Monster Mash: Virginia's 'Dinosaur Kingdom' Mixes Art And Absurdity
Appalachia is a tourist destination for people around the world, from the Great Smoky Mountains and Dollywood, to the Mothman Museum and statue in Point Pleasant, West Virginia. Natural Bridge, a limestone arch at the southern end of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, has pulled in visitors since the mid-1800s. Roadside attractions have popped up all around it, including a wax museum, a zoo, and something known as Dinosaur Kingdom.
The park sits along U.S. 11, behind a giant fence. The walking tour starts with a train car and through a colorful spinning tunnel that transports them back in time. On the other side is Extinction Junction, a tiny town filled with mysteries and wonders, including a house tilted at a disorientating angle and mechanical slime monsters that pass behind walls.
The park also includes 16 acres of woodland where you’ll find sculpted fiberglass dinosaurs that face off against Civil War soldiers in a series of bizarre scenes. In one scene, a steampunk Stonewall Jackson with a trench coat and telescoping arm battles a Spinosaurus. Elsewhere, President Abraham Lincoln sits atop a building as a flying dinosaur makes off with his speech.
Mark Cline created, owns and operates Dinosaur Kingdom II, which is merely the latest in a series of attractions he’s run going back to the early ‘80s.
“You can see that the bird is actually chewing up the Gettysburg address,” Cline said. “Now you know why the Gettysburg address was so short, because the Pteranodon ate most of it.”
Dinosaur Kingdom evolved out of one of Cline’s previous attractions, the Haunted Monster Museum. There, he populated a one-acre space with dinosaurs fighting Civil War soldiers to entertain folks waiting in line for the monster museum.
With Dinosaur Kingdom II, Cline brought the Civil War’s mythos and dinosaurs together in a way that acts as a funhouse mirror, squeezing the nation’s history into an absurdist revisioning. The park exists in a state where the majority of the Civil War’s battles were fought.
Cline occasionally hears from customers and critics upset about his use of Civil War imagery at Dinosaur Kingdom II. His response is as irreverent as the park itself.
“If anybody can make an issue out of cartoon soldiers fighting dinosaurs with slime monsters everywhere, I say bring it on, I want to hear this!” Cline said. “This park is ridiculous. It’s meant to be ridiculous. But isn’t that what war is? War is ridiculous.”
Dinosaur Kingdom II is a throwback to the old roadside attractions of the mid-20th century, when Americans explored the country in their automobiles. Businesses tried to entice them off the road and to spend a few dollars.
“This is an old-time tourist attraction that sort of became extinct in the ‘70s,” Cline said. “Now there’s a whole new generation of kids discovering this. Because this is a brand new experience for them. This is something that just doesn’t exist anymore—but yet, here it is.”
Cline’s something of a throwback himself. People call him the “Barnum of the Blue Ridge,” and he’s definitely got the gift of gab. Cline grew up in Waynesboro, Virginia, near the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, loving comics, cartoons and monster movies.
He pursued those interests through art, and made a major leap when he learned about fiberglass sculpting through a job at Red Mill Manufacturing, which made figurines of animals and people.
Cline’s work falls into that American tradition of building giant sculptures to lure motorists off the highway. Think of the cherubic, statues in overalls at Big Boy Restaurants, or the muffler men and Paul Bunyons that once guarded auto shops and roadside attractions of all sorts.
Cline landed in Natural Bridge, Virginia, in 1982. He set up Enchanted Studios as a workshop for making his fiberglass sculptures, for one attraction after another: the first and second Dinosaur Kingdoms, the Haunted Monster Museum and Foamhenge — a life-sized styrofoam replica of England’s Stonehenge monument.
Cline said that even when he had nowhere else to go, he could turn to his art. It let him escape to a different place for a while. Today, he’s making a go of it—but he’s also been doing this for 40 years. He’s nearly 60, and starting to think about the park’s future.
And that’s where the Virginia Folklife Program came in.
Pat Jarrett, the digital media coordinator for the Virginia Folklife Program at Virginia Humanities, had met Cline during his previous job at a newspaper in Staunton, Virginia, just north of Natural Bridge. He knew about Cline’s concern for his craft and the park’s future.
“He said to me one time something that really stuck with me,” Jarrett said of Cline. “He said, ‘I’m worried that when I die, people are going to come into this yard and they’re going to throw away all these molds because they don’t know what this is or how to work it, and it’s just going to be lost.’ And that is the reason we have this apprenticeship program, is so that this knowledge can be passed down and continued. “
The apprenticeship program pairs masters in a folk craft with a student, so that the traditions can be passed onto future generations. The program doesn’t usually play matchmaker, but in Cline’s case, Jarrett thought of Brently Hilliard, a metal musician and artist who crafted short-run action figures.
Jarrett brought the two together and they hit it off. Cline taught Hilliard how to go from small-scale to large-scale sculpture and molding. He also passed along a couple of his clients, like a children’s museum in Connecticut that wanted faerie figures. Hilliard has taken the business and lessons that Cline gave him and combined them with his woodworking and action figures to make a living from his art.
“I definitely learned a ton about mold making and materials that I hadn’t worked with before,” Hilliard said. “I had never worked with epoxy sculpt, which is a modeling compound that cures to almost, like, cement. I had never messed with that. I sculpted a head for a flying monkey for a Wizard of Oz putt-putt course he was working for.”
Cline still lives and breathes sculpture and molding, especially for Dinosaur Kingdom II, where he’s always planning something new, whether that’s an interactive water fight with Bigfoot, a Triceratops bull fight, or a whole new dungeon full of sculpted fiberglass creations. He wants to start a school to teach his particular method of fiberglass sculpting. He’s eventually hoping to stop doing commissioned work and funnel even more of his energy into the dinosaur park.
“What’s true and what’s not here at Dinosaur Kingdom?” Cline said with a laugh. “To me, it’s all true. Hey we’re here, aren’t we? We’re walking through it. People say, are dinosaurs real? I say they are to me, kid!”