Once a prime draw for adventurous motorists, dinosaur-themed roadside attractions once ruled the day. Some, like Dinosaur Park in South Dakota, persevered, while others, like today’s focal point, Dinosaur World in Arkansas, faded away into obscurity. Today, the history of the American freeway, the rise and fall of the roadside attraction, the sculptures of one Emmet Sullivan, and the long-lingering dinos once known as the Land of Kong.
Cover image courtesy Kirk @ Secret Fun Blog; podcast carousel background by 4045 @freepik.com; theme music “Aerobatics in Slow Motion” by TeknoAXE.
Roadside Attractions and the Interstate Highway System
As I’ve discussed so often on this podcast, many smaller theme parks and roadside attractions in the US harken back to the days when the roads in the US were much less established. In particular, some of the attractions I’ll be talking about today, like Mount Rushmore and Dinosaur Park, were both products of the late 1930s, well before the Interstate Highway System. To really center ourselves on today’s episode, I wanted to dig a little deeper into the history of roads in the United States before we talk about today’s theme park Dinosaur World.
In the beginning of the 20th century, the nation primarily had dirt “auto trails”, marked by colored bands on telephone poles to help orient travelers (or barns or rocks or literally any surface facing the road). Roads were more or less terrible – they turned to impassable knee-deep mud after rains or floods, and then became scored with huge ruts and furrows that made any cart or car ride bone-shakingly uncomfortable.
The railway was the primary mode for interstate travel, with roadways being of mostly local and rural interest. Think about your average country dirt backroad and you might have the shape of it. For long-distance travel, a person was far more likely to choose the railroad, because it actually did the job. There was chatter and growing support for a set of improved interstate roadways, but Congress wasn’t yet interested in providing federal funding for such projects, with nice roads reportedly considered luxuries. Auto trails, then, were run by local trail associations, uniting local roads of various qualities and differing signages.
And I was surprised to learn that many of these roads weren’t laid out along the quickest route or the route that made the most geographic sense. No, apparently the businesses and towns along the routes paid dues to the trail associations which published trail guides and promoted the use of their routes. Therefore, it was to the benefit of pretty much everyone except the traveler to have routes be quite indirect.
The Lincoln Highway
A man named Carl Fisher, remembered for little things like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and major development of the city of Miami Beach, has been credited with the conception and development of the literally groundbreaking idea, the Lincoln Highway. In 1912 he began promoting a dream: a modern transcontinental highway to connect New York and San Francisco. “Let’s build it before we’re too old to enjoy it!” he told his friends, people like Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, and Woodrow Wilson.
It was still a trail association, but on a grand scale.
Early funding for the project came from private investors and businesses, before the government was interested. The progress of the Lincoln Highway was widely reported throughout newspapers, with each major or minor monetary contribution publicized and promoted, improving public opinion regarding public roadway projects. Convoys were sent across the country, to scout the route, visit the towns, and generally promote the project. The US Army had a well-publicized contribution, called the Transcontinental Motor Convoy in 1919. It took them two months to travel across the country, due to broken bridges and muddy crossings which stranded vehicles. These difficulties were used to show the need for better interstate highways and helped build popular support on both federal and local levels.
The Numbered US Highway System
The Lincoln Highway also encourage or required high quality paved roadbeds along its routes. It was groundbreaking, and many additional associations built or improved roadway systems under the trail association model, often in the popular transcontinental direction. There were over 250 named routes by the mid-1920s, things like the Pikes Peak Ocean to Ocean Highway, the Three C Highway, the Dixie Highway, and so on.
However, the increase in named roads and automobile traffic led to a rise in problems as a result. Some routes went through dues-paying cities instead of through the best route for drivers, such as the Arrowhead Trail, favored back in the day by the state of Utah for keeping LA-bound drivers in Utah for hundreds of (desolate) miles longer than the competing Lincoln Highway. Confusion among drivers over which route to take was common, and was almost encouraged by cross-promotion from different trail booster associations. Additionally, many routes overlapped, which caused further confusion among drivers.
And ultimately it seemed as though the association model meant fewer people were willing to take responsibility for road conditions, signage, and improvements (meaning roads weren’t maintained). The common method for directions at the time referred to landmarks – turn after the red barn, take the right-hand fork after the fallen log, and so on – well, this was just confusing, and if any slight change in the environment occurred, drivers would be hopelessly lost. As state highway engineer Arthur Hirst remarked to a National Road Congress in 1918, “The ordinary trail promoter has seemingly considered that plenty of wind and a few barrels of paint are all that is required to build and maintain a 2000-mile trail.” A 1918 map shows the mind-boggling number of short trails drivers were told to use: https://www.loc.gov/item/73692230/.
In 1918, Wisconsin led the way to a more logical process which is still in use today: a uniform numbering system. Signs were posted everywhere along routes, with the plan being “to be rather profuse with these road markers” as travelers would flourish with the “kindly reminder that he is still on the right road”. No longer in Wisconsin then would travelers be confused – now a direction could be “take number 12 until you meet number 21”, much more clear (particularly in the midwest’s snowy weather, where I speak to you from today). However, names lingered in prominence for another decade or so, even in those states like Wisconsin and Iowa that had adopted numbering systems.
