Wells Dinosaur Haven
Jeff "Fish" Wells has been building dinosaurs in his wooded back yard since 1981. "I was going to do a rock and roll park," he told us, smiling and waving away gnats. "Caricatures of Elvis and Dylan and people like that. I told that to my paper boy, and he said, 'Who's Bob Dylan?' And I thought, 'Okay, not a good idea.'"
But Jeff had a Plan B. He and his wife had driven cross-country taking pictures of dinosaur parks like the one in Rapid City for an art magazine. "And about halfway through," he recalled, "I thought, 'I don't want to take pictures. I want to be one of the guys who BUILDS dinosaurs.'"
There was only one problem. "I knew nothing, zero, about building dinosaurs."
Jeff, however, did know art, and he knew that dinosaurs were freaky enough to be a forgiving canvas for someone learning on the job. One of his early displays, "Family Fun," is a self-portrait of the Wells clan. "Those are my kids, fighting," Jeff said, pointing to an edaphosaurus and a dimetrodon rolling on the ground. "I like to make the dinosaur faces look like family and friends." Another early piece, a stegosaurus, has skin bumps made of walnut shells that Jeff sliced in half and glued into place. Most of them were later ripped off by hungry squirrels. And the flimsy fins on its back collapsed under the weight of winter snow.
Jeff's most persistent foes were the wood lice and carpenter ants that got inside the dinosaurs and ate out their plywood frames. He was helpless to stop it until a friend suggested that he ask for building tips at Electric Boat -- the nuclear submarine shipyard -- a few miles away. Jeff paid a visit, wound up getting a job, and still works there. "They taught me my craft," he said. "I learned how to weld structural steel and to make stuff so that it doesn't fall over."
Jeff's masterpiece thus far is his full-size Tyrannosaurus rex. A peek inside -- there's a door in its tail -- indeed reveals the ribbed structure of a submarine hull, and a translucent, sausage-like skin that reminded us of the interior of the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. "My daughter had a boyfriend," Jeff recalled. "Kind of a crazy person. I think he wanted to live in here, set up housekeeping in it." The boyfriend moved on, and the T-rex is now home only to occasional raccoons.
The T-rex also cradles an oversized mandolin in its mouth and arms, a capricious add-on by Jeff. As with the dinosaurs, Jeff told himself that it would only take a few months to build. Instead, it took a year and a half. "It's a labor of love," Jeff said of the T-rex, and then he corrected himself. "No it isn't. I quit loving it about 2000 when I asked myself, 'Am I ever gonna get this thing done?'"
"I wanted to burn it and videotape it," Jeff confessed, "but my daughter said no."
Jeff paints most of his dinosaurs in muted colors -- which he feels is the way that they actually looked -- and he charges no admission. Always Visible, Always Free is his motto. "I didn't want to be a commercial enterprise taking dino money from little kids," he said. "It seems so mean to do that." As for the earth tones, they reflect his "quietest" philosophy as well as his paleontological beliefs. "This is not a whiz-bang dinosaur park with moving, grunting, farting dinosaurs."
"I love seeing any dinosaur anywhere," he added. "But it's what people do with them -- that's what I don't love. Painting them fluorescent magenta and turquoise? Packaging them to make a buck? That's not right! You're acquiring a HUGE karmic debt there."
Wells Dinosaur Haven remains a peaceful retreat in an increasingly noisy part of the world. When Jeff and his wife moved here it was "the sleepiest backwater you could imagine," he told us, but now a billion-dollar casino stands on the opposite side of Route 32. Jeff doesn't gamble -- "This is gambling enough," he cracks -- but we asked him: if he walked across that street and won the jackpot tomorrow, would he break out the flamethrower and the camcorder and then pack it all in?
"No," Jeff replied. "I really like big stuff. I would start work on my brachiosaurus and I would work on it until I fell dead."