the museum of americana

a literary review

The Art of Extinction — Nonfiction by Carolyn Kraus

 
Mosquitoes dove like pterodactyls and Indian summer heat dulled my senses as I rotated the metal turnstile at the entrance to a deserted woodland swamp and stood gaping up at an eighty-five-foot-long, walk-through brontosaurus. Mind blank, I followed my companion up steps to an observation platform inside the beast’s hollow gut. Here an imagined rendition of its heart and lungs lay split in half like a six-foot chicken giblet.

Above the giant cardiac organ, as if emerging from its crimson depths, was a heart-shaped frame containing an oil painting of Jesus Christ beneath the scripted motto: “The Greatest Heart That Ever Lived.” For years following the dinosaur’s construction in the forties, I learned, a spotlight had shone down its cavernous tail, illuminating a trio of sculpted figures in flowing robes and a sign that proclaimed, “They Would See Jesus.”

I swiveled my head from heart to thirty-foot tail in baffled silence. I slapped at the big hungry bugs.

With me was Wilma McCourt, the elderly proprietress of Dinosaur Gardens and its thirty-plus life-sized lizards displayed around a forty-acre park on Highway 23 in Ossineke, Michigan. Wearing a prim, flowered dress and a beauty shop coiffure, Mrs. McCourt confessed that, after running the place for more than four decades, she was as stumped as anyone over the bizarre symbolism inside the brontosaurus. Nor could she explain why, after the artist had fashioned two dozen dinosaurs depicting an evolutionary epoch, he had added the figure of Christ that rises at the park’s entrance like a thirty-foot retraction.

Once known as “Domke’s Prehistorical Zoo,” Dinosaur Gardens is a one-man show, the product of artist Paul N. Domke’s personal blend of science, religion, and hand-mixed concrete. A self-trained sculptor and naturalist, Domke purchased the cedar swamp in 1930, drained it, and spent the next four decades laying concrete foundations, constructing skeletal, steel frames, slapping on mortar and sculpting prehistoric tableaux. He sold the enterprise to his neighbors Wilma and Frank McCourt in 1960 but continued building dinosaurs there until 1979, when he was eighty-three. Visitors can still tour the gardens for a small fee.

According to Dennis Bodem, former director of the Jesse Besser Museum in nearby Alpena, Domke’s zoo is “an important example of folk art” and a local treasure. But Mrs. McCourt and I had the place all to ourselves that afternoon. We rambled among gravel paths that wound past bulky forms in blood-bespattered action poses. These creatures were a far cry from Spielberg’s Jurassic Park automatons. Neither were they portable hulks like those twenty-foot fiberglass cows that are mass-produced in molds and displayed on steak house roofs. Domke fashioned muscle, joint, and tendon from concrete, then carved out the finer lines of tooth and claw with a wet paintbrush. The walk-through brontosaurus near the entrance weighs 60,000 pounds and has an equal amount of underground support. These beasts were not meant for extinction.

We crossed a meandering river stocked with cement trout, and Mrs. McCourt pointed out her favorite personalities. A thirty-foot mama parasaurolophus doted over two chartreuse babies near a bull-like titan that was painted pale orange and was, I noted, anatomically correct. Mrs. McCourt diverted my attention to a duckbilled fellow with scaly green hide. “There’s my trachodon,” she said. “See the way he’s looking at us over his shoulder? Don’t you think he’s real?”

Over the years, Mrs. McCourt said, she had received complaints from visitors disappointed that the dinosaurs weren’t alive. “I guess when they hear it’s a prehistorical zoo they have certain expectations,” she explained almost apologetically.

We passed an overgrown armadillo with a formidable set of spikes at the end of its tail. “My little glyptodon,” Mrs. McCourt said, gesturing toward it. Indeed, the glyptodon looked almost cuddly, dwarfed as it was by two neighboring brutes locked in a death struggle, their steam-shovel jaws digging into one another’s throats, and four–foot streams of red paint cascading from their wounds. “We call them our fighting pair,” said Mrs. McCourt. “We just touched up the blood.”

As we admired a snaggle-toothed tyrannosaurus rex that challenged a three-horned triceratops across the path, I noted that the tail of one combatant was curled around a tree stump. “Mr. Domke was meticulous about detail,” Mrs. McCourt said. As a young Navy medic, he had toured the world, indulging his interest in paleontology by visiting museums and archeological digs. Later, during trips to the Smithsonian Institution, he had made notes and sketches of prehistoric skeletons. “He thought it was a shame that all people could see was the bones,” Mrs. McCourt said. “He wanted to show dinosaurs as they really were.” He could supply the unknown features using his imagination.