By the early 1920s, however, the governments had gotten involved, with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHO). The number of vehicles had gone from 0.5 million in 1910 to almost 10 million by 1920, and over 26 million by 1930. The government, through a series of committees and meetings, developed what would eventually be called the US Numbered Highway System, or in casual parlance, US Routes or US Highways. The trail associations obviously kicked up a fuss (why not substitute “arithmetic for history, mathematics for romance”, said one Ernest McGaffey of the Automobile Club of Southern California, who advised motorists at the time to always pack a tent, shovel, and ax when driving), but in the end, logic won out.
On November 11, 1926, all of the old national road trails were officially renumbered into the US National Highway System. (The in-depth history of the change from names to numbers is fascinating, and I recommend reading Richard Weingroff’s article “From Names to Numbers: The Origins of the U.S. Numbered Highway System”.) The numbered system almost immediately rendered the trail association system obsolete, with new clear iconic black and white shield signage telling drivers where they were and where they were going, clear and simple. The federal government also began to maintain and improve the roads in this system.
This, then, is the road system in place at the time of the construction of Mount Rushmore and Dinosaur Park.
Interstate Highway System
Of course, as I discussed some in my previous episode on the towns called Santa Claus, these were still smaller roads, often only two lanes. Pavement or even good quality road condition was still not a guarantee as we might think of today. As early as 1938, FDR, the 32nd US president, began commissioning studies and reports on potential “superhighway” corridors, with additional reports and plans coming in over the next decade.
The 34th US President was one Dwight Eisenhower, and he was a champion of the proposed Interstate Highway system. If you recall, the 1919 Transcontinental Army Convoy was meant to showcase the Lincoln Highway, as I mentioned a few minutes ago. A young Lieutenant Eisenhower happened to be a part of that convoy, and found the experience incredibly memorable. Combined with his experiences of Germany’s autobahn system in the 1940s, he saw considerable advantage in constructing a true interstate highway system.
The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 became law, and marked the beginning of the Interstate Highway System. Through a gasoline tax funding the Highway Trust Fund, the federal government would pay for 90% of the cost of interstate highway construction. (The gas tax is still in place today.) Construction began immediately in 1956, and a few roads were grandfathered into the system, such as the Pennsylvania Turnpike, portions of which were constructed in 1940.
I won’t dwell much more on the interstate highway system, as I’ve already covered it in a bit more depth in other episodes. It wasn’t until 1992 that the system was declared complete, some 35 years after its implementation (and 23 years longer than it was originally said to take). And of course, although this seems recent, the mid-90s were still almost thirty years ago. (!)
Against this background, I bring you back to the topic at hand. It’s time to talk about a man named Emmet Aloysious Sullivan, born in 1887, back in the Gilded Age. He was originally a cowboy in Montana. After serving in the first World War, Sullivan returned to South Dakota and turned to sculpture.
Sullivan, of course, was the guy who did many of the Dinosaur World sculptures. We’ll get there. It’s a long and winding podcast road today. Before he sculpted Dinosaur World in Arkansas, Sullivan worked on a number of different projects.
Sullivan is widely noted for being one of the assistant sculptors on Mount Rushmore, there in the Black Hills of South Dakota. He’s said to have worked closely with the head sculptor, the famous (and infamous) Gutzon Borglum. Look into this guy if you need a deep dive, for real. There’s no payroll records of Sullivan working on the project, no obvious newspaper stories, but South Dakota was even less populated at the beginning of the 1900s than it is now in 2020, so it’s likely that the two sculptors were at least familiar with one another in passing.
Sculpting of George Washington on Mount Rushmore began in 1927, and was completed in 1934; the seven-year construction period was due to the onset of the Great Depression. Subsequent presidential heads were completed in 1936, 1937, and 1939.
After his time on Rushmore, Sullivan continued his work as a sculptor, on a slightly smaller scale. His next project was a roadside attraction called Dinosaur Park, located not too far from Mount Rushmore, in Rapid City, South Dakota.
Dinosaur Park in South Dakota
Against our background of a burgeoning motorist society, still lightyears more retro than our systems today, Emmet Sullivan’s Dinosaur Park was commissioned in February of 1936 by the WPA (Works Progress Administration). In case you’ve forgotten your high school history classes, I’ll be happy to oblige. The WPA was part of FDR’s New Deal programs, designed to combat the Great Depression. The goal was to employ the unemployed, ultimately some 3.3 million people at its peak. Jobs were all public works, most planned and sponsored by states, cities, and counties. There were things like roads and bridges, libraries and post offices, museums and playgrounds and swimming pools and parks.
