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.”

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!

Pyritized Fossils at Penn Dixie

By Jay Wollin, Educator

While the Penn Dixie site is world renowned for its excellent trilobites, and perhaps even for its incredibly abundant corals, there are small, relatively underappreciated areas of the site which can offer unique and exciting treasures for those willing to take a closer look.

The site is broken up into several main areas which are frequented by our visitors. Among the most popular are our “trilobite beds” and the aptly-named “brachiopod pit”. Different areas of the site represent different exposures and layers of strata. While large portions of the 54-acre site are teeming with fossil horn corals, brachiopods, and trilobites, there are are other sections of the site which represent entirely different conditions.

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This location, just to the left of the main parking lot entrance is home to some of Penn Dixie’s pyritized prizes.

During fossilization, there a process known as permineralization. During this process, empty spaces that were present in the living organisms are filled with groundwater, rich in minerals leached from the surrounding materials. This process can fill in very small spaces, even those within cell walls. Depending on the types of minerals present and the conditions during fossilization, this process can result in many interesting types of preservation. One of such types is known as pyritization.

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An example of pure iron pyrite, or Fool’s Gold.

Pyrite is an iron sulphide and is often lustrous and gold in color, giving cause for its common name, Fool’s Gold. Under rather specific circumstances it can coat or fill gaps during the fossilization process. Typically, in order for pyritization to occur, organisms must be deposited in seawater areas that are low in both organic matter, and dissolved oxygen. This oxygen-deficient water create what is known as an anaerobic environment. In this environment, certain bacteria are able to survive and flourish. When combined with reactive iron, these bacteria convert the sulphates into sulphides which results in a pyrite mineralization in the remains.

At the Penn Dixie site it is possible to uncover beautiful, golden pyritized specimens, however, the vast majority have exhibit a higher iron content and have weathered out and oxidized to present with a metallic rust colored finish. These fossils are generally rather small in size—averaging roughly 5mm in diameter—and tend only to appear in the site’s “Pyrite Beds.”

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Pyritized fossils and pyrite nodules in situ in the Penn Dixie Pyrite Beds.

To the untrained eye, these diminutive fossils could easily be mistaken for pebbles or debris. Upon closer examination however, one can find many interesting examples of Devonian critters. Pyritized goniatites, gastropods, brachiopods, ambocaelia and even trilobites can be found with some effort.

While the “Pyrite Bed” at Penn Dixie represents a rather small and unassuming portion of the site, those willing to spend the time and effort to examine the surface closely can find a veritable treasure-trove of unique and interesting fossils. Don’t be fooled, all that glitters is not gold… sometimes it’s pyritized fossils!

Clockwise from upper-left: Ambocaelia sp.; Greenops boothi; Goniatites sp., possibly G. uniangularis; Nuculites sp.; Loxonema sp.; and an unidentified brachiopod. Click fossils for larger images. All photos courtesy of Jay Wollin.

Earth Science Day 2016

While Penn Dixie may be covered in ice and snow, we can always think ahead to the coming spring and summer months when the site will be visited by fossil collectors of all ages and experience levels. This spring, we’ve got Earth Day on April 22 and Dig with the Experts scheduled for Memorial Day weekend, plus many school field trips. In the summer we’ll host a full array of science and nature programs, but fall will be a really special time when we host our 20th Annual WNY Earth Science Day on Saturday October 7. To get in the sprit, take a look back at Earth Science Day 2016 — Saturday October 8 — with some photos courtesy of superstar volunteer Jake Burkett and his family.

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Despite the chilly and wet morning, exhibitors and visitors who chatted under the big tent stayed mostly warm and dry.
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The drill rig demonstration got a bit muddier than usual.
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UB Geology might have brought the messiest activity: goupy glaciers that flowed through 3D models.
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By late morning the skies cleared and our fossil collecting was in full swing.
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These folks came down from Ontario and were very eager to find the perfect trilobite.
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At just the right time, LLoyd Taco Truck arrived and satisfied the hungry lunch crowd — even T-rex.

