A few weeks ago, I posted a piece about the history of the road trip in America. As often happens, I became side-tracked as I wrote. The thing about studying history is that one thing always leads to another; the most interesting story is always tied somehow to the story of someone or something else. Studying history is like trying to unravel the most fascinating knot you’ve ever attempted to untie. A knot that offers endless possibilities as you attempt to reach its non-existent end. Because of this, my mind is constantly split, and try as I might to focus on the subject at hand, there is always a part of my interest that has tuned into the siren song of whatever the related history is, a new path beckoning me, persistent and mysterious.
That was a long way of saying that my post about the American road trip peaked my interest in the various roadside attractions that can be found littered across the landscape of the United States. From the Jimmy Carter Peanut Statue in Plains, GA to a giant gorilla holding a VW Beetle in Leicester, VT, the development of the highway system and the resulting road trip phenomenon invited the creative and ambitious to develop roadside attractions for the entertainment of those on the move.
While I had originally planned on this post providing a general list of roadside novelties, I ended up focusing instead on one specific site that has become by far my favorite: the skeleton man walking his dinosaur toward the 1880s town in Murdo, SD.
I “met” the pair in 2007 while, you guessed it, on a road trip. En route from Chicago to Mt. Rushmore, the scenery had become and endless display of cornstalks and rolling hills. I had glanced out the window about 847 times that day, but on perhaps my 848th, my eyes beheld a dinosaur skeleton. On a leash. Led by a skeleton man. You know, like you see.
Obviously, I asked my husband to pull over for closer inspection. In what was probably a questionable safety decision, I perched myself on the edge of the highway, cars whipping past me at 80+ miles per hour, pulled out my camera and trapped my two new friends in the image above. After the photo had been snapped, I bid the two farewell from the side of the road, and we continued on.
In the years that followed, I became the mother of two boys. Anyone who has ever parented a son knows the immeasurable importance of dinosaurs, and the unimaginable amount of time that is spent thinking about and discussing them. As a result of my dinosaur-minded lifestyle, I found myself remembering the coolest dinosaur I had ever come in contact with, and made a print of the dinosaur and skeleton man for my boys. As I did this, I wondered once more: what the heck is the story behind these guys?
A few weeks ago, I finally got my answer. After finishing my road trip post, I Googled “dinosaur skeleton South Dakota,” and was disappointed to find that while a lot of people knew about the dinosaur, the only real information I could gather was that its location is Murdo, SD, near something called the 1880s town, and that others like me thought it was cool. But I wanted the history behind it. So I e-mailed the contact listed on the website for the 1880s town, and asked if they could give me any information about the dinosaur or even just the name of the person who built it. I was surprised to receive a quick response telling me that the person who build the dinosaur was the grandfather of the person I was corresponding with! Huzzah!
Giddy with the fun of discovery, I e-mailed back and asked for any information at all about the dinosaur. The lovely woman was kind enough to provide me with the phone number of her father, Richard Hullinger, who along with her grandfather, Clarence Hullinger, established the 1880s town in 1972. Click here to visit the website for the 1880s Town, an interesting spot in itself (see what I mean about one thing leading to another?). I was nervous at the idea of cold calling a perfect stranger to ask him questions about a dinosaur, but I did it anyway, and Mr. Hullinger was gracious enough to accept my call and answer every question I asked.
The dinosaur was the idea of Clarence Hullinger, and he designed it himself. He also put the dinosaur together with the assistance of his sons. Pictures of the dinosaur’s construction exist, but are not readily available. Clarence’s son, Tim, designed and created the head of the dinosaur after hearing that his father planned to have it be a sort of 2D silhouette. Tim designed the 3D version that the dinosaur is surely thankful for. I wondered whether the dinosaur was designed as a draw to the 1880s town, to which Richard responded that he wasn’t sure whether his father had planned on it leading travellers to the town or not, but that he did ask his father the main question that I had: why a dinosaur? What does it have to do with the 1880s town? His father’s fantastic reply: “Its old, isn’t it?” Show me someone who can argue with that logic. I sure like Clarence Hullinger.
History doesn’t have to always be about things that altered the direction of a society, changed life as we know it, or the most powerful and influential people of the past. There are fascinating stories everywhere, that will most likely never be told. I love the story of the skeleton man and dinosaur because it is part of the history of a family that wasn’t noble, wasn’t royal, and yet they have made their mark on the American landscape. In my discussion with Richard Hullinger, he mentioned that when he travels, he often meets people who know of his dinosaur. People who have seen it and remember it because of its uniqueness. What a great thing it is to meet someone and to share at least one point of familiarity, to be able to say “Oh, yeah! I’ve seen that dinosaur skeleton, too!” I wonder how often the dinosaur skeleton has been the spark of a friendly conversation, the cause for a smile, or provided the simple joy of a shared experience.
The history of our world is composed of things both important and trivial. Things that are silly and joyful and things that are unbearably sad and unspeakable. All of these things make up the history of our world. Who knows? Hundreds of years from now, the dinosaur and skeleton man may still be standing. And then, as now, people will look at it and smile and wonder what the story is behind them. Not because the dinosaur and its maker changed history, but simply because they are a part of it. It’s important that along with the history that we learn in school, the history that we all know, that we also hear some of the unknown stories. Those that tell us about everyday life, everyday achievements, and give us an appreciation for the human spirit. Those stories that help us see the past, beauty, and strangeness in unexpected places. Like in a field in the middle of South Dakota.