Dinosaur Park was WPA #960. Its purpose was to “perpetuate the facts of history” and to give visitors “a fair idea as to the appearance, size, and characteristics of our earliest known inhabitants”. The idea for the park was credited to two people: Dr. C. C. O’Hara and R. L. Bronson. Dr. O’Hara was the retired president of the South Dakota School of Engineering and Mines. He was also a paleontologist, fascinated by the fossils he and others discovered in the Badlands of South Dakota. Bronson was much less storied, being a secretary at the Rapid City Chamber of Commerce. He was said to have conceived of the idea for the park after seeing a mechanical dinosaur at the Chicago Century of Progress expo.
The location, of course, was to help promote tourism and attract visitors who were driving out to see the under-construction Mount Rushmore. Rapid City is the major city in the area. It’s the closest town near the monument (about half an hour away) and tourists would and do pass through Rapid City off US Route 16 (today, I-90 occupies much of the old US-16 route) to get to the site. Today, the town is called The Gateway to the Black Hills.
Emmet Sullivan and Dinosaur Park
The designer for the dinosaurs was of course, sculptor Emmet Sullivan. Up to 25 other people were involved in the construction at the project’s peak, costing ultimately around $25,000.
Construction was not straightforward, and there was a dispute between Sullivan and the WPA which halted construction in the winter of 1937-1938. The dispute, and I can’t make this up, was over the dinosaurs’ teeth and how they were to be installed. Apparently Sullivan resigned as project foreman and kept the dino teeth. After some persuading, he gave the T-rex’s teeth to the WPA people for them to install and said he’d make the rest of the dino teeth later. His replacement did not follow directions regarding the teeth installation, and therefore Sullivan refused to make any more teeth for the other designers. After a few months, the Chamber of Commerce broke the stalemate by hiring Sullivan to work for them and complete the project, subsequently opening in summer 1938.
Each dinosaur was built upon a base of two-inch black piping, and then a framework of steel tubes, which was then covered by heavy steel mesh and then of course, that wonder, concrete, 4-5 inches thick. Atop, a layer of paint: tradition indicates the dinos were originally gray; but fairly early on based on newspaper reports, a green and white color scheme was introduced. “The Rapid City Journal reported that, “reincarnated in steel and concrete on ground they once trod in quest of plant food, five giants of a past age will soon look down from Hangman’s Hill on some of the wonders of the present age—a ten story 269 building, the automobile, and the airplane.””
The dinosaurs, for those listening, are cartoonish and almost sarcastic in appearance. They’re fun and delightful, but this is definitely the 1930s image of dinosaur – very at odds with today image of fierce, fast, bird-like beings.
Sullivan was said to be inspired by Charles Knight’s murals at the Field Museum when designing his dinos, as well as fossils from the South Dakota area. That same Charles Knight, a year after the park opened, was said to have described its dinosaur sculptures as “awful”. These included a trachodon, brontosaurus, stegosaurus, tyrannosaurus, and triceratops.
Sullivan stayed connected with Dinosaur Park for the next couple of decades – he and his wife Lorriane ran the concession stand at Dinosaur Park until about 1965 or 1966.
One source gave Dinosaur Park the label of “the first Dinosaur theme park”; given our terminology here on the podcast, it’s quite clear that this was not a theme park, being only some dino sculptures on a hill. However, it’s an interesting historical dinosaur attraction, and informs our continuing discussion on Emmet Sullivan’s dinosaurs, as we wind our way towards Land of Kong in Beaver, AR via a long, twisty trail association type of podcast road.
Christ of the Ozarks
Round about 1966, Emmet Sullivan and his family left Rapid City. He was reportedly looking for a potential job on a project commemorating the Trail of Tears, when he had a chance meeting with a guy called Gerald L. K. Smith and his wife Elna L. Smith. I’m not going to delve too deeply into their histories because it’s really outside the scope of this show, but suffice to say that these two had some incredibly troublesome personal politics and a long history of using racism and religion as far-right political attack. Senator Strom Thurmond said of him, “We do not need the support of Gerald L. K. Smith and other rabble rousers who use race prejudice and class hatred to inflame the emotions of the people.”
The Smiths retired to Arkansas, and hunted for a project. The project they settled on in their retirement was called Christ of the Ozarks, a five-story-tall concrete and steel behemoth set up on the top of Magnetic Mountain in Eureka Springs, AR. This place was a former spa town, a haven in the days before World War II when spring water was considered the amazing cure-all. After the war, as actual remedies to diseases began to become commonplace, the popularity of towns like Eureka Springs began to fall.
One article described Eureka Springs in the modern era as a melting pot for quackery of various types: UFO enthusiasts, bikers, car restorers, and chakra healers. Whether any of that’s true, I can’t say, but it does seem that there was a live and let live attitude, so when announcements were made about this giant sculpture with a potentially problematic backing, very little fuss occurred. “Father Francis Jenesco expressed the prevailing attitude, “I’m not against it. I don’t know that much about it. I know [Smith is] a very controversial gentleman, so beyond that, please don’t quote me.””
Sullivan was the primary sculptor for the giant Christ figure, although only for the body and arms. Reportedly the face and hands were done by his associate, Adrian Forrette, as Sullivan, this self-taught artist, apparently didn’t consider himself great at hands or faces. The statue as a whole is is minimalistic, with simple lines and an almost cartoonish aspect.
