Sandra Crabb walked the leafy trails of Prehistoric Forest, a long-dead tourist stop that she owns in Michigan's Irish Hills area. Every now and then, she came upon a tall dinosaur made of fiberglass and Styrofoam, standing ragged and alone in the woods.
Crabb is 77. She's well-spoken but also whimsical, business-minded but a little eccentric. Yet when she's out for a walk among her dinosaurs, she's like a child again, lulled into a dreamy world of make believe.
"He was a nice one," she said, giggling as she approached a weather-beaten dinosaur, one of a handful still lurking among the trees. "I can see it in his eyes. He liked the kids and he liked the people and he liked the territory, don't you think? Wouldn't you like it if you were a dinosaur? Hard not to like a big forest all to yourself!"
Crabb runs a small petroleum company, and the Irish Hills area of south Michigan is known for its oil fields. Six years ago, she bought this parcel because she learned there might be oil deposits in the land beneath it, the Detroit Free Press reported.
Then she visited her new acquisition, and discovered she was now the owner of a lovely forest populated by cartoonish characters. It changed everything for her.
"It took me five minutes, no, 30 minutes, to fall in love with it," she said. "It's a beautiful piece of property, absolutely stunning. It's a privilege to own it. The beauty of nature, the fun of the ideas that the former owner of the Prehistoric Forest had, the dinosaurs, all the variations on the theme — absolutely marvelous."
Now, she said, she wants to bring Dinosaur Forest back to life. She even sold her home in California last year and moved to Michigan to pursue her plans.
But after years of neglect and vandalism, the theme park has deteriorated. The township where it's located is demanding that she fix up or tear down one of the biggest structures on the site — a crumbling mound of foam and wood that was once a towering pretend mountain. Local officials worry that one of the many trespassers who enter the property each year might hurt themselves, leading to lawsuits. They've given Crabb several deadlines to comply with their requests — all of which she's missed. Now, officials say, the matter is headed to court.
Meanwhile, some wonder whether restoring an outdated tourist trap is even worth the effort.
"In my opinion, will that ever be something that people want to visit? No," said Bill Gentner, Cambridge Township supervisor. "Years ago, I think so. But there are so many things up north to do. Kids' interest is different now. But she's a good dreamer, I guess you might want to say."
The park, like other abandoned tourist attractions nearby, reflects another era; before smartphones and video games, and the sensory bombardment of places like Dave & Buster's and Chuck E. Cheese. For kids nowadays, a quiet walk in the woods past stationary fiberglass dinosaurs is underwhelming in comparison.
If all Crabb really wants is the oil in the ground, there's no reason not to tear down all the structures on the property. It would make it easier to get in there to drill, and also would get township officials off her back.
So why even bother trying to keep and restore them?
"Well, that's like asking why does anybody bother to keep the pyramids intact, you know?" she said. "Just because something isn't the whole that it once was doesn't mean that it shouldn't still exist and shouldn't still be an object of interest, curiosity, fascination, thoughtfulness, dreams. I mean, there's nothing that stimulates the mind and the imagination like going somewhere and finding some part of a lost time or a lost civilization. And that's what this represents, a trip somehow back in time.
"And that's always worth having as an adventure."
Crabb was born and raised in Dearborn, earned an arts degree at the University of Michigan, then moved to California where she had a number of careers over several decades, including in filmmaking, antique sales and eventually in petroleum. In her quest for new oil fields, she came across the Irish Hills.
For years, the U.S.-12 highway was the main route from Detroit to Chicago, and it ran right through the Irish Hills area, named for the rounded green hills and little lakes that reminded the Irish immigrants who settled here of their home country.
After World War II, as car ownership increased and more traffic passed through the area, campgrounds, restaurants and hotels sprang up to draw tourists who wanted a break on the long ride — along with roadside attractions designed to draw the interest and excitement of kids. There was the Stagecoach Stop, featuring a Wild West theme of saloons and general stores. Frontier City, where actors playing gunslingers robbed an old-time bank six times a day for audiences. And Fantasy Land, with a fairy-tale theme.
And there was Prehistoric Forest, which opened in 1963 and featured dozens of animatronic dinosaurs and cavemen made of fiberglass and Styrofoam, whose motorized jