Have a cocktail, toast a brachiopod

The Enterprise — H. Rose Schneider

Under construction,  the Thacher Park Center is expected to be completed this winter as a site designed to educate visitors to the state park. A cocktail party will be held Nov. 3 to raise money toward its completion.

KNOX — Long before dinosaurs roamed the Earth, small sea creatures left their mark on what is now the Helderberg escarpment. This ancient history will be showcased in a new visitors’ center at John Boyd Thacher State Park.

Jeff Thomas is hosting a cocktail party to raise funds for the new visitors’ center museum at the park. The party will be held at his lavish Knox home, near the park.

Thomas said the fundraiser is primarily for the children’s exhibits at the center, which he describes as “like the star at the top of the Christmas tree.”

The center will open this winter, said Eileen Larrabee, director of communications at the Open Space Institute.

“It’s going to be a visitor gateway,” she said.

Construction began in March of this year. The center will include both an indoor and outdoor space, with what Larrabee describes as the replication of a “small cave formation” inside the building where children can learn about caves and bats. Outside, kids can climb a rock wall or scoot down a slide.

Nancy Engel, an environmental educator at the Emma Treadwell Thacher Nature Center, located near Thompson’s Lake, worked with the exhibit panels, in particular with a panel on the park's cultural history exhibit. Engel explained that the exhibit will trace the park’s human history — from the Native Americans who lived there, up to the people who visit it in the present day — in a linear display.

Engel discussed how the park saw events such as a British spy hiding in a cave during the Revolutionary War, the Anti-Rent War in the homes in the Helderbergs after the American Revolution, and the donation of the land by John Boyd Thacher and Emma Treadwell Thacher.

“Jumping into a time machine”

Dr. Chuck Ver Straeten, Devonian geologist at the New York State Museum, was the lead geologist for a panel creating a geology exhibit for the center, one of several panels creating different exhibits about the park.

Devonian Age rocks, which can be found at the park and in the rest of the area, have been studied by Ver Straeten for the past 30 years. The Devonian Age occurred about 400 million years ago, says Ver Straeten, about 230 million years prior to the first dinosaurs. During this time period, most of the area, including Thacher Park, was covered by a shallow sea filled with coral and brachiopods, a sort of shelled invertebrate that looks similar to a clam but is not closely related.

Ver Straeten says that specimens embedded in limestone and sandstone were collected from places throughout Albany and Schoharie counties.

“Some of them very beautifully show the animal life that lived on the seafloor,” said Ver Straeten. “You really get a snapshot of what life was like on the seafloor at this time.”

Ver Straeten explained that, along with the cave and its exhibit and a hearth made up of stones with fossils, the geology exhibit has three main components, the first being a timeline of the park going back 450 million years. Another shows a geological breakdown of the park “like if you were cutting Thacher Park as a cake,” showing a “slice” of each layer of rock, says Ver Straeten. The exhibit also demonstrates samples of different rocks found in the different layers in the park.

Ver Straeten says he is excited about the exhibit, noting that the Helderberg escarpment where the park sits was a geological phenomenon in the 19th Century for its ancient fossils and rocks, something taken into note by the park’s founder John Boyd Thacher.

“It’s like you’re jumping into a time machine,” Ver Straeten said of the park’s geology.

“Everyone’s backyard”

“It’s an extension of everyone’s backyard,”said Kelly Flanagin, an event committee member and Thomas’s daughter, of the park. Flanagin grew up by the park. Her father, whose property is adjacent to the park, sold land to the Open Space Institute to be developed for the park. Flanagin says that, even for those who didn’t grow up nearby, there are similar childhood memories for all who visited the park when young.

Flanagin’s father bought the land known as High Point in 1995 from the previous owner, Robert Whipple, for about $300,000, or about $1,700 an acre. He sold the land to the Open Space Institute in 2006 for $12,500 an acre, totaling $2.34 million. Thomas said at the time that the land was estimated to be able to be sold for as much as $750,000 for a 15- to 22-acre parcel of land, with 10 to 13 parcels sold.

Thomas said that he was approached by the Open Space Institute about working on the panel for the fundraiser and donating, after which he offered his home for the reception. His property is adjacent to the park, including the land he sold to the Open Space Institute.

“I have all the geological wonders right here,” said Thomas.

Thomas said that he hopes the park will continue to add features like the new center.

“It’s going to be a jewel,” he said of the park, concluding, “It’s already a jewel.”


Tickets to the reception will start at $100 per person and can be either requested by mail or bought at the door. The event will be held Thursday, Nov. 3, from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at 122 Old Stage Road. Donations may also be made to the center in a purchase of an ad in its brochure or a memorial marker on a brick paver, tree, or bench at the center.

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