The humidity of a southern June hung over us as we slogged through the facsimile of an old mining town. We approached rustic shacks for shade, only to find doors clawed in, furniture smashed, and baby brontosauruses running amok. Ahead, a building loomed with its front sign smeared and off-kilter, lettered in a bright rectal green: The Slime Theater. Three green, mucus-esque creatures with jarring King Crimson lips hung above the door– the obvious culprits for the name. I ducked as I went inside–machismo aside, I was a lone journalist and this was Slimeball Territory.
The last building I entered, dangerous from a sloped floor, slid me into the wall, so I didn’t complain when we walked into the next room with benches, fans, and a flat screen. A TV played a fuzzy history segment on the Civil War, titled, “The Untold Battle of Natural Bridge.” The opening began like any other historical segment except from ambrotypes of Civil War generals accompanying the narration, it segwayed to pterodactyls and a machine-gun-stegosaurus. The screen cut to a man sitting fireside, deadpan gaze with a pipe, mid-toke. He explained the second coming of dinosaurs, in a battle that, frankly, never happened.
In a straw white fedora and magenta vest, his name is Mark Cline, the self-made owner of this Jurassic triptank. At 57, he’s the county’s most unnatural attraction, a persona riding between Mick Jagger and Willy Wonka, a self-proclaimed entrepreneur with 40 years of experience in fiberglass molding. We joined Cline in his eclectic roadside kingdom to talk about his Civil War theme park, “Dinosaur Kingdom II,” in rural Natural Bridge, Virginia.
We met Cline at a Pizza Hut, where he held forth on everything from religion to the power of suggestion. Even his bites of pizza were strategically placed, all while dressed like he popped out of an 1800s spaghetti western. You get the feeling his brain is never truly at rest.
He was quick to rebuke criticism surrounding his park for its depiction of Union soldiers threatened by life-size fiberglass dinosaurs, annoyed by the recent media frenzy. ”They’re no more problematic now than they were years ago, it’s just that more people have a voice, more people have a stage, have these things [pointing to our smartphones], and getting out there with more opinions. Nothing’s new under the sun, none of it. Would you like a piece of pizza?”
He respects figures like Robert E. Lee, but was quick to deny empathy for Confederate troops, quoting Lee himself on historical remembrances. “I started doing a sculpture of Robert E. Lee a few years ago, before I knew what his wishes were,” Cline said. He refused to finish the sculpture, as General Lee himself once stated he wanted no statues, roads, or buildings dedicated to himself or the Confederate States. The war was over; it was time to rebuild.
Though some see the park as a monument to the Confederacy, it feels like escapism, a way to let local descendants of Civil War soldiers evade the awful truths of the past.
Dinosaur Kingdom II offers a 16-acre stroll, guarded behind a palisade of utility poles along U.S. Route 11. From the opening scene of a decrepit mining town to the 20-foot-tall fiberglass T-Rex towering over the entrance with jaws agape while a lone Union soldier stands near a dislodged train, it provides a bizarre, alternative fiction of the Civil War. According to Cline, these jaws are meant to distract from our daily woes; he’s more entertainer than muse to madness. “Dinosaur Kingdom II is meant to entertain folks which, in turn, brings some societal benefits. Entertainment brings laughter and laughter has been proven to heal. No one gets killed at my park.”
You expect sympathy for Confederate revisionism with a spring of absurdity, only to be overwhelmed by the latter. There are disorienting walkways, Confederate slimeballs mounting bison as cavalry, a Southern Harambe stealing pants, two-headed turtle bomb specialists, a Confederate boy milking a stegosaurus, and Stonewall Jackson punching a T-Rex with a robotic arm. The park is meant to be bizarre, not scary or insensitive. “I just sort of mixed the Civil War history in with dinosaurs because I like them both. You know, people do what they like,” he said. “I’m not gonna go motocross riding or Nascar if I didn’t like [it]. I do what I like.”
Dinosaur Kingdom II reopened in 2016 after the original park was lost to a fire. It’s a nod to nostalgic 1950s mom-and-pop roadside attractions, yet since the local competition are caves and rock bridges, the park has surprisingly become a high-traffic attraction.
Born in 1961, Cline began his fascination with Jurassic subculture as a young child along the rolling hills of Waynesboro, Virginia. “I’m starting to believe I am the first because a lot of the things that I’m doing now I’ve started to see others come out with later,” he said, suggesting his creations long predate the 1993 masterpiece “Jurassic Park.”