There are plenty of facts and figures available about this sculpture online, things like “each hand is built to hold the weight of a car” and “the sculpture can withstand 500 mph winds”. At the time, Christ of the Ozarks was one of only four giant Jesus sculptures in the world, with the others in Rio de Janeiro, Spain, and Columbia. The sculpting took about a year, and the massive statue was dedicated in 1966. If you’re interested in additional in-depth details on the attraction, including sociopolitical fallout, visit this link: https://web.archive.org/web/20051217000520/http://users.aristotle.net/~russjohn/sacpro.html.
Wall Drug Dinosaur
Sullivan was known for another dino, as well: the Wall Drug dinosaur. 80 feet long (yes, eighty, not eight), this mega-sculpture has lightbulbs for eyes and sits near I-90. You know there’s got to be a good story if it has a giant dinosaur.
See, we’ve got another guy. There’s always a guy.
Ted Hustead, a pharmacist, opened up a tiny drugstore in 1931, in a town called Wall, SD, known back then as “the geographical center of nowhere”. Said by Dorothy Hustead’s father to be “just about as Godforsaken as you can get”, the Husteads spent their first five years in Wall barely breaking even with “Hustead’s Drugstore”, as it was called then. People just weren’t coming.
One day in 1936, as Ted Hustead recollected, his wife Dorothy came up with the solution: travelers were thirsty after driving across the hot prairie. Why didn’t they put up signs on the highway advertising free ice water? They used “Wall Drug” as the name on the signs since it was shorter and easier to read and remember.
Reportedly this wasn’t groundbreaking, as every drugstore offered free water back in the day, but their new signs on nearby US-14 worked and business boomed.
By the 1950s, Ted and Dorothy’s son Bill began improving the business and making it into a true attraction. He built indoor restrooms, added an art gallery and a mall and a museum and so on and so forth.
But the times, they are a-changin’. In the mid-1960s, the path of the road US-14 was shifted with the construction of I-90, the new freeway (remember the Federal Highway Act of 1956?). Wall was bypassed, as an alternate route. The Husteads didn’t sit back, however, to let their business fade away. They commissioned Emmet Sullivan to build a giant dinosaur sculpture to serve as a billboard, pointing guests back to Wall Drug.
The timing isn’t exactly clear – it’s most likely that the dino would’ve been completed between the Christ of the Ozarks (June 1966) and the beginning of Farwell’s Dinosaur Park (announced May 1967) but it could’ve been before or during Christ of the Ozarks, too. I’ve found several photos of the dinosaur dated to 1967 (ex: https://flickr.com/photos/thedouglascampbellshow/3136340925/in/photolist-5M9yTx-5kK7kw-5MdNTu) but none earlier than that, so I do think it’s quite likely that after he was done with the Christ statue, Sullivan moved to Wall to build the large bronotosaurus-like dino.
The giant apatasaurus did its job, recruiting visitors back to Wall Drug for its five cent coffee and free ice water, and the store survived the road changes. Not only survived, but thrived.
Dinosaur World in Beaver, AR
Finally, finally, we get to the meat of our story, down in Beaver, AR, about fifteen minutes outside of Eureka Springs. It’s time to talk about the strange park that was Dinosaur World, or Dinosaur World by any other name. It also went by Farwell’s Dinosaur Park and John Agar’s Land of Kong.
From here we meet another guy, one Ola Farwell, anecdotally quite a character from the stories I’ve seen.
Dinosaur World: Farwell’s Dinosaur Park
Ola Farwell was a cattle man in the Eureka Springs, AR, area, described in a 1918 newspaper as “a prominent young farmer and stockman”. He married Maye Shaffer, a popular local school teacher (interestingly, the marriage was kept secret until the end of Mae’s last school session, very Little House on the Prairie). Reportedly, she sat on a scorpion on the wagon seat as they headed off to their honeymoon.
There in rural Northern Arkansas, he bred free-range Hereford cattle, advertising said cattle for sale in the local paper as early as 1919. His farm was later called White River Stock Farm. Based on newspaper accounts, he was attempting to introduce higher grades of cattle on farms in the area, with the slogan “it pays to breed the better kind”. (Here is where I take a brief sidebar to delight in the old newspaper habits. In my research, there were dozens of wonderful brief mentions of what people were up to, including this gem: “Ola Farwell is having lumber sawed on his place.” Early social media, truly.) For much of the first half of the 20th century, Ola Farwell was constantly in the papers, buying and selling Hereford (whiteface) cattle.
The Farwells moved to Eureka Springs and owned a feed lot and a grocery there. Maye Farwell was a businesswoman of her own right – she worked at the grocery and made and supplied school lunches for the local Old Red Brick Schoolhouse. It was in her name that the family residence at 218 Spring Street, Eureaka Springs, was purchased.
But certainly, one can only do such farming for so long.
By May 1967, a notice appeared in the Northwest Arkansas Times, describing a “giant dinosaur park” that was now under construction, under the direction of that giant of sculptors, Emmet Sullivan.
