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The kid can’t be more than 5 years old. He just stands there, gazing up, his face painted with a mixture of horror, perplexion, and morbid curiosity.
“Mama, que es eso?” he asks.
His mother clearly doesn’t know what to say as she ambles up alongside him. “En realidad no se.” She looks equally confused.
Nobody, really, could be properly prepared for what they’re looking at. They are surrounded by madness. Front and center, a 20-foot-tall fiberglass T-Rex hulks over them, its jaws agape. Dangling from one of its front teeth, a sword-wielding Union soldier, his weapon raised high overhead. Just to the right, a slime-green creature charges in for battle, mounted atop a fiberglass bison in full stride. An elephant looks on from behind.
By the time a speaker off in the woods beside them emits a faint roar, the youngster is in full meltdown mode. His parents gather him and his siblings and hustle them out of the place.
Torn from a comic book or a B-movie, this scene unfolds a few hours outside of D.C. in the woods of Natural Bridge, Virginia. There, not far from one of the state’s most splendorous natural wonders, sits one of the state’s must surreal ones—a place where prehistoric creatures mingle with Civil War soldiers and monsters alike. This is not King’s Dominion. This is not Colonial Williamsburg. This, friends, is Dinosaur Kingdom II.
Spend a day with Mark Cline, and you will most assuredly hear something that no person in human history has ever said.
“So I told Jim—do you know Jim? I told him: ‘You’ve got the school bus, I’ve got the tentacles. Let’s do this thing.’”
Cline is sitting at a Mexican restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, not far from the now-famous Red Hen. At a booth, he fits small bites of beans and rice in between lengthy monologues about everything from religion to mortuary science. He does all of this while dressed like 1800s nobility. He’s set aside his stovepipe hat for the meal, but his vest, jacket with coattails, and ruffled collar remain.
He’s discussing, at the moment, his plans for his next sculpture. He wants to park an old school bus in a field, then erect several enormous tentacles around it, as if a giant kraken is attempting to swallow it whole. It’s a grand idea, but by the time you process it, he’s moved on to the next topic of conversation. You get the feeling his brain is never truly at rest.
Cline is a legend in these parts. At 57, he is Natural Bridge’s oddest and most intriguing human attraction, a self-proclaimed “Barnum of the Blue Ridge” who’s spent the better part of four decades bringing his fiberglass dreams to life in a few buildings on a lonely stretch of highway. He is a sculptor, an illustrator, a magician, a storyteller.
He is the man behind Dinosaur Kingdom II, of course, and another of Virginia’s strangest roadside attractions—“Foamhenge.” Located 175 miles away in Centreville, Foamhenge is a life-size, foam replica of Stonehenge. “The Druids took centuries to build theirs,” he quips. “I got mine done in two weeks.”
As Cline tells it, he got his start in fourth grade. Born in 1961, 50 miles north of Natural Bridge in Waynesboro, Virginia, he was the kid who couldn’t sit still.
“They put me in a special learning class,” he explains. “While I was there, I become the class clown. The class clown needed props. Props were expensive, I guess, so I learned how to make them myself.”
Cline’s grandparents lived in Baltimore, and on the way back from a visit, he passed by Dinosaur Land in White Post, Virginia. It was closed, but Cline peered through the fence at the collection of fiberglass dinosaurs.
“I told my dad, ‘You know, I’m going to build these one day.’ I was probably about 10 years old. He said, ‘You know son, if that’s what you want to do there’s nothing that can stop you.’”
His parents saw his creative side and nurtured it, as they had with his older brother, Steve, who had his own gift for the arts. They also sent him to a psychiatrist. “Mrs. Cline, there’s nothing wrong with your son,” Cline remembers the psychiatrist saying. “He just has an extremely strong and unique imagination … You need to cope with this and you need to deal with it.”
He skated through high school and did odd jobs, working as a DJ or driving a delivery truck. He worked in construction and at a brass factory—all jobs he says helped him refine his skills as an artist. Upon graduating, he hitchhiked across the country for a year before returning home to Waynesboro, broke and out of ideas. He was a self-described hobo.
He did find work eventually, though. At a local manufacturing plant, Cline got a job making figurines. He’d show up early and mix up massive vats of pecan shell flour and resin. One day, his boss gave him a 5-gallon bucket of the stuff to take home. Cline very quickly realized he had a gift.
And here’s where we arrive at Cline’s formal origin story. Every person like Mark Cline—every person who spends their days in a shed building fiberglass sharks or dinosaurs or doing something equally peculiar—has one. Cline tells his with the zeal and mysticism of an old sea captain recounting a voyage.
At 20, he struck out for Virginia Beach.
He’d dreamed up an idea—he’d roll in to town and sell someone on the idea of building a “monster museum.” “It would be a place that played on subconscious fears,” Cline says. “It wasn’t your typical Dracula, Frankenstein, werewolf, mummy type of stuff.”