For the full gallery visit the Google Drive gallery — thanks Burketts! We are grateful for the following organizations that made Earth Science Day possible:

  • 3rd Rock LLC
  • Aquarium of Niagara
  • Animal Advocates of WNY
  • Buffalo Association of Professional Geologists
  • Buffalo Geological Society
  • Buffalo Museum of Science
  • Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper
  • Canisius College Seismographic Station
  • Cradle Beach
  • Earth Dimensions, Inc.
  • Ecology & Environment, Inc.
  • Erie County Department of Environment and Planning
  • Evangola State Park
  • Lloyd Taco Trucks
  • Past & Present Rock Shop
  • Penn Dixie Site
  • Reinstein Woods/NYS DEC
  • SJB/Empire Geo Services, Inc.
  • StratResources Geologic Consulting, LLC
  • SUNY Brockport Earth Science and Meteorology Club
  • SUNY Buffalo Undergraduate & Graduate Geology Clubs
  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — Buffalo

Annual dig has $32k impact

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Fossil hunters at the 2016 Dig with the Experts program in May.

A newly released report from the Hamburg Natural History Society (HNHS) finds that the Penn Dixie Paleontological & Outdoor Education Center’s annual fossil dig — Dig with the Experts — contributed greater than $32,000 in total economic impact to the Hamburg area in 2016.

You can download the Penn Dixie Dig with the Experts report in PDF format.

The report examined the economic benefits generated from the one-day fossil collecting program in which visitors were invited to collect fossils in a freshly excavated portion of the site’s 54-acre quarry. Paleontologists from the Cincinnati area supervised the dig, where participants could unearth 380 million-year-old rocks in search of marine fossils such as trilobites and brachiopods.

Visitors stayed in local lodgings, dined at local restaurants, and visited area attractions while they were in town. About 40 percent of the dig 165 attendees traveled from outside the Buffalo area; a similar number were first-time visitors to Penn Dixie.

HNHS Director David Hanewinckel, who authored the study, stated “We knew Penn Dixie had an economic effect on the area, but before this study, we didn’t know how much we contributed. Now, we have a good number and look forward to continuing success.” The study was conducted by Hanewinckel, HNHS Executive Director Phil Stokes, and Dr. Roger Levine, an independent consultant formerly of the American Institutes for Research.

Penn Dixie typically welcomes 12,000 visitors each year; visitors from 31 states and four countries have visited to date in 2016. Penn Dixie was recognized as the top fossil park in the U.S. following a 2011 study published by the Geological Society of America.

Penn Dixie’s International Friends

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The Environmental Policy Group of Jammu and Kashmir displays a commemorative plaque from Penn Dixie.

You may have read about our new partnership with the Centre for Himalayan Geology in the Buffalo News or Artvoice. With Penn Dixie’s support, The Centre is in the process of creating an international scientific attraction — the Kashmir Triassic Fossil Park — near the town of Khonmoh in the State of Jammu and Kashmir, India.

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Gangamopteris, a plant fossil found in Kashmir. Photo from geoinfo.nmt.edu.

Many of the types of fossils found at Penn Dixie are also present in Kashmir, though the species are not the same. For instance, both fossil parks have brachiopods, bivalves (clams), ammonites, gastropods, other marine invertebrates, and various plants. However, the park in Kashmir — at least as far as we can tell — does not have trilobites, as these animals became increasing scarce towards the end of the Paleozoic Era. The Permian-Triassic extinction event — which is captured in the rocks at the park — marked the end of the trilobites’ reign on our planet.

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An example of Permian foraminifera — microscopic plankton fossils found in India. Photo from http://www.nrm.se.

This massive die-off — which eliminated 90% of all marine species and 70% of all terrestrial vertebrates on Earth — led to the rise of the dinosaurs. Meteor impacts, widespread volcanism, and a runaway greenhouse effect (i.e., climate change) have been proposed by scientists as explanations for the extinction event.

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Carving of a Kashmir stag, or hangul; a gift from The Centre to Penn Dixie.

For some additional reading about the park, visit these links:

Kashmir Triassic Fossil Park coming up at Khanmoh

Kashmir Triassic Fossil Park soon to serve students across the world

Fossil park at 250 million-year-old tsunami site in Srinagar

Explore Triassic fossil, pristine Kashmir, and more! on Pinterest

Mining threat to fossil beds at protected Kashmir Site