Of course, as we’ve established, Sullivan had been in Eureka Springs for a few years, constructing the Christ of the Ozarks statue, with side trips for the Wall Drug dino, and it was here that he met Ola Farwell and the two became friends.
Farwell reportedly always loved children and dinosaurs, so a dinosaur-themed park directed at children seemed a natural retirement project.
According to the first newspaper report, five whole sculptures were planned initially, placing the attraction more on the scale of Dinosaur Park in South Dakota.
Ultimately, of course, over a hundred different concrete sculptures occupied the 65 acres of the parklands, there in Northern Arkansas, just next to a body of water called Spider Creek, and the large Spider Creek Lake. Once, these were called Cedar Creek and Dinosaur Park Lake.
Though of course Sullivan directed and designed the dinos, many local workers were said to be responsible for the actual construction, supposedly at the “dinosaur factory” across the street from the park. These include Bill Sherman and Jessie Orvis Parker, said to have been responsible for constructing much of the steel framework for the dinosaurs. A. C. McBride is described as the man responsible for much of the cement concrete work. And finally, names like Mike Evans and Bill and Gary Armer are said to have painted the dinos in “realistic colors”. The exact meaning of thisis is somewhat up for debate: legend holds that the dinos may have originally been painted in dull browns, and then at some point, perhaps in the early 90s, were repainted in the vibrant multicolor scheme that can still be seen faded even today in 2020.
Orvis Parker (or Jessie, as he was called) is a common name in the Farwell period of the park. It’s said that he ran or even owned the park under Farwell, responsible for the grounds and the gift shop, and his wife Mary running the restaurant or cafe. According to a grandchild online, her cooking was excellent – hamburgers, fries, milkshakes, and fountain sodas. Several extended family members online in comment sections about the park fondly remember their childhoods growing up, running around and experiencing the park.
This era of the park was immortalized on film, in the intro to the 1969 horror flick “It’s Alive!”. The movie is available on YouTube, so feel free to see it for yourself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8FzhuX4du9U.
Inside Farwell’s Dinosaur Park
The park itself, then, as sourced from a contemporary newspaper article a few years after the park’s opening, worked as follows. It operated from 7 am to 7 pm, year round, at a cost of $1 per adult, and $0.50 per child. Two concrete dinosaur babies hatched from eggs served as greeters by the entrance, along with a fierce caveman figure. After purchasing your tickets from inside the restaurant/gift shop, you’d head out on the two mile course, either on foot or by car (speed limit: five miles per hour).
The first part of the pathway was lined with rocks and fossils from all over the US, reportedly a favorite hobby or collection of Farwell’s. At the time of the article, Farwell was reportedly in the process of building a “large, authentic replica of the moon to eventually house the rock collection and other exceptional exhibits”. This dome-shaped structure was eventually built, and housed something called the largest Noah’s Ark mural in the world.
Inside the park, then, of course, were the attractions: the animals. All fake, of course, done up in concrete. The early days reportedly saw as many familiar animals as dinosaurs: monkeys, deer, rabbits, a kangaroo, and a monster snake. The snake, unlike some of the others, was actually a grapevine, painted yellow with orange spots, and still quite fearsome. A sculpture of a brown bear with an open mouth held an entire hive of honeybees, buzzing merrily on warm summer days.
Dinosaur Park’s thrills primarily came from the long, swinging wooden bridge, over what was then called Dinosaur Park Lake. Running from land to a pavilion and then back to land, the bridge was either very high above the water in dry times or almost touching the water in wet times. From the pavilion, guests could get fish food out of a dispenser to feed the many trout stocked in the lake.
Most of the dinos at the time stood nearby to the bridge. There was the star: 22-foot-tall T. rex, with a fish clamped between his jaws. A saber-toothed tiger. A Paleoscincus, looking like a prehistoric turtle. They weren’t confined to land, either: “Climbing out of the lake is also another giant dinosaur and an ominous octopus with a 32-foot tentacle spread. ” Up on the hillside, more dinosaurs and prehistoric animals: Triceratops, the club-tailed Unitarium, Stegosaurus, duck-billed Trachodon, a tasked Mastodon, and the classic, the beloved Brontosaurus.
Future plans (as of the early 1970s from this article) called for “an elaborate replica of Noah’s Ark” up on a hill, to be reached by cable cars.
The early days at Dinosaur Park were idyllic.
Dinosaur World: John Agar’s Land of Kong
Of course, change and time come for us all.
By the 1970s, the interstate highway system had been under construction for 15-20 years. Families were still far more likely to travel by car than by airplane, so family vacations, even to distant attractions like Disney, still went by numbers of roadside attractions. Farwell’s Dinosaur Park continued to attract visitors.
Sullivan died in November of 1970, three years after the Dinosaur Park opened, survived by a wife, two children, and multiple grandchildren. Farwell and his Dinosaur Park carried on, however, at least for a while. New dinosaurs were regularly added, constructed in that “dinosaur factory” across the street. Guests were generally happy with the park, although on occasion, guests demanded money back because “the dinosaurs were fake”. For some portion of the park’s life during this period, a local realtor named Reeves was said to operate bumper boats on the park’s lake.
