Greenfield Recorder – Meet the dinosaurs of western Mass: The Rock Fossil and Dinosaur Shop makes the prehistoric accessible for kids and adults

Driving down the road on Route 5 in South Deerfield, commuters are met with a prehistoric surprise: a giant volcano with a huge dinosaur statue smack in front of a bright-green shack. Most find themselves asking, “What in the world is this place?”

Welcome to The Rock Fossil and Dinosaur Shop, an educational facility for children and adults alike focusing on the history of dinosaur fossils and archeology in western Mass.

The shop’s owners are Gina and Peter Cowley, who purchased the business in 2015. When I first entered the shop, Peter was hard at work maintaining the “river” that runs in the outdoor entrance while Gina enthusiastically greeted me at the front door, eager to give me an exclusive tour.

A woman with a contagious smile, Gina Cowley was a first-grade science teacher at the Campus School of Smith College for 20 years and has a master’s in education and other advanced degrees.

“Teaching children about science is really important to me. It’s so vital because kids are spending so much time on screens,” she said. “I also know that children need to have hands-on experiences that are fun and engaging, but also educational.”

Accordingly, the Cowleys have created a host of activities and displays and are determined to show visitors that the store is more than just a quirky, roadside attraction.

“People say that they drive by here a million times a day and they never knew. Then they come back here and learn about all this. They’re really taken by everything,” she said. “This is such an important and unique place where children can learn while having fun.”

Visitors to the shop learn quickly why it exists here in western Mass.

The first dinosaur fossils discovered in North America were found in 1802 at a farmstead near South Hadley by a student at Williams College named Pliny Moody. The track marks that Moody discovered were not recognized as belonging to a dinosaur until 1860.

Another important figure in western Mass dinosaur history is Dexter Marsh, a common laborer from Greenfield who in 1835 discovered dinosaur footprints while creating a sidewalk. He referred to them as “turkey tracks.”

Along with Moody and Marsh, names like Edward Hitchcock — one of the fathers of American geology and the third President of Amherst College (1845–1854) — Orra Hitchcock, an incredible artist whose illustrations of her husband’s geological specimens helped cement his legacy — and Mignon Talbot, the first woman to find a nearly complete dinosaur skeleton near Mount Holyoke in 1910 – are prominently featured in the Cowleys tours. 

While learning about the history of dinosaurs in western Mass, visitors can view life-like statues of over 25 dinosaurs and giant insects from all around the world, including the fierce and carnivorous Coelophysis, a slender member of the raptor family, who measured around six feet tall, 100 pounds, and roamed New England.

Gina Cowley says the Coelophysis is one of the most important dinosaurs on display in the shop: it was one of the first dinosaurs that scientists discovered had hollow bones like a bird. “It even had a wishbone,” she said.

The Cowleys like to take advantage of local resources. Earlier this year, geologist Dr. Paul Tanner visited the shop to give workshops to kids about the local history of volcanoes. During his workshop, Dr. Tanner helped kids create erupting volcano dioramas.

In May, the shop brought in real-life rainforest reptiles to help teach kids about the evolutionary connection between reptiles and dinosaurs.

Regular outdoor activities at the Rock Fossil Dinosaur Shop include archeological digs, where kids get the opportunity to go into sand pits, grab shovels and brushes, and sift through the sand to discover fossils.

In the front of the shop is a flowing river the Cowleys created where children can swish rocks through the water to discover minerals and crystals.

The gift shop consists of thousands of rocks, fossils and gems, along with toys, gifts, treats and treasures for sale.

The Rock Fossil and Dinosaur Shop is located at 213 Greenfield Rd. in South Deerfield. Current hours of operation are Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. The shop will be open on weekdays starting later this month.

More information can be found at

UMass Amherst journalism student Paige Hanson is arts and features intern for the Gazette and Recorder.

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