Local History: Greenfield Home to First Dinosaur Museum in the Country!

Greenfield’s Lost Museum: Dexter Marsh and the Dinosaur Tracks

The town of Greenfield was once home to a world famous museum – it drew a stunning 3,000 visitors in just 7 years! The museum, opened during the mid-19th century by a local jack-of-all-trades named Dexter Marsh, was home to the first ever dinosaur tracks to receive a thorough and official scientific examination. What happened to the tracks? And what happened to the museum? Find out more about this fascinating piece of Pioneer Valley past at Greenfield Community College’s Sloan Theater on Wednesday, May 8th at 7pm. Presented by the Pioneer Valley Institute. 1 College Drive. Greenfield, MA. (FREE)

Many local people know that Dexter Marsh (1806-1853), quarrier — stonemason, janitor, handyman, and jack-of-all-trades in 19th-century Greenfield, MA — was among the first to discover dinosaur footprints, but how many know that he opened one of the first dinosaur museums in the country? In 1835, when he first saw the prints, he thought they had been left by very large birds — and professional geologists agreed with him. These became the first known tracks in the world ever to receive a thorough scientific examination, performed by a professor at Amherst College named Edward Hitchcock.

In the following years, the largely self-educated Marsh learned about paleontology and built an extra room onto his house to exhibit his collection. From 1846 to 1853, an astonishing 3,000 people signed the visitors’ register of his house-museum, including such famous Americans as Oliver Wendell Holmes and even travelers from Europe and the Near East. At his early death in 1853, Marsh’s museum was dispersed at public auction, split mostly between Amherst College and what is today the Boston Museum of Science.

By looking into his daybooks and visitors’ registry in the archives at Amherst College, Dr. Robert Herbert has given Dexter Marsh the most thorough examination to date, bringing the man and his museum from obscurity back into the light. On Wednesday, May 8th at 7pm, using maps, photographs, and illustrations, Dr. Herbert will give a lively talk about this brilliant day laborer whose curiosity moved him into another world. It is our great good fortune that Dr. Herbert, formerly an art historian at Yale University and later Mount Holyoke College, has long been interested in the history of geology. In recent years, he has written about Edward Hitchcock and Orra White Hitchcock and continues to delve into the history of dinosaur footprints in the Connecticut River Valley.

Dr. Herbert’s talk will take place at Greenfield Community College, Main Campus, Sloan Theater (Main Building, South Wing).  For more info contact Cynthia Herbert at pvi@gcc.mass.edu

Submitted by Cynthia Herbert. Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Greenfield.

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