Some years following Domke’s death, and after touring a Florida theme park, the McCourts added color and even polka dots to the dinosaurs. “After all,” Mrs. McCourt said cheerily, “ who can say they weren’t spotted?” Mr. Domke must have been swiveling in his grave. His life had been one of militant austerity and piety, a portrait in American Gothic. The sculptures as he originally conceived them, Mrs. McCourt’s son later admitted, were “grey, grey, grey.”

“When he was building the animals, we lived across the street,” said Mrs. McCourt. “We’d get up at 6 a.m. and see him working. I figured he must have been up at about 4 a.m.” She recalled one day when the terse Domke had come over and defined the terms of their relationship: “We don’t neighbor.”

Domke had grown up a farm boy of German immigrant parents, raised in Presque Isle, Michigan. After his stint in the Navy, he returned to northern Michigan and did some farming himself. Then, drawing on his artistic talents, he joined a church-decorating firm in Detroit. When the Depression hit, Domke returned north and settled on the swampy, forested property in Ossineke, which he believed bore a topographical resemblance to the terrain where long-extinct reptiles and mammals once lived. There, he began the dinosaur project that had long been his dream. Meanwhile, he supported his wife Lora and the three orphaned nephews they adopted by operating the Shell gas station located across the street.

“It was different growing up in a prehistorical zoo,” Domke’s nephew Roland Schaedig recalled. “My aunt and uncle were stern people, and I remember being rather frightened of them.” An Ann Arbor chaplain, retired from Samaritan Health Center in Detroit, Schaedig remembered that when he came to live with Domke, “My first assignment was to cut cedar for firewood. My brothers and I would also haul in sand and gravel and dig holes in the ground for the dinosaur foundations.” The boys would prepare the mortar mixture using Domke’s personal formula for malleable concrete: cement mixed with oil, lime, and hair from deer they had hunted the previous fall. “It was my job to take a trowel and slap the mortar onto the steel frames he’d build,” Schaedig recalled. Meanwhile, Uncle Paul would nail a detailed sketch of the sculpture to a tree, mount the scaffold wearing bib overalls and work gloves, and begin carving up the moist cement.

It was a year-round work regimen, and the boys were never permitted to join in after-school activities. No clubs, no ball games, no dances. “They were very strong on education,” Schaedig said, “but school was just for learning.” Attending the local Lutheran church was the Domkes’ only sanctioned social activity.

“It always struck me as odd for a person of the church to be making dinosaurs,” said Schaedig. “Another thing that seemed weird was to go up into the brontosaurus and see his conception of the heart and the three figures in the tail. They looked Oriental. I thought maybe they were the three wise men, but I never asked questions because you didn’t have a discussion with my uncle.”

Domke would recite proverbs and little German sayings in lieu of conversation. Schaedig remembers a favorite: “Save up your nickels and save up your rocks, and you’ll always have tobacco in your old tobacco box.”

Frugality was the complement to hard work, according to Domke’s stoic canon. When a tool was needed, he would fashion it from wood or retreat to his blacksmith’s shop and forge it. A house a block away from Dinosaur Gardens, where Domke’s niece cared for him during his last years in the seventies and eighties, is packed with the projects and inventions he continued to dream up almost until his death at ninety four in 1981. “We hauled away two truckloads when he died,” said Domke’s niece, Ilse Kuhl.

Mrs. Kuhl’s and I were seated at her kitchen table, riffling through blueprints and sketches that detailed dozens of Domke’s big ideas. One was a plan to subdivide the fifty-seven-acre swamp across the road into a kind of Utopian mini-village. Domke plotted out the project down to its street signs–the main artery would be called “Paulora Boulevard” after Domke and his wife. A quick tour of the house revealed that Domke had designed and made simply everything in it, from a decorative lamp constructed of a car axle to ironing boards, tin cookie cutters and pictures on the wall. “Of course he designed and built the house too,” Domke’s niece added.

