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  • Dinosaur Dreams

    Prehistoric Gardens on the Oregon coast
  • So you're cruising along Highway 101 south of Port Orford, minding your own business, and there, standing beside the road, is a Tyrannosaurus Rex, big as life. What do you do?
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    • What: Prehistoric Gardens
      When: Open seven days a week through September.
      Where: 14 miles south of Port Orford on Highway 101.
      Tickets: 18 to 64 years old, $8; 11 to 17 or 65 and up, $7; 3 to 10, $6; 2 and younger, f...
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      What: Prehistoric Gardens
      When: Open seven days a week through September.

      Where: 14 miles south of Port Orford on Highway 101.

      Tickets: 18 to 64 years old, $8; 11 to 17 or 65 and up, $7; 3 to 10, $6; 2 and younger, free.

      More information: 1-877-332-4463
  • So you're cruising along Highway 101 south of Port Orford, minding your own business, and there, standing beside the road, is a Tyrannosaurus Rex, big as life. What do you do?
    You stop, of course. Especially if you happen to have any young people with you ... or any young-at-heart people, for that matter.
    T-Rex is just the beginning. The low-tech Prehistoric Gardens sport no animatronics, flashing lights or digital music; instead, the park is powered entirely by imagination.
    Young and old alike meander along paths marked by dinosaur footprint signs, encountering 23 brightly painted, life-sized, cement dinosaur sculptures nestled among the tall, moss-covered trees and lush undergrowth of the Oregon Coast.
    Painted signs explain what the viewer is seeing, and various charts and graphs posted beside the path help put the millions of years of life on Earth into perspective.
    The Prehistoric Gardens were the brainchild of Ernie Nelson, a Eugene accountant who never missed an opportunity to visit a museum, talk to dinosaur experts and sketch what he found.
    In 1952, Nelson retired from accounting, bought the roadside property and got to work making his childhood dream come true. He broke ground in 1953 and opened the park with just nine completed dinosaur sculptures in 1955.
    To build each dinosaur, Nelson started by enlarging his own sketch to life-size. Then, with the advice of structural engineers, he had metal armatures created and covered with cement, leaving the interiors hollow. The larger sculptures were built in smaller pieces.
    He may have had help casting and assembling the pieces that make up each statue, but once they were put together, Nelson did the final sculpting himself. By the time he stopped making new sculptures in 1964, he had completed 23, including every child's favorites, triceratops, ankylosaurus and dimetrodon.
    Now, 45 years later, Prehistoric Gardens is operated by Nelson's granddaughter, Kiki McGrath, who grew up with the park.
    "Look at the size of these trees," McGrath said. "I measured that one with the double trunk a few days ago; it was 45 feet around the base."
    Those towering trees, dripping with moss, provide the deep shade needed to grow the ferns that carpet the park. Whether the weather is sunny or foggy, the rainforest greenery forms the perfect backdrop for his sculptures, which was all part of Nelson's plan.
    "I happen to think it's pretty good," said preteen park visitor Shane Gier. "They're life-size, which is good. They got names and how to pronounce them. They've got them in pretty good spots around the park, like realistic spots.
    "The foliage is also realistic," Gier continued. "Looking around, you can see ferns and such. That's what they had back then."
    Shane's preschool-age sister, Ace Lyn Gier, had her own opinion. "I like the one that's green. It's eating eggs. And the baby ones hatching. They stand still when you get by them."
    Three-year-old ShaHaley Vallier seemed anything but scared as she gamboled along the paths, looking for friends from her favorite dinosaur movies. "It's where dinosaurs live. They eat grass and leaves. Some are scary, and some are nice," she said.
    Rachel and Aureliana seemed to agree but were too shy to say much. "We love dinosaurs," said their mom. "We were chanting dinosaurs in the car. We're on our way from Seattle to Crescent City, and we heard this was a good place to stop."
    That seemed to be the consensus of the park's visitors that day. One dad mused a bit wistfully, "We used to drive by here a lot when I was a kid, but my folks would never stop."
    I guess some of us never get too old for dinosaurs. Ernie Nelson would probably agree.
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