About eight years ago, a teacher brought her class to the Penn Dixie Paleontological and Outdoor Education Center to dig for fossils and to learn about geology and the environment.
The bus pulled off a nice little residential street in Hamburg into the parking area, where 54 acres, much of it a vast gray wasteland broken up by several picnic-type shelters loomed. This is it? she thought. How will this keep an elementary class, including special-needs children, occupied and interested?
“I almost put all those kids back on the bus when we got here,” she told Jerold C. Bastedo, executive director of the Hamburg Natural History Society, which operates the Penn Dixie site. “I couldn’t believe this place. It looks like nothing.”
But students got off the bus and headed to the north section of the moonscape-like property, where the remains of creatures that lived 380 million years ago waited for them.
They could dig. They could pound a hammer and chisel into the shale. They could look down and pick up a gastropod, which had been a snail, or tiny round crinoid, a relative of a starfish. They could search for deer and groundhog tracks or a bird’s nest.
The class, including several students with autism, was captivated.
As the group was leaving, the teacher told Bastedo, “This is the best field trip we ever had.”
He’s heard it before.
The Penn Dixie site, two blocks from Big Tree Road near South Park Avenue, is hidden away, primed to be one of those “overnight” sensations that is the product of years of hard work and preparation.
It has been in the making for 380 million years, but more recent developments have moved quickly in comparison.
In the early 1990s, a small group of people recognized the value of the former shale quarry. The shale had been used as aggregate in cement by the Penn Dixie Cement Co. at a plant near where the Ford Stamping Plant is located.
Aggregate about 10 feet deep was mined, leaving not a hole or cliff, but acres of flat, barren land. The mining also left tons of shale with fossils from the Devonian Era that are 130 million years older than dinosaurs.
By the 1970s, locals knew it was a great place to find fossils like brachiopods, trilobites and corals.
“This place was a jackpot place, because nobody was coming up,” said volunteer Bob Smith. “As a kid, when I found this place, I practically lived here for a whole summer. I don’t think I saw 10 people the whole time I was here.”
Dan Cooper, of Cincinnati, discovered Penn Dixie in the 1970s when he was visiting his brother in the area.
“Early on, it was kind of a crapshoot,” he said, describing a dilapidated area with junked cars that sometimes was a hangout for roughnecks and drug dealing.
“More than once I drove all the way up to get run off by the police,” recalled Cooper, a retired aerospace engineer and a serious collector who owns several properties in the country where he hunts fossils.
These days, he is a member of Penn Dixie and makes the trip from Ohio to Hamburg several times a year to dig, as well as to direct the “Dig with the Experts” program each spring.
“People from all over the world know how famous Penn Dixie is,” Cooper added.
The site is popular because, for the price of admission – $7 for adults, $6 for children, members are free – you can keep whatever you find on the ground.
Many quarries, where years of mining have opened up layers of fossils, have closed their doors to the general public because of the liability. Bastedo and a group of believers saw that happening and formed the Hamburg Natural History Society in 1993 to preserve the property and save it from industrial development. Two years later, the Town of Hamburg bought the 57-acre site and deeded 32.5 acres to the society.
The society bought 16.75 acres adjoining the site in 2005 with funding from the East Hill Foundation. A key five acres with frontage on Jeffrey Boulevard was added in 2008 with a donation from Ravenwood Associates and grants from the East Hill Foundation and the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation. Donations from members and supporters helped complete the purchase.
The Jeffrey Boulevard property is where the society plans to build a $2 million, 10,200-square-foot outdoor center. It is raising money for the new center, which would have classrooms, a seismograph station, a climatological station, an exhibit room, a gift shop and a media center. Close to the Thruway, Route 179, Route 5 and Bayview Road, the new center will be more accessible, will take traffic off residential streets and will provide a home for year-round programming.
“We’re the only cultural organization I know that doesn’t have a building,” said Bastedo, a geologist who worked at the Buffalo Museum of Science and in the oil and gas and environmental fields before becoming executive director.
When the campaign to save the quarry started, there were naysayers, predicting the place would become a money pit. Questions abounded: Why are you trying to save a quarry?
“Nobody could understand,” Bastedo said.
Today the answer is clear.
Michael Monroe and Ryan Frost, members of the Geology Club at SUNY Buffalo State, were digging on a recent Saturday.