In 1980, Farwell sold the park. He still lived in the area (and indeed, it wasn’t until almost a decade later, in 1988, that Ola Farwell passed away) but he was getting older and saw the writing on the wall regarding his time with the park. A man named Ken Childs, and his wife June Davidson, decided to purchase the park and liven it up.
And they were friends with a guy called John Agar (pronounced Ay-gar), by his son’s account in an old interview from “Scary Monsters Magazine #76”.
Now, most people who are listening to this episode have no idea who John Agar is. I didn’t, not until I did the research for this episode. Turns out, he was a minor big deal back in the day. Agar is perhaps best known for being Shirley Temple’s first wife. They made two movies together prior to their divorce (Wikipedia, that always correct resource (sarcasm) cites “mental cruelty” as the grounds for diverce). Agar then continued making films on his own, becoming strongly associated with B-movie horrors, movies like The Mole People, Revenge of the Creature, and so on.
June Davidson and Ken Childs, with the permission of their friend John Agar, renamed the park “John Agar’s Land of Kong”. It was a tie-in to the 1976 King Kong remake, which was popular at the time and which Agar had a minor role in.
John Agar is quoted as saying: “A friend of mine who’s now deceased, Ken Childs, he bought this place that a farmer had built up with a bunch of dinosaurs and stuff like that on it. They wanted to build a King Kong and refurbish the existing dinosaurs there. They looked like cartoon characters, instead of what they would actually look like. It was like Walt Disney went down there and did them. Ken contacted a guy in Texas to build this Kong for him. The place was eventually called “John Agar’s Land of Kong.” I just let them use my name. I think it’s still there. I’ve never seen the actual place in person, only photos. He was a friend and I just let him use my name. I guess he figured, since I was in KING KONG it had some relevance.“”
In the late 1970s, the park had already had a large plywood King Kong stationed by the roadside to beckon guests (apparently with a cutout of Ayatollah Khomeini with a noose around his neck, a popular sentiment for a few years). Other political viewpoints were also displayed openly: caveman Ronald Reagan spanking caveman Tip O’Neill was said to have been painted on another mural at the park, a very 80s thing.
But Childs and Davidson wanted something more than plywood and murals.
So they commissioned a guy down in Texas, Bert Holster, to build a King Kong sculpture, to put in the park proper.
Holster was known for building smaller fiberglass sculptures, but this King Kong was off the scale. Exact dimensions are not agreed upon, but he’s said to be more than 35-45 feet tall and designed to hold a life-sized person (looking like Fay Wray) in one hand, he was bigger than anything Holster had ever Holster had to cut a hole in between the two stories of the abandoned fire house in Clarksville TX that he used as a studio in order to accommodate the construction of the beast. King Kong was built out of fiberglass on top of a plaster and wood base, later removed. Originally, he was built with some animation: reportedly, his arms beat his chest, his eyes lit up red, and his jaws moved in the early years. However, these effects reportedly quickly broke.
Kong was built over three years, installed sometime in 1984.
It’s said that Farwell had originally wanted a sculpture of General Douglas MacArthur, but that local officials nixed this idea, being okay with the second choice of King Kong.
1984 was a busy year. In 1984, Ken Childs died, and the park was left in the hands of his wife, June Davidson. Accounts online paint some possible familial infighting as a result. The ownership of the park after Childs and Davidson is muddled at best, unfortunately, without me being able to physically go down to the records offices, which is out of the scope of this podcast. Some commenters online claim that there were potential legal issues involved with the estate post-1984.
The park was said to have been the largest dinosaur park in the world, although this is a claim easily made and difficult to prove. Sculptures were still said to have been added, repaired, and repainted. A dome building had been constructed, near the King Kong sculpture (take a look in the background of the King Kong image above). Though originally this had been intended for the fossil exhibits, the “World’s Largest Noah’s Ark Mural” was said to have been begun inside this dome. It’s not clear if it was ever finished or what happened to it. (By the time the park was closed and abandoned, the mural had long gone, although this is getting ahead of myself a little.)
In 1995, June Davidson changed the name of the park to Dinosaur World, in order to follow the tide of the then-popular movie Jurassic Park. The attraction retained the name Dinosaur World until its ultimate closure in 2005. Dinosaur World is the name the park is best known for today.
It’s said that it was Davidson and what appear to have been her siblings who ran the park after this point; June Davidson was later said to have moved to California. Ted Prysock is said to have run the general store and overseen daily operations for some time. In fact, Ted is pictured on the mural in front of the old ticket booth and restaurant – he was the man in the middle with the trucker hat. Reportedly, the mural image was a remarkable likeness.
Brother Bob Prysock, sister to June, is also said to have served as caretaker and/or possible owner, although when the park ownership was transfered to him is unclear. Other managers and caretakers have also been mentioned in online accounts: Danny, Nita, John. Somewhere around 2004, the park was sold, from “Dinosaur Bob” Prysock to the current owner, Peter Godfrey. Mr. Godfrey also owns the Spider Creek Resort (cabins, fishing, etc) which his father had owned before him, making the local property purchase a natural one.