I just sort of mixed the Civil War history in with dinosaurs because I like them both. You know, people do what they like.
Cline took interest in the Civil War in 1969 after the devastating Hurricane Camille, the second-most intense tropical cyclone to strike the United States, tolling up 259 dead, nine of whom were Cline’s relatives. Fresh off the coattails of grief, Cline found peace of mind in Gettysburg, where he and his surviving family members had evacuated before the storm. “While we were there, my mom, my brothers and I, we went through Gettysburg,” he said. “And while I was mainly into the museums at first, I took a strong liking to the battlefield.”
Later, after high school, with no college plans and a love for paper maché, Cline began drifting. He hitchhiked across the country for a year before returning to Waynesboro, broke. A self-described hobo, he spent three months on park benches and against trees in Gypsy Hill Park. He didn’t seem to fit in. He wasn’t cut out for the military and had little interest in moving to a big city to follow artistic aspirations, but knew he couldn’t keep up his drifter lifestyle. Cline hitchhiked to the employment office in Waynesboro and got a job at Red Mill Manufacturing in Lyndhurst, where he began mixing resins for figurines. After about six weeks, his superior had him stay after work and taught him the process of making molds–a process Cline would take with him the rest of his life.
However, the process was slow-going, and in 1982 Cline experienced the first of many failures. “My first launched museum didn’t do anything. It was too far ahead of its time,” he said. “It was a struggle, I lost my first wife over it, poverty was commonplace for me, I didn’t know how I was going to pay my bills.”
To Cline, his Civil War theme is not controversial. Whether the uniforms were gray or blue, the backlash would be all the same. “Well, I had a guy in Pennsylvania that was interested in me in building one of those up there for him. If I had done it up there, I’d have made the Confederacy the enemy. He was in Gettysburg. [The South] wouldn’t have been heroes up there.”
If anything, Cline knows how to bewilder. One April Fool’s Day, his favorite holiday, he stationed crashed saucers in a field outside Lexington. Another year, he placed a 50-foot-long Russian submarine in a lake near Gypsy Hill Park, where he used to sleep.
You gotta have something that’s real about you, oddly enough that comes from a guy that creates a lot of illusions.
But his stunts haven’t always been met with a cocked head or odd look. In 2001, one of his parks, Enchanted Castle Studio, went up in flames. A note in his mailbox described it as punishment for “Satanic art” from the “Good Lord,” referencing a comical sculpture resembling the devil. It survived, now relegated to his studio. The state police investigated the fire, which Cline believes was arson. No charges were filed. In an interview with The Roanoke Times, Cline kept his cheeky optimism: “P.T. Barnum had three [fires], so at least I’m one behind him.”
Cline is an illusionist, but refreshingly honest. He’s content living in a paradoxical space, real and fake together, and wants you to join him, too. “Without your morals, who are you? You’re a piece of shit. I mean, you gotta have something that’s real about you, oddly enough that comes from a guy that creates a lot of illusions.”
His brain races on to the next topic: His future. Having attained roadside celebrity status as he approaches his sixties, Cline is preparing for his next act: teaching. “I want to teach people how to build these figures because I’m the only one in the country doing it this way, this particular way,” Cline said. “Lee came here to Lexington, after the war. You know why? To teach. What does teaching do? It eradicates ignorance, and offers you a brighter future, right? How else can you explain education than by what it’s supposed to do? He understood this.”
And as the majority of his guests are young adults and college students, there is hope for Cline to pass down his fiberglass empire to future generations, with all the allure of fantasy and escapism. “I see myself as an entertainer, who knows how to build props,” he said. “I make my living off the props, but the props only tell the story to entertain people.”
As for the Civil War, it’s difficult to discern where Cline stands. He doesn’t clarify his views, either. “Just the very fact I live in this area, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee are buried here, and I think because they’re such icons here, and in some ways, very misunderstood,” he said.
Cline believes anyone under the lens of the public eye long enough will be villainized. Maybe Cline romanticizes the lives of Jackson and Lee, much as he romanticizes his own. Whether this bizarre roadside attraction is a magnet for ignorance or an escape from the racist history that continues to fester throughout the South, a man like this, muddled in mystery, has only ever revealed shades of himself. I know one thing from this experience: I wouldn’t spend a night at this museum.
Photos by Madelyne Ashworth.