When dinosaurs began appearing along the Oregon Coast in 1953, road-weary drivers must have wondered where they'd left their sanity.
But it wasn't until January 1955, when Ernie Nelson had finished his first five, life-size, concrete monsters and opened the gates to his Prehistoric Gardens, that Coast Highway tourists finally understood.
You'll find the Prehistoric Gardens on the east side of the Coast Highway, about 13 miles south of Port Orford and about 15 miles north of Gold Beach.
Located on nearly 70 acres about halfway between Port Orford and Gold Beach, what local kids would call "Uncle Ernie's Zoo" was the culmination of Nelson's lifelong obsession with dinosaurs.
Lots of little boys and girls go through the dinosaur phase, but hardly any of them ever chuck a successful career and chase their childhood monsters.
"My friends thought I had gone completely berserk," Nelson told a visiting Sarasota, Fla., reporter in 1972. "I guess it was sort of a crazy idea, but it worked out fine."
Born in Minnesota in 1907, Nelson had come with his family to Oregon just before 1930. They settled near Eugene, where Nelson became a CPA and then opened a logging and mill machinery supply business. Designing loading booms and other equipment in an iron shop gave him the necessary skill that allowed him to create these massive concrete beasts.
In the late 1940s, while on vacation, he began to notice all of the billboards directing motorists to various roadside attractions. An idea was born. Why not build historically accurate dinosaurs and open a tourist attraction himself?
He found the perfect location, the rainforest of Southern Oregon's coast, a place where an average of 6 feet of rain falls each year. In this rich soil, ferns, mosses and lichen thrive, and ocean mists filter sunlight through towering, ancient trees — all of it recreating the ancient age of dinosaurs.
Nelson insisted that his creations be accurate. Working from photographs, drawings and specifications obtained from the country's leading natural history museums, he carefully drew his own scaled plans before beginning construction.
On sturdy, bolted, timber frames, Nelson formed templates that gave the basic shape to the body of each monstrous creature. Strips of plywood, followed by mesh-like metal lath, were covered with a plastic concrete that gave rough form to the dinosaur. Carefully outlining a muscular system on the framework, Nelson finished the body by floating on a final layer of concrete. When the concrete was set, he painted each creature based on accepted scientific theories.
Much of his work was completed in the pouring rain.
"It rains like hell here," Nelson told a Los Angeles Times reporter, "but I don't mind. You don't live in a rainforest and expect sunshine."
Over 40 years, Nelson completed 23 of his colorful concrete monsters and placed them carefully along a twisting pathway through the rainforest. "Now my friends say they were all wrong," Nelson told the L.A. reporter. "Now they tell me I'm not nuts, just eccentric."
Nelson finally turned over day-to-day operation to his children and grandchildren, but hardly ever again left his gardens.
On Jan. 17, 1999, at age 91, not far from the world he loved, Ernie Nelson died.
Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at email@example.com.