“There’s really nowhere else around here that is not technically private property to go fossil hunting,” Frost said.
More than 20,000 people from 39 states, Washington, D.C., and 11 countries have searched for trilobites, brachiopods, corals and fossil fish and plant remains this year at the Penn Dixie Paleontological and Outdoor Education Center. With its skeleton staff and more than 200 volunteers, the society will reach more than 100,000 people on and off the site this year.
Penn Dixie counts two members in Germany, one in England and eight in Canada.
Dan and Carole Nielson of Rogue River Valley, Ore., are world travelers who have been to every state as well as 26 countries. She looks for historical places, he looks for fossil-hunting locations, and they ended up at Penn Dixie one recent Saturday. They drove down from Niagara Falls with hammers and canvas collection bags in hand. They dug in the morning, went out to lunch and returned for an afternoon of fossil hunting.
“We came to see Niagara Falls; that’s on my bucket list,” she said. “He always scouts out fossil places wherever we go.”
She has a trilobite from Estonia, and the couple have picked up fossils on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico as well as throughout the United States – including, now, Hamburg.
“I found a beautiful fossil trilobite here. He’s curled around here,” Nielson said, pointing out the fossilized sea creature.
Despite many improvements over the years, the site is rustic, with portable toilets provided until the building is built. More than 4,100 feet of paved trails provide access for wheelchairs, walkers, strollers and wagons. Eagle Scouts have constructed trails and birdhouses; trees have been planted and several shelters built.
Curt Lindy of Liverpool, near Syracuse, first visited Penn Dixie about 15 years ago on a trip sponsored by a geological society. The salesman, now retired, was hooked.
“Once you learned what to look for, they are everywhere,” he said of the site.
Lindy is a member and volunteer, and goes to Penn Dixie a couple times a month. He also is auditing geology courses at his local community college. But like many who caught the bug, he enjoys sharing it.
“I actually prefer helping the kids find the fossils and telling the story of how they got there,” he said.
It’s a story that captures young and old alike. The fossils are of marine animals. This area was under a shallow sea south of the equator 380 million years ago before tectonic plates shifted and what is now New York moved north.
“If you get a kid hooked on science,” Lindy said, “it’s going to resolve a lot of issues.”
What’s not to like? Students are guaranteed to go home with a fossil; most find fossils right at their feet. But if they get bored with animals that died millions of years ago, there are live animals in the wild at the site, including more than 140 species of birds, as well as turkey, deer, coyotes and other small mammals.
Tour guides show visitors the best place to look for fossils and show novices how to spot them. Once they “get their eyes adjusted,” Bastedo said, they find fossils everywhere.
Since it is away from the bright city lights, the natural history society also sponsors astronomy programs. There are bird walks and cross-country skiing.
Penn Dixie caters to children, with day camps during the summer, when the site is open daily. Weekend-only hours kick in during the spring and fall, but the site is open on spring break and other school holidays, such as Columbus Day. Group tours or school trips are available by calling 627-4560. Penn Dixie will stay open this fall for fossil hunting until it snows.
“If we had the building right there, we’d be open 365 days a year,” Bastedo said.
Searching for fossilized remains of marine animals appeals to many, not just children.
“It’s kind of nifty when you find something that nobody else in the world has seen, ever,” Lindy said. “Now you have to find out what it is.”
And no matter the age, fossil hunters love to show off their treasures.
Dr. Robert Corretore, 82, a retired family doctor, drives from his Town of Tonawanda home about once a week to dig. His blue jeans, hip boots and gray sweatshirt are a whitish gray from the shale dust. He has been digging near water, but he happily shows a visitor fossils he has collected and mounted on three wooden frames that he keeps in his car for quick reference.
He also enjoys helping out with young groups.
“Either they love it or they hate it. But most of them, once they find one or two fossils on their own, they can’t get enough,” Corretore said.
And Penn Dixie will never run out, Bastedo said.
“We’ve been doing this for years now, and we’ve just scratched the surface,” Bastedo said. “We’ll never run out of stuff. It’s just not going to happen.”
While Penn Dixie is getting a lot of attention in geological circles – the Geological Society of America ranked it the No. 1 fossil park in the country in 2011 – many don’t realize what a resource they have so close to home.
“We have over 30-some states and, I think, five or six countries that people will come from,” Corretore said. “It boggles the mind, and yet somebody living three blocks away don’t know we exist. Crazy.”