When Dinosaurs Came to Town

Dinosaur photographs courtesy Douglas Weathers

(page 1 of 2)

Dear Vance: Sometime in the late 1960s my parents took our family to an amazing exhibit of dinosaurs set up outside, in a big parking lot somewhere in Memphis. Do you know where this took place, and who sponsored it? — D.W., Germantown

Dear D.W.: As a young Vance, I rarely mingled with other children, because they mocked my vaguely European accent and acted as if culottes were things only girls would wear. Mine were leather, and quite manly, you unsophisticated oafs!

Nevertheless, even I braved their taunts when the dinosaurs came to our city, and I, too, went to this exhibit and stood in awe of the procession of life-size creatures that seemed to march across the parking lot of the Southgate Shopping Center, down on South Third.

I know this was the location because I have an excellent memory, and also because the great photos taken by your parents, D.W., reveal businesses such as Warmoth’s Cafeteria (which I’ve mentioned before in this column), Pic-Pac grocery store, Katz drugstore, and Woolco, and in the mid-1960s, only one place in town — Southgate — was home to all four establishments.

Oh, and there’s also the big neon sign announcing Southgate Shopping Center visible in one of your photos.

But what about the dinosaurs themselves? Well, does anybody remember the old Sinclair gas stations, with the big green “Dino the Dinosaur” logo? The company was founded in 1919 or thereabouts, and for a long time the gas stations they erected across the country just carried the Sinclair name. At the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933-34, however, the company built a huge display linking dinosaurs to the ancient petroleum deposits the company was tapping for its gas and oil, and the creatures were such a hit that Sinclair adopted a big green Brontosaurus as its mascot. Why, they even called their brands of gas “Dino Regular” and Dino Supreme.”

Three decades later, at the New York World’s Fair of 1964-65, the company presented another larger-than-life dinosaur exhibit, featuring detailed replicas of the best-known “thunder lizards” of the day: Brontosaurus, Triceratops, Stegosaurus, and of course, the mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex.

When the World’s Fair closed, Sinclair decided to put these fiberglass creatures on tour, so they loaded them onto barges and flatbed trailers, and they toured the country for a number of years. It’s really surprising how many people have such fond memories of this display. In fact, just google “Sinclair Dinosaur Exhibit” as I did, and you’ll turn up quite a few blog posts, complete with shopping center photos that look almost identical to the ones shown here.

One such fellow, a writer named Martin Powell in St. Paul, Minnesota, had this to say about the display he saw as a child: “I vividly remember how utterly real the Tyrannosaurus Rex seemed. You expected him to come to jaw-snapping life at any moment. He was easily my favorite from the Sinclair exhibit, although all of their life-sized ultrarealistic dinosaurs were beautiful and brilliant to behold. And if you wanted to photograph the entire length of the Sinclair Brontosaurus, you had to snap him from all the way across the highway. He was over 70 feet long, and absolutely amazing to see in person!”

This incredible exhibit was completely free, but kids could feed quarters into a machine that spit out plastic-molded miniature replicas of the giant creatures on display.  

Usually, when I write about things like this, I end the column by saying the statue is gone, or the building is a vacant lot, or I have to mention some other sad demise. In the case of the Sinclair dinosaurs, I’m happy to say that many of them didn’t face extinction. Powell (and others) tracked quite a few of them down after the traveling exhibit ended sometime in 1968 or 1969. The Ankylosaurus (the turtle-shaped one covered with protective bony plates), went to the Cleveland Zoo. The Stegosaurus ended up at Dinosaur National Monument State Park in Utah, and something called the Struthiomimus went on display at the Milwaukee Museum. The Triceratops, says Powell, “found a home in the Louisville Zoo, where I visited it often when I was a kid.” And the stars of the show, the giant Brontosaurus and the T. Rex, somehow found refuge together in the little town of Glen Rose, Texas, which calls itself the “Dinosaur Capital of Texas” because it’s home to Dinosaur Valley State Park and Dinosaur World.

Of course, I have no way of actually confirming that these creatures are still standing in those locations, so I guess that means only one thing: Road Trip!


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