About Town: Traveling back to western Massachusetts’ dinosaur age

  • Gina Bordoni-Cowley stands by the fence around the Dinosaur Forest at her Rock Fossil & Dinosaur Shop. The wooded area is filled with life-sized models of dinosaurs, including some that were native to what is now Franklin County. —Recorder Staff/David McLellan

  • Life-sized models of a struthiomimus, left, and a coelophysis, right, can be found in the Dinosaur Forest behind the Rock Fossil & Dinosaur Shop. The coelophysis is known to have been a native species to what is now Franklin County. RECORDER STAFF/DAVID McLELLAN

  • The Dinosaur Forest behind the Rock Fossil & Dinosaur Shop attempts to visually recreate the prehistoric world with life-sized dinosaur models. —Recorder Staff/David McLellan

Recorder Staff
Published: 4/22/2018 8:28:04 PM

DEERFIELD — It was 200 million years ago, but what’s now Franklin County was already teeming with life.

The area was landlocked, far from the earth’s one giant ocean at the time and close to the center of the supercontinent Pangea.

Millennia passed. Meteors and volcanoes blasted the earth. Ice ages froze the ground. Pangea severed into drifting landmasses to become today’s seven continents, but bountiful evidence remained, miraculously, of western Massachusetts’ inhabitants: dinosaurs.

Throughout the area, one can find fossils and footprints and people dedicated to preserving Franklin County’s natural history, including Gina Bordoni-Cowley, a first-grade teacher of 30 years who owns the Rock Fossil & Dinosaur Shop.

“This is a story I think people need to know about,” Bordoni-Cowley said. “This area is so rich with dinosaur footprints, rich with history.”

Bordoni-Cowley’s South Deerfield shop off of Route 5 is one of nine stops along the Connecticut River called the Jurassic Road Show, a Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association project funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

But what makes the stop different is that it’s not just ancient fossils and a dinosaur-themed gift store — it has all that, too, but its hidden jewel is its Dinosaur Forest.

Stepping into the wooded area behind the shop, the sounds of roars and chirps fill the air and 24 full-sized models of dinosaurs, painted vibrantly, tower among the trees.

According to Bordoni-Cowley, textbooks and museums are a fine way to learn about what a Jurassic Franklin County might have looked like, but the Dinosaur Forest gives people their own glimpse and a life-sized visual representation.

And it’s important, too, in learning the area’s history. Franklin County has been a crucial site in scientists’ attempts to reconstruct the prehistoric world. The coelophysis, for example, roamed the area in abundance and give paleontologists insight into the relationship between dinosaurs and birds.

“This is a very important dinosaur because it’s one of the first dinosaurs scientists discovered that had hollow bones and a wishbone,” said Bordoni-Cowley, who partners with the nonprofit Memorial Hall Museum.

Indeed, birds have hollow bones, which make them light in weight, and each year, more links between dinosaurs and birds are discovered — including that dinosaurs may have, in fact, been feathered, according to Sarah Doyle, Jurassic Road Show coordinator.

When Edward Hitchcock, a Deerfield-born 19th century geologist and third president of Amherst College, found coelophysis footprints he believed — and went to his death believing — they came from birds.

“He thought they were ginormous, flightless birds,” Bordoni-Cowley said. “People thought he was crazy, but he really wasn’t far off the mark.”

Others, like Dexter Marsh, who found similar fossils while laying slabs of sidewalk in Greenfield in 1835, also thought they were from ancient birds.

The coelophysis in Bordoni-Cowley’s Dinosaur Forest is a long, lithe representation of the dinosaur, which was about a meter tall. Its feet look like those found on a turkey.

Bordoni-Cowley plans to update her dinosaurs, hiring an artist to come in and tweak them to reflect current scientific consensuses, even adding feathers to a few. She’s also buying live chickens, so visitors can see the similarities of birds and dinosaurs side-by-side.

“This is going to be transformed,” Bordoni-Cowley said. “It’s always changing.”

Reach David McLellan at dmclellan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 268


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