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Dinosaur Gardens: America’s Last Great Roadside Attraction

Posted on May 20th, 2016

Dinosaur Gardens: 80 Years as One of America’s Favorite Roadside Attractions

What is considered one of America’s last great roadside attractions, Dinosaur Gardens offers a prehistoric walk through time. A T-Rex stomps through the pine trees, a family attempts to secure a wooly mammoth for dinner, and you can almost feel the breath of a triceratops as it stands stoically along a secluded forest trail.

Ever feel like you're being followed?

Ever feel like you’re being followed?

Dinosaur Gardens Prehistoric Zoo has been fascinating visitors for 80 years. But where did it all start? How did this oddly interesting roadside attraction come to be? It all began with a very creative man who had a very creative vision.

In 1886 Paul Domke was born in Presque Isle County to Prussian immigrants Carl and Augusta Domke. When he was old enough, Paul left the family farm and joined the U.S. Navy, where he spent most of his term helping with various duties on Hospital ships and in naval hospitals around the world. It is said this is when he developed a great interest in bone and muscle structure in animals; particularly those that had been long extinct.

Paul left the Navy in 1910 and returned to northern Michigan where he married Lora Schultz. His restless curiosity led the couple from owning a gas station in Rogers City, to painting in Detroit, back to Northern Michigan after the early years of the Great Depression contributed to the failure of Paul’s business. Over the years, Paul became a jack-of-all-trades, gaining experience as a farmer, saw mill operator, county treasurer, insurance salesman, orphanage manager, and had also developed artistic skills in oil painting, blacksmithing and woodworking.

It was a combination of these experiences and interests that lead Paul to start dreaming up his next project; a prehistoric zoo. On visits to a field museum in Chicago, and the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., he took notes and made careful sketches of the dinosaur displays. After searching for the perfect terrain near his hometown, Paul purchased 40 acres of swampy land in Ossineke near Alpena; full of huge ferns, large beautiful trees, and a winding stream running throughout, the land was perfect for his envisioned animal menagerie.

Dinosaur Gardens near Alpena, Michigan.

Dinosaur Gardens near Alpena, Michigan.

During the summer of 1935 work began on what would become “Paul Domke’s Garden and Prehistoric Zoo”. Workers were hired to clear land, construct trails, and build a bridge. Next, concrete foundations were laid throughout the forest for each animal. Then a steel framework with metal lath was erected to support the cement portion of each sculpture. Early attempts at creating the sculptures with plaster of Paris and various other compositions for his creations failed, but with the aid of a chemist at Alpena’s Huron Portland Cement Company, a formula that could both be molded easily and withstand the outdoor elements was achieved. Paul called this secret mixture “cement plastics”.

Paul took great pride in the research he did in preparing and constructing each animal, and claimed that “each animal in the park is as accurate in size and appearance as possible”. Close to 40 years were devoted to creating around 30 prehistoric creatures, including a “brontosaurus” that is over 80 feet long and weighing over 60,000 pounds.

Today visitors can still venture down the same path that has been leading curious thrill seekers into the magical and unchanged prehistoric swamp for the last 80 years. Since Paul’s original creations, many new things have been added to Dinosaur Gardens by passionate owners. A mini-golf course, soft serve frozen yogurt bar, picnic area and a gift shop have entertained families for generations. The dinosaurs were even prominently featured in a photo shoot for Moosejaw Mountaineering, the outdoor gear and apparel company.

 

 

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