When Dinosaurs Roamed the Roadside

Are dinosaur parks extinct in Michigan? A forgotten relic of 20th-century roadside attractions.
Dinosaur Land ride
Photography Courtesy of L.L. Cook Co.

Americans have long had a fascination with dinosaurs and other forms of prehistoric life — from the first Sinclair Gasoline Brontosaurus, nicknamed “Dino,” exhibited at the 1933-34 Chicago Worlds’ Fair to the popular “Flintstones” television show of the 1960s and the computer-animated dinosaurs of “Jurassic Park” in the 1990s.

This interest in the prehistoric past fueled the creation of many dinosaur attractions across the United States. They span the country from California to Connecticut. Michigan had two. The first, in Ossineke, originally was named Domke’s Prehistorical Zoo Gardens. It still operates today but as Dinosaur Gardens. The other, Prehistoric Forest, formerly located near Onsted in the Irish Hills, is extinct like the dinosaurs it featured.

Domke's Gardens
Photography Courtesy of Vintage Views

Folk artist Paul Domke created Domke’s Gardens. He had an early interest in natural history and a dream to create a kind of prehistoric zoo with life-size replicas. Domke and his wife Lora bought a 40-acre tract in northeastern Michigan, just off US-23, that he imagined would be the type of swampy terrain that dinosaurs once inhabited. He began to create replicas in the mid-1930s.

Early attempts using plaster of Paris and other materials failed. But with the help of a chemist from Alpena’s Huron Portland Cement Company, a compound was devised that could withstand Michigan’s weather. Domke called it “cement plastics,” a pliable composite that allowed him to create detailed features on his creatures. Domke visited Chicago’s Field Museum and the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. He took meticulous notes and made detailed sketches of the exhibits. He claimed, “each animal in the park is as accurate in size and appearance as possible.”

Prehistoric Forest
Photography Courtesy of Upper Michigan Card Co.

Domke created 27 replicas in a span of about 40 years, including a brontosaurus, tyrannosaurus, stegosaurus, a prehistoric bird, a giant frog and, of course, cavemen. A statue of Christ holding the world in his hands gives the gardens a unique combination of dinosaurs, cavemen and Christianity.

Domke’s has since changed hands, and each new owner added special touches. Dinosaur Gardens is open from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend. It offers a fossil dig site, mini-golf course, a frozen yogurt shop, gift store and picnic area.

Photography Courtesy of Alpena Card Co.

Although the Dinosaur Gardens survived extinction, the Prehistoric Forest on US-12 in the Irish Hills did not. Originally opened in 1963, the 8-acre tourist attraction featured some 35 life-size fiberglass replicas of prehistoric creatures, built by James Q. Sidwell, a former dinosaur exhibit designer at Chicago’s Field Museum.

The park featured several distinctive attractions. A safari train took visitors past a rumbling and smoking volcano under a 35-foot tall waterfall and through the time tunnel into the world of long ago, where they met the dinosaurs face to face. That included a wooly mammoth, dimetrodon, hadrosaurs and others. There also were serpents, pterodactyls and other strange flora. A fossil digging pit, a “Crazy Maze,” and a “Burning Spring” astonished visitors.

Photography Courtesy of Alpena Card Co.

The “Mammoth” Gift Shop offered an entertaining selection of “prehistoric” items, mostly made of plastic. A guided walking tour took a close look at some of the creatures, with information on their life cycle, diet and habitat. A 400-foot water slide, the Jungle Rapids, was added in the early 1980s just as attendance started to drop. The Prehistoric Forest was sold to new owners in 1999 but closed in 2002. Even before the park closed, the fiberglass replicas were targets of vandalism, a sad fate for the creatures fondly remembered by baby boomers and their offspring.

BLUE Vintage Views columnists M. Christine Byron and Thomas R. Wilson reside in Grand Rapids. They are authors of the new book “Vintage Views Along Scenic M-22 including Sleeping Bear Dunes.”

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