A late version of the Dinosaur World website remains archived on the Internet Archive. The ad copy reads: “Welcome to Dinosaur World. We are a 65 acre park with over 90 life size prehistoric replicas. The park is arranged where you can walk or drive through with over 2 miles of road. See a FOUR story King Kong. Bring a picnic because we have a lake with tables close by. You can even fish if you bring your own equipment and have an Arkansas fishing license. There’s a waterfall and swinging bridge also. Don’t forget to stop by our gift shop on your way out. We have all kinds of unique items. Park is open from March to mid-December. We are open 7 days a week in the summer. Hours are from 9 am – 6 pm but are flexible so you may want to call ahead just to be sure. Admission: $4.00 – Adults, $3.50 – Seniors, $2.50 – Kids 4 -12”
Right before the park closed, it served as a filming location for a brief scene in the Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst vehicle Elizabethtown, and the iconic T. rex with the fish in its mouth is featured on the DVD cover.
The park closed for the usual reasons, it seems, which you could guess by this point if you’re a regular listener to the podcast. (Sidebar: I’m surprised by how unsurprising the reasons for a theme park closure are. Very few parks close with a catastrophe (like Six Flags New Orleans); most close because of entirely prosaic and unsurprising reasons.) Insurance costs were said to be rising, and the tourism market had fallen significantly after 9/11 across the board. Places like Disney World could rebound, but a small place like Dinosaur World, already faltering, couldn’t. The hours became more irregular, the maintenance became spottier, the roads were less regularly traveled. Indeed, the changing patterns of road travel have routinely been suggested as the ultimate long-term downfall for Dinosaur World. However, I couldn’t link this to any specific road closure; rather, it seems that US 412, some 30 miles south of Dinosaur World, may have become the preferred route for east-west travel across Northern Arkansas, where previously the more scenic and less direct US 62 had been preferred. If the roadside attraction is no longer easily accessible off the main road, well…
Dinosaur World Memories
There are many online who remember Dinosaur World from the good days, when it was a functioning amusement park. In general, people who visited it loved the place. If you were a kid and visited, the place was a wonderland, the stuff childhood summer dreams are made of. The dinosaurs were huge and there was tons of open space – two miles’ worth of open space, of trees and grass and water. You could touch everything – it was made out of concrete, you weren’t going to break anything. You could run and jump.
Comments online recall the thrill of the place – the simple joys of the wooden swinging bridge, the nearby campground with a small candy store, the cheap ceramic dinosaurs sold in the gift shop. There were fish in the lake, plywood dinosaur flats called “2D-sauruses”, off-color paintings throughout the gift shop and bathrooms.
Seeing that first dinosaur from the road as you drove to the park was the most special thrill of them all, according to former visitors – that jump and excitement of the unreal made real.
Abandoned Dinosaur World
After its closure in 2005, Dinosaur World sat, abandoned. Visits are documented regularly online. Some folks managed to get permission to explore, others were chased away by someone from a trailer on a hill near the park entrance, others simply trespassed without interacting with anyone. All images and stories paint a picture of a tired roadside attraction, past its prime, only looking as good as it did because of the strength of concrete and rebar.
One interesting exploration story comes via user WhitewallsJohnson on TheSamba.com, a forum for VW enthusiasts. This person discovered a uniquely-painted VW bus, rotting away inside the front gate of the abandoned theme park. After some hunting, they found the contact info for the owner, and began making offers. Eventually, one was accepted. The VW van was driven off to a new home elsewhere in the Ozarks, and the new owners refurbished the bus. The exterior that originally attracted them, however, stayed the same, as recently as 2015: bright yellow, with hand-painted “Land of Kong” words and unique dinosaur-cavemen-King-Kong scenes on both sides. Above the running boards, “65 acres of dinosaurs” was written. It’s an incredibly kitschy type of advertising from back in the day, and speaks to the joyful fun that could be found in a place like Dinosaur World. Of course we all know that dinosaurs and cavemen and King Kong didn’t exist together in reality. That didn’t make the juxtaposition any less fun.
Back in Eureka Springs, the property continued to decay. Occasional maintenance, like mowing around the sculptures, was still performed, but otherwise, the dinosaurs continued to flake paint, tip over, and rust. Paint faded, and the dinosaurs were becoming much closer to their original pale visages than they’d been in several decades.
The gift shop was said to still contain neat shelves full of tchotkes and other sale items, years after the park closed. However, it wouldn’t last. The single building containing the gift shop, restaurant, and bathrooms caught fire in 2011, and was completely destroyed. Police suspected arson.
Road signs and billboards remained, advertising the park for at least a decade after it closed. Being a solid 10-15 minutes off the highway, this had to be a frustration for the tired parents who followed the billboards and not the park’s website, having to explain that no, Johnny, we can’t get out and see the dinosaurs after all.
