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Layers Beneath Dinosaurland

South Hadley's Kornell Nash and his old-fashioned rock shop

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Thursday, April 07, 2011
Photo By Mark Roessler
The Nash Dinosaur Track Site and Rock Shop in South Hadley

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South Hadley's Dinosaurland first opened its gates in 1950, when Carlton Nash quit his day job at the Holyoke Water Power Company and decided to stake everything he had on a set of dinosaur tracks he'd discovered in the woods of South Hadley nearly 20 years earlier.

Though the name of his roadside attraction might suggest otherwise, neither it nor the discovery itself were products of folly or happenstance. Like a gold prospector setting out into the Rocky Mountains with a pick and a sieve, Carlton Nash set out into the pines a few miles from his home looking for something that he hoped might earn him a pocket full of cash. As he scanned the forest floor, lifting his fedora to wipe the sweat from his brow like some young Indiana Jones, he dreamed big.

Whereas most prospectors came back poorer than they started—dreams dashed, pockets empty, bodies broken—Carlton Nash's story turned out differently. In fact, his son Kornell continues to this day to make a living from this unique quarry and rock shop.

Located off Route 116 in South Hadley (a mile or so south of the Notch), the Nash Dinosaur Track Site and Rock Shop, aka Dinosaurland, offers visitors a chance to explore a location where now-extinct creatures once roamed and purchase tracks that have been excavated from the quarry. As a cultural attraction, Dinosaurland provides a vivid glimpse of a pre-Interstate highway world of homespun New England attractions that seem in danger of becoming extinct.

Today there are several locations along the Connecticut River Valley where you can see dinosaur footprints. Some were unearthed during construction along Route 5 between Holyoke and Northampton, and thousands more were found in the 1960s during an excavation for a new building in Rocky Hill, Conn.

But when Carlton Nash set out to find tracks in 1933, both locations were buried beneath many feet of topsoil. Nash had just graduated from high school, but because of the Great Depression he couldn't attend college full-time; he was forced to look for work that didn't exist. The few geology classes he was able to take at Amherst College paid off, though.

With the tools he had available—a shovel, hammer and a pick—he knew that if he was going to discover dinosaur tracks of his own, he needed to find places where the layer of rock that contained them had been pushed up through the deep topsoil and glacial debris so that it was now exposed. As a kid tromping around in the woods around South Hadley, he had a few ideas where such a place might be, and it didn't take long before his theories panned out.

One summer day, on a hillside covered with pines, not far from boggy wetlands, he cracked open some layers of rock and found tracks. Through the '40s, he sold the tracks he harvested from a small shack on the property. In the 1960s Carlton expanded his operation, making the quarry part of the attraction and building a larger space to display and sell his finds.

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In geological terms, the idea that a solidified muddy footprint of any creature would have any financial value is a relatively new concept. Still, the Nash family is far from the first to have found a future in what the dinosaurs left behind.

The first set of tracks ever found in the region were unearthed by a young farmer named Pliny Moody in South Hadley while he was plowing his fields. It was 1802 and the most learned person he could find, the local priest, declared them evidence of the divine: the markings of a crow Noah had sent out looking for land, but which had never returned. Moody used them as a front doorstep.

Today, the slab hangs as a featured exhibit in Amherst College's recently remodeled Natural History Museum. The set of three-toed tracks were acquired not by the college, but by one of the school's professors and later its president, Edward Hitchcock, who bequeathed them to the college.

Hitchcock was a man of some accomplishment, to say the least. He published the first geological survey of Massachusetts, named many of the Valley's mountains, and was the first to recognize that much of the region along the Connecticut River had once been a giant lake stretching from a natural dam in Connecticut all the way up into northern Vermont. (Later geologists named this phantom body of water after him.) While New England has him to thank for these achievements, internationally he is credited as being the first to identify these locally found tracks as belonging to prehistoric, extinct creatures.

At first, Hitchcock found people only too happy to exchange their rocks for cash, but as a secondary result of discovering something unique and special, he inadvertently created a market for the tracks. Soon he found he wasn't the only one out collecting samples from the field or buying discoveries from farmers.

Less than 50 years later, Carlton Nash's father, George Harlan Nash, graduated from Amherst College. A man of science, George Nash would help fund several geological expeditions during his lifetime and inspire in his children an enthusiasm for discovery. Not only did he introduce young Carlton to Hitchcock's collection at Amherst, he also moved his family into an old farmhouse once occupied by the farmer Pliny Moody.

