclature
  • A discussion of the fossil-bearing layers at Penn Dixie
  • Our organization’s history, and how we ended up as Penn Dixie!