Inside the park, decay. The photos are eerie. Overgrown foliage, with a faded dinosaur peeking out, half the tail rusting away. Cavemen missing faces or hands or arms to the rust. Round a corner, and run headlong into another strange interpretation of a dinosaur, looming. Look at the Google maps view. Your brain sees shapes, and begins picking out the image, and bam, a decrepit dinosaur resolves right in front of you. Sculpted in a form somewhere in between realism and art and scientific fossil, the dinosaurs in abandonment mostly just appear sad and forlorn.
King Kong, the massive once-namesake, stood proudly for years. He finally toppled over between March 2012 and March 2014. Whether he went down by man or nature is unclear.
The bridge out to the pavilion over the lake lasted quite a long time as well, despite how sketchy it had to be getting without maintenance. Based on satellite imagery, both bridge and pavilion were demolished between February 2017 and March 2018.
As far as the principal players in the tale, most have passed on, leaving behind a bevy of extended family members who’ve commented online sharing fond memories of growing up and visiting the park. Sculptor Emmet Sullivan died in 1970. Original owner Ola Farwell died in 1988 and his wife Bertha Maye Shaffer Farwell in 1993. Ken Childs, who was the second owner with his wife June Davidson, died in 1984. June’s brother and presumed later owner and operator, Bob Prysock, died in 2008, with his memorial ceremony held right at the three-years-abandoned Dinosaur World. From what I can tell, June Davidson appears to still be alive, living the good life in California. And though Dinosaur World remains closed, current owner Godfrey’s other property, the Spider Creek Resort, just across the highway and down a little, is still open and doing good business for the trout fishing and nature enthusiast. As of 2009, the property was said to be intended for a golf course and sports bar; in 2020, those plans have yet to materialize.
And of course, I would be negligent in my duties as the overly-detailed tale-teller that I am, if I didn’t tell you that Dinosaur World is quite close to another abandoned place I’ve already discussed at length on this podcast. Yes, you could spend the hour and a half drive between Dinosaur World and Dogpatch USA by listening to my similarly long history on that park. (If you’re not following me on Twitter or Facebook, you’ve might’ve missed the news that Dogpatch has been foreclosed, again, and is set for public auction on March 3rd. If you have a million dollars, you too can soon purchase a theme park!)
Visitors in the mid-20th century apparently often included both theme parks in the same road trip; today in 2020, both places are abandoned, off the beaten path, and forgotten more often than not.
The Other Dinosaur Attractions Today
The other attractions I discussed are still kicking to this day.
Ironically, despite sculptor Emmet Sullivan’s original dispute with the WPA over the proper teeth of the dinosaurs at Dinosaur Park in South Dakota, they today have fairly sad teeth, and for a long time, had no teeth. A 1952 article “interviews” the T. rex, bemoaning the tourists who, in the late 1940s, knocked out the dino’s teeth for souveniers. In June of 1997, Dinosaur Park was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is still operational today.
Wall Drug too is still in operation today, not too far from Dinosaur Park in South Dakota. Before his death in 1999,Ted Hustead pointed to the free ice water as his greatest lesson, demonstrating that helping people would allow one success even in the middle of Godforsaken nowhere. The store today is over 75,000 square feet and can see over 20,000 tourists in a single day at the height of the season. Placards and stickers and signs for Wall Drug are all over the world, even up in Antarctica. https://www.walldrug.com/about-us/wall-drug-signs
Dinosaur World (and Wall Drug dino and Dinosaur Park and even Prehistoric Forest back in the Irish Hills of Michigan – listener Colleen, that’s a mention just for you!) — Dinosaur World isn’t the first time I’ve discussed dinosaurs on the podcast and it won’t be the last. There’s a plethora of dinosaur attractions out there, some still operational, but many abandoned and defunct.
What’s the fascination with dinosaurs?
That could be an entire podcast episode and research topic on its own, for sure. In my opinion, dinosaurs are so popular because of how universally beloved they are. A dinosaur can appeal to almost anyone. Today we seem to strive to absolute scientific accuracy and realism over all else (see Magic Forest’s new dinos, for instance) but especially a half century ago, amateur sculptors made dinosaurs by the cement mixer load. Precision wasn’t required, just some enthusiasm and a trowel and a plucky attitude. After all, average Joe wasn’t going to critique a dinosaur sculpture for scientific accuracy. A dinosaur was just far-enough removed from reality to be fun, and a recognizable shape could be made with little effort, pleasing to children and adults alike.
Dinosaur World or John Agar’s Land of Kong or Farwell’s Dinosaur Park – many names for this singular place. It was begun as a vibrant roadside attraction to please the children, the real ones as well as the child living inside even the crabbiest heart. It became a true star attraction for the town of Eureka Springs, close to the Missouri/Arkansas border in the northwest corner of the state near Fayetteville. Changing tourist habits and changing road preferences did the park in, but it still stands. Those faded cement and steel dinos are hard to destroy. Today, they’re sentinels from a different time, forlorn and forgotten by nearly everyone.
Nothing, of course, is lost to us, as long as we remember it. Not even a tatty old trachodon next to an overgrown path where there used to be an amusement park.