By the time he graduated from high school in 1932, hunting for dinosaur remains was in Carlton's blood.

The quarry is through the woods behind rock shop's main building, which has been renamed the Nash Dinosaur Track Site and Rock Shop. Admission is $3 for adults and $2 for children. While it's still a productive quarry—the most productive quarry of its kind, Kornell Nash says—digging only occurs when supplies in the store run low.

Unless you know what to look for, the quarry at first appears to be a tranquil outcropping of flat rock in a sparse pine grove. Sheets of blank stone are piled on the edges of the rocky slope and lean against the trees. But then, looking around, you note a few tracks Kornell keeps outlined in chalk, and once you see one, more begin to appear, as if creatures were walking back and forth across the rock face. Visitors can wander the site at will, but the actual removal of the tracks requires care and expert precision, a job usually done by Kornell himself.

The tracks were made by prehistoric creatures walking across a muddy surface—a surface that was then covered by successive layers of soil over time, hardening into solid rock and preserving the fossils inside. Given the great number of tracks and the high quantity of plant life he and his father have found preserved in the fossil record, Kornell Nash guesses that in the more tropical climate the dinosaurs inhabited, there was a prehistoric oasis near the spot where these tracks were made.

Using a power saw, an ordinary stainless steel dinner knife and techniques Carlton Nash perfected, the Nash family has removed layers measuring a total of six feet from the roughly quarter-acre slab, revealing thousands of tracks. At the bottom of the slope, you can see the ends of each "page," as if it were torn from a book.

Digging for fossils is prohibited on public land, and any excavation can only be undertaken with the state's permission by paleontologists with degrees and affiliations with universities. When track sites have been discovered on public land, they're usually protected from trophy hunters by private entities and government agencies. Chances are there are many more tracks beneath sites such as Rocky Hill, but preserving the top layer has been the primary focus of authorities.

Kornell Nash believes his family's site comprises 100-foot slabs of rock that could be potentially rich in fossil remains.

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Carlton Nash died in 1997 at the age of 82. Kornell took over the day-to-day operations immediately, but he says it's taken him some time to overcome his grief enough to begin sorting through his father's voluminous records.

On his website (www.nashdinosaurtracks.com), Kornell maintains an extensive archive of Dinosaurland's early years. Articles about the quarry and Carlton were published in the New Yorker, Yankee Magazine, the Wall Street Journal and the L.A. Times. Kornell's dad appeared on talk shows such as Good Morning America, and the site collects letters of thanks he received from people such as Gene Autry, Oliver Hardy, Mrs. Calvin Coolidge, and General Patton's wife, Beatrice.

A single dinosaur paw mark can go for $250 to $500 depending on its size and quality; multiple footprints start around $900 and go up significantly.

Asked whether he felt any qualms about selling something that others might put in a museum or want protected for future scientific study, he smiled and said, "First off, Amherst College has 10,000 dinosaur tracks. How many more do they need? I'm sure Yale has a bunch, too. It's the same at other universities."

Even though many of Hitchcock's prize pieces are handsomely displayed at the Amherst College museum, Kornell pointed out, most of what the Amherst professor collected is in storage. There are five varieties of dinosaurs represented in the prints found at the Nash site, and while each print sold is unique, they are all variations on one of these five themes.

"If I find anything interesting or different, it's simply not for sale," Kornell Nash said. "The stuff I sell is the kind of thing scientists have exhausted their intellectual curiosity on."

He conceded there are some in the academic community who "might not be happy about" what he does. But, he noted, he sells tracks to plenty of geology professors.

"My dad was friends with an Amherst College geology professor," Nash says. "Whenever there was any departmental rivalry, he used to like to tell his colleagues this story to remind them not to underestimate the geologist. He reminded them that when the college almost went bankrupt in the 1850s, President Edward Hitchcock took his fossils on the road. He loaded them in a wagon and held shows across the countryside to show people his discoveries, and he saved the college with ticket sales from his show."

The story isn't quite true. Hitchcock did raise money for the school showing his fossils in this manner, and he did save the school from financial ruin, but the two actions were separate; he used less flamboyant tactics to rescue the institution. Still, the conflated legend is illustrative of the attraction of track hunting, where pages of the past hold treasures that have real value today.

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