by Robert Glenn Howard & Camilla H. Mortensen
Far ahead of us, down the road, we could see a towering black and white beast looming over the trees. It must have been over 50 feet tall! The bizarre creature looked large enough to eat our truck, but nonetheless our curiosity drew us closer. As we neared the animal, a weathered wooden sign beneath it came into view. A sea-green dinosaur head protruded from the top of the sign. Smiling foolishly, the profile welcomed us to Thunderbeast Park but, unfortunately, the sign also bore the single word "CLOSED." We were far out on a lonely stretch of road in Oregon's high desert and there wasn't a soul around, so we decided to pull into the abandoned roadside attraction .
Climbing out of our truck, we stepped over the broken down turnstile through the "Portals to the Past." We followed a lonely path winding through the dry, dusty trees. The landscaping was over-run with brush and strewn with litter. We soon came upon an array of huge concrete beasts that had inhabited Oregon millions of years ago.
Curiously, contrary to the sign on the road, there was not a dinosaur in sight. There was, however, a giant bear, a massive elephant-like creature, a saber toothed tiger, the long toothed vegetarian "Uintatherium" and more. Each green-eyed beast was accompanied by a hand lettered wooden sign that informed the reader of its name, pronunciation, and information ranging from what it ate to when it lived. It was clear that someone had put a great deal of work into creating these "Prehistoric Monsters." But who? And why?
Months later we found ourselves in a vastly different part of Oregon: the coastal rain forest. We had come on a mission to find the mysterious creator of these prehistoric beasts. As we rounded a bend on the mountainous road clinging to cliffs high above the Pacific Ocean, a two-story Tyrannosaurus Rex stood in a frozen roar before us. When we were close enough to see his shining green eyes, we knew we had come to the right place: Ernie Nelson's Prehistoric Gardens.
After we parked, we left the truck, paid our six dollars, and found ourselves in the midst of another collection of enormous concrete monsters. Unlike Thunderbeast Park these gardens were lush and green. The animals were freshly painted. Gawkers wandered along the path in little clumps. We wound between the monsters that peeked out at us from among the ferns. The green shade of the forest cooled the visitors from the hot summer's day. At the end of our path, in the souvenir shop, we found the man who had brought these megalithic ancients to life. He clacked away at the cash register and exchanged banter with his guests as they paid and entered the garden.
Ernie Nelson is 90 years old, a little hard of hearing, and as quirky as his creations imply. He built Prehistoric Gardens in 1953. He later designed Thunderbeast Park for an admiring, but unsuccessful entrepeneur. The sculptor that was hired to carry out Ernie's plans "spent more time in the bars than he did working" and in Ernie's opinion the beasts were never properly built. The Prehistoric Gardens, on the other hand, have been expanded, maintained, and run personally by Ernie since their inception. Prior to his career in beast-building, Ernie was a certified public accountant for 13 years "before I escaped into the logging supply business." His background in designing loading booms in an iron shop for the logging industry gave him the skills necessary to create these massive concrete beasts. He admits to using a little more steel and re-bar than strictly necessary, but says they are more than a little structurally sound.
"See this Brachiosaurus? We have over eight tons in the steel framing, thirteen tons of cement. So it takes a strong structure to hold that up. You don't just throw it together and say 'stay there.' It won't do it!"
So why did a former CPA and steel boom builder become the proprietor of a roadside attraction featuring a Eden-like garden of concrete lizards? And how did he become so knowledgeable about prehistoric animals?
"The fact that I liked dinosaurs has nothing to do with it. Up at the University (of Oregon) I had a several good friends who were a big help. So finally I figured out how they were answering my questions. I'd go up there and start bugging them about something and they'd reach on the shelf for a book. I cheated! I bought the same books plus a lot of others. I have a good library on prehistoric animals. That's how the man got started. How he's gonna end up is the question I don't know. Maybe I'll die of old age first, or figure out a way to get out of the business!"
Get out of the business? We doubt that. Ernie will stay in that sea-side rain forest. He may be 90, but his green eyed beauties keep him as spry as a velociraptor. He lures in adults and children alike with his massive creations. At the same time, he manages to teach them a little bit about the world of paleontology. A little whimsy blended with a lot of "life-size" reality; that's Ernie and his prehistoric beasts.