Surely they’d love him, he thought. He’d throw up his house of haunts, scare the daylights out of a fresh crop of tourists each season, and go down as the next Romero, Lovecraft, or Karloff. “The Barnum of the Beach,” they’d call him. Alliteration and fame.
But Virginia Beach didn’t want anything to do with Mark Cline.
“I went down there with all these Papier-mâché figures and failed miserably. Nobody wanted any of my stuff.” He’d told his family he was going to make it big. Now he was headed home.
Just outside of Mechanicsville, Virginia, on the way back, another blow. His car, a 1966 AMC Scrambler, gives up the ghost. Blown radiator. He limps it onto the shoulder and phones a wrecker.
While waiting for help, Cline wanders down the highway. “I had five bucks and some change in my pocket,” as he tells it, “and all of the sudden, up ahead, I see this palm reader. She has a five dollar reading. I’m like the kid with the magic beans.”
He plunks down his last five bucks. He’s down to a quarter. She studies his palm, her brow furrowing as she senses Cline’s predicament. “You’re very distraught about a business venture,” she says. (It’s a predicament more than a few people suffered in 1982.) “If you stick to your dreams and work hard, though, your dreams will come true bigger than you ever imagine.”
Later in the day, Cline gets his car on the road, floating a check for the repairs. At a diner closer to home, he stops for a glass of water. His placemat is emblazoned with a map of Virginia. He feels a magnetic pull, looks downward, and casts his gaze on two Virginia towns. Front Royal and Natural Bridge. The words of the palm reader still echoing in his ear, Cline produces the quarter from his pocket.
“I flipped it, and it landed on Natural Bridge. And that’s how I ended up here,” he says.
Thirty-six years later, everyone in the area knows Mark Cline.
“When I first moved here, nobody knew who I was,” says Cline. As he speaks, he’s setting up a dinosaur display at a local movie theater. It’s the kind of tiny theater that went out of style decades ago but hangs on in Lexington, where tradition often trumps modernity.
“I can pull a giant fiberglass King Kong on the back of my trailer—where old farmers back in the old day would go, ‘What the hell is that weird shit about?’ Now they’ll be like ‘Oh, oh, oh, what is that? What does Mark have on there? We seen ya, Mark!’ They love it now.”
The guy selling concessions at the theater saunters up to Cline. He looks to be in his early 20s and towers over everybody in the place. His shirt can’t contain a beer belly that’s so perfectly round, it almost seems fake.
“Mark. I need you to build me a coffin.”
He goes on to explain that he’s an amateur wrestler, and he needs the casket for a “coffin match” he’s putting on with a friend. Mark Cline is a lot of things, including the man you come to when you want a set for your coffin match. “Yeah, we can work something out,” says Cline. It’s almost like this is the least strange thing he’s dealt with all week.
He set up his “monster museum” in Natural Bridge in 1982, shortly after the palm reader got him back on track. It was in an old house, and he charged $2 a head for a tour. The first day, he got two visitors. “People had never seen anything like the place,” Cline says. Business gradually picked up. He got a steady stream of visitors headed down I-81 toward Knoxville, Tennessee for the World’s Fair, which kept him afloat for a while. Two years later, though, the museum went bust.
He re-tooled, re-opening the place as the “Enchanted Castle Studios.” He did a little bit of everything—crafting home-brewed thrill rides, putting on magic shows, and doing impersonations. And he’d give people a peek into his artistic process as well, molding fiberglass figures right in front of them. In the meantime, he’d also started actively marketing his creations to anybody who’d buy one—mini-golf courses, roadside attractions, restaurants, whoever. Business was good.
It all changed in 2001. Early in the morning on April 2nd he got a phone call from the police. There was trouble brewing at the studio.
“I saw a huge glow in the sky,” he reflects. “I knew the second I saw that, the whole place was gone.”
Fire had ravaged the studio, destroying the Enchanted Castle and everything in it. Cline watched from the road as his dream melted. Around 4 a.m., he walked over to the mailbox, which was about the only thing left standing, and found an envelope. He emptied its contents out onto the dash of his truck.
“It was a one-way ticket to hell with my name on it,” says Cline. He says there was a photo of him, and someone had burned the eyes out of it. What unnerved Cline even more was a handwritten letter. To this day, Cline has every word memorized.
“In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,” he recites, “we have found a slick upon the face of God. It is you, Mr. Mark Cline, because you continue to worship and honor Satan through your work.”
The State Police investigated the fire, which Cline to this day believes was set intentionally. At first he’d assumed the fire to be the work of religious zealots. Lexington is a very conservative place, and Cline is a man who once performed an exorcism at a minor league baseball game. Cline’s own research, though, eventually pointed toward an ex-employee. No charges were ever filed.
