Dinosaur Gardens Prehistoric Zoo
This eerie park is unique in its mixture of dinosaurs and cavemen with Christianity. Called a "zoo" for some reason, Dinosaur Gardens is on the western shore of Lake Huron, way east off the interstate (though two nearby Bunyan statues offer additional incentive for the trek). At the entrance, a homemade statue of Christ beckons, holding the Earth aloft in one hand.
Visitors pay in the gift shop -- containing a typical assortment of dino souvenirs and knickknack -- and venture down a dark, heavily forested path. Twenty-six hand-sculpted prehistoric birds and reptiles are arrayed in little clearings -- well-crafted though stationary tableaux, spread over 40 acres.
These construction of the park started in the late 1930s, and presents a correspondingly distorted view of the Time of Dinosaurs. Several scenes show cave people locked in mortal combat with giant snakes and Mastodons. One bright spot in a summer employee's chores must be the annual touch-up on the carnage; the copious splashes of blood always seem freshly painted.
A big-headed Aptosaurus statue (originally constructed and labeled as a "Brontosaurus") is entered via a staircase. Inside the belly, surrounded by red and white dino guts decoration, you'll find a heart-shaped Jesus -- "The Greatest Heart."
The park was built, appropriately, in a swamp, and the sculptures were created by somebody named Paul N. Domke, Sr., who also constructed a nearby Paul Bunyan. The guy who runs the Bunyan attraction gave us a knowing smile when we asked about the sculptor. "When that guy made cavewomen, he made CaveWOMEN," he said, winking.
Insider Report: The Dawn of Dinosaur Gardens
Roland Shaedig shared memories of years spent at Dinosaur Gardens when he contacted us in 2002: "A download of your site was included in my birthday greetings today from some of my coworkers. It totally blew me away, because I grew up in this zoo and spent from age 9 in 1949 to 19 in 1959 working very hard with my two brothers, helping the owner and originator build the animals, and run and manage the whole place. I hate dinosaurs, but have basically good memories of having learned hard physical labor in that swamp."
RA: Who built Dinosaur Gardens?
The zoo was started in the late 30's by my uncle, Paul N. Domke, Sr. and his wife, Lora, who was my mother's sister. When our parents died, my brothers and I moved just down the road 1/4 of a mile to live with Uncle Paul and Aunt Lora, who had no children. They worked us hard, in the woods cutting timber, sawing lumber and cutting fire wood; hauling sand, gravel, and rocks; mixing concrete and fashioning these giants.
Uncle Paul had visited the Field Museum in Chicago and the Smithsonian in DC, and made sketches of the skeletons he found there, brought them home and translated them into the life-size animals.
He was a true jack-of-all-trades, although his artistic abilities (as seen in his oil paintings) were sometimes rather crude. He had been a farmer, a sawmill operator, a county treasurer, an insurance salesman, an orphanage manager, and was skilled in blacksmithing, woodworking, trapping and hunting, and in interior church decoration.
Uncle Paul always had his 30" x 18" oil paintings hanging and for sale, but I don't remember ever selling one. On the other hand, we did a small business in the painted plaster paris plaques of a black bear, a pair of hanging rabbits, a doe and fawn (which we made in the winter, and painted by hand), picture post cards and camera film.
RA: Was there a tour guide?
The tour was self-guided. [When working in the office/gift shop] we had a set "spiel" we had to follow almost exactly verbatim from Uncle Paul. I remember the beginning: "It's about a half-mile walk down through the zoo and gardens. When you come to the fork in the trail, bear to the right, and it will bring you back around. Feel free to go up inside the Brontosaurus to see the special display. Please stay on the trail and don't climb the animals. You may take pictures."
RA: Tell us about the religious touches... the "Greatest Heart," and the Christ with the globe....
Uncle Paul and Aunt Lora were very devout Lutherans, as were their pioneer German parents up near Rogers City, and as were my parents. Uncle Paul had a rather rough personality and was easily given to disputation over many issues, including religion. Even though he was very conservative and had a simple piety, he clearly accepted the evolutionary view of the universe.
"The Greatest Heart" display actually began down in the tail of the Bronto, where we had placed three small statues of "Greeks." I guess they're not there anymore. We had built them indoors in the winter, painted them up to look more like Asians. Uncle Paul based this on the verse in John 12:20 - 21, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus," and made a sign with that inscription. Then, as you saw, up in the neck of the bronto is the painting Uncle Paul made of Jesus according to Warner Sallman, placing it in the "heart" frame, surrounded by his conception of what the heart and lungs of a bronto were like, and labeling it "The Greatest Heart."
It's Uncle Paul's simple testimony to his faith in Jesus, just as is the statue of Christ with the world in his hands.
Incidentally, while we were building that, he was not satisfied with the way Jesus' right hand looked, so, after propping some boards against our house windows, he attached a stick of dynamite to the hand, blew it off, and started over.