At length, Mrs. Kuhl went to the attic and came back with a stack of Domke’s oil portraits. They were startlingly clumsy, with belabored lines, mismatched eyes, and disproportionate bodies. I had noticed the same artlessness in Domke’s cavemen back at the gardens and even in the stumpy statue of Christ posted at its entrance. Next to the lifelike dinosaurs, his cavemen looked like comic strip conceptions—evil-eyed versions of Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble. In one scene at the gardens, a loin-clothed ruffian with blood dripping from a corner of his mouth is being smothered by a fifty-foot python beneath the caption, “Man as in prehistoric ages locked in mortal combat.” In another garden tableau a gang of scraggly human brutes pummels a mastodon with spears and coconut-sized boulders. You can’t help but root for the mastodon.

“He wasn’t good at people,” as Mrs. Kuhl admitted.

Maybe the missing ingredient in Domke’s figures of people was the natural affinity he clearly felt for his dinosaurs. Whether in concrete, oil painting, or in the flesh, he never seemed to have the same knack with people. “Some days, Domke was very rude to the visitors,” Wilma McCourt’s son Frank McCourt Jr. told me as we sat in the small gift shop at the park entrance. “If he thought a question was trivial, he would brush it off. He’d just say, ‘None of your business.’”

More than anyone else, Frank Jr. seems to feel a kinship with the craftsman, whom he had watched from across the street from the age of twelve and occasionally assisted. “I’m a dreamer,” McCourt admitted, his blue eyes sparkling.

A coach and counselor at Alpena Community College, Frank Jr. had recently taken over the park’s management. He spoke excitedly of adding live exhibits of Michigan wildlife, of animating the bat-winged pteranadon, of building a golf course with a prehistoric theme, and of opening a Paul N. Domke historical museum on the property.

A firm-jawed, white-haired Domke gazed down from a photo tacked over a small table displaying a “Real Dinosaur Leg Bone,” as McCourt talked about the artist’s peculiar mingling of dinosaurs and theology.

“When people see the picture of Jesus inside the brontosaurus and the statue of Christ up front, they think it’s kind of freaky,” said McCourt. “They say,‘What the hell’s Jesus doing in a dinosaur garden?’ But that was Domke’s message.” Domke, he said, was trying to integrate evolution with the book of Genesis. “That’s how this whole thing fit together. Inside the brontosaurus the idea was that Christ was the heart of this master plan, the heart of the universe.”

Domke had room in his philosophy for millions of years of evolution, but he also believed in the Creation. “He didn’t see people as descended from apes,” McCourt added with a sweeping gesture toward the garden. “You won’t see any monkeys out there.”

Did such a synthesis make sense to Frank McCourt, Jr.?

“It makes as much sense as anything else,” he answered.

If, indeed, Dinosaur Gardens was Domke’s strange brand of evangelism, he wasn’t winning many converts. “I don’t think he really cared if people visited the gardens,” McCourt continued. “He did almost nothing to advertise it. If people wanted to see it on his terms, that was OK. If not, that was OK too.”

Domke apparently conceived the figure of Christ at the entrance as his crowning artistic statement. But he never could get it right. He kept blowing off the hands with dynamite, reworking them, and blasting them off again. The artist was in his seventies when he finally finished the thirty-foot icon that was to have been his last work. But the pious old man couldn’t resist temptation and returned to making dinosaurs, adding six more bloody scenes along the fern-choked paths.

Earlier this year, during a winter trip up to Northern Michigan, I stopped by Dinosaur Gardens and learned that Wilma McCourt had died. Her son, Frank, still has big plans for the place, but worries about its fate. Like the Schaedig boys who grew up as Domke’s attendants, Frank McCourt’s sons have had enough of “this dinosaur stuff.” One of his grandsons loves dinosaurs, though; perhaps he’ll have an interest in preserving the Gardens. Otherwise, McCourt says, “I don’t know.”

We drove through the snow in McCourt’s four-wheel jeep and stopped to climb the icy stairs into Domke’s walk-through brontosaurus. From there I looked down over Paul Domke’s prehistorical zoo and imagined the artist–balanced on a scaffold, straight-backed and over eighty, carving a razor-sharp incisor on one of his beloved giants. Cloaked by absolving darkness, he gazes out over his creations and lets slip a secret grin.
 
 

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Color photos by Elitza Nedkova. Black and white photos courtesy of Roland Schaedig,
 

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viewerCarolyn Kraus is a professor of Journalism and Screen Studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Her writing has appeared in a variety of academic, literary, and general audience publications, including Threepenny ReviewPartisan Review, Biography, and Magazine Americana. She has been an op-ed writer for The New York Times and a Far-Flung Correspondent for The New Yorker. Her co-produced documentary, Men at Work, was released this year.