Locals rallied around Cline. The town itself donated an old, dilapidated Victorian mansion to house a new monster museum, and the artist eagerly rebuilt. He bedecked the front of the place with a massive, one-eyed fiberglass skull. Gargoyles kept watch from the roof, while the inside of the house was a bric-a-brac of supernatural and real-life haunts. Out in the yard, Cline threw up an assortment of fiberglass dinosaurs.
That place burned, too, in a 2012 fire. No arson this time. The cause was never determined, but Cline suspects a cigarette butt thrown from a passing car or cast aside by a trespasser.
Four years later, Dinosaur Kingdom II rose from the ashes. It is a sight to behold.
Cline’s latest creation is difficult to describe. Just up the highway from his studio, it’s part nature trail, part haunted house, part art gallery.
The story goes something like this: It’s 1864. The Union army is shelling Lexington, and one of their cannon rounds inadvertently disturbs some sleeping dinosaurs in the caverns below. The Yanks, determined to harness the power of their new ancient friends, weaponize them and turn them loose on Confederate troops. That plan, though, backfires. What ensues is a massacre of prehistoric proportions.
Also involved: a pterodactyl flying off with the Gettysburg Address, a re-incarnated Stonewall Jackson fitted with a mechanical arm, slime-colored creatures plucked straight from a low-budget horror flick. There is all of this, and more, at Dinosaur Kingdom II.
Cline tells the story of the park while strolling through his studio. It’s a magical place for sure, but it isn’t air conditioned. In the heat, Cline has lost his 1800s garb for jeans and a T-shirt.
A building on one side of the property serves as his workshop. Cline is almost done with a 20-foot fiberglass shark. The other building on his property houses many of Cline’s old creations. A parade float is the centerpiece—a massive horse reared up on its hind legs which Cline readily hops on from time to time. He wears full Lone Ranger attire for that. There’s a fiberglass Elvis, as well, and a hodgepodge of other figures. Statues of the Virgin Mary and Joseph peek out from behind a pair of fiberglass alligators.
Upstairs in his office, Cline sips on a Mountain Dew. He’s surrounded by more relics of the past: Charlie McCarthy dolls, a signed photo of David Copperfield. There’s a photo of him riding a unicycle through a ring of fire and a plaster mold of George Washington’s initials, taken from Natural Bridge itself.
Cline says some of the inspiration for Dinosaur Kingdom II comes from the 1969 fantasy flick The Valley of the Gwangi, which tells the story of a wild-west stunt show that stumbles upon and corrals a herd of dinosaurs. He melded that inspiration together with a bit of history. “I started thinking—60 percent of the battles in the Civil War were fought in Virginia. And Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are buried right here around Lexington. So I blended the two ideas together. Like chocolate and peanut butter.”
The result is campy and delicious, but potentially problematic to some visitors who may reel at seeing that it’s the Union soldiers getting gobbled up, not the Rebs. It’s just business to Cline.
“Well first of all,” he says, “in every story there have to be heroes and villains. The Bible, Star Wars, whatever. Am I gonna have the roles reversed down here? The Yankees have to be the bad guys. If I went to Gettysburg, I would reverse the story.”
Fiberglass figures, like the dinosaurs themselves, are at this point a relic of a different era. Cultural sensibilities have changed quite a bit, something that’s created an unexpected revenue stream for Cline. He picks up a brush, dips it in fiberglass resin, and brushes it onto a headdress, which he’s fitted to a 4-foot-tall bust of a Mohawk Indian.
The headdress is removable—Cline wants to give the figure’s owner the option to leave it on or take it off. Is the design of the figure, based off a statue created in the ’60s, an accurate representation of a Mohawk? Should it even have a headdress? Cline is leaving his client with options.
He’s expecting another statue to arrive in the coming weeks, this one of a Cherokee. “He’s been in front of a car dealership for 50 years, and he’s really starting to piss some people off now.”
Back at the Mexican restaurant, Cline has wrapped up his meal. He’s headed out to give a ghost tour, something he does every weekend during the summer. He’s prattling on about his family, more specifically his older brother, a pastor who doesn’t believe dinosaurs existed. The irony of that is not lost on him.
Cline himself isn’t religious, but much of what he says often seems steeped in some sort of spirituality. He says he believes in the healing aspect of his work, in bringing joy to people.
His brain races on to the next topic.
“Hey, did you see the figure of Merlin the Magician back at the park?” he asks. “I made that off a dead guy.”
Cline goes on to tell the story. He was an old friend, and “he looked just like Willie Nelson,” Cline says. He’d long wanted to make a mold of his friend’s face, and when he passed, his wife called. “You better get here in the next couple of hours, Mark. We’re going to cremate him,” he remembers his friend’s wife saying.
“I always promised I’d turn him into something magical,” Cline says. “What’s more magical than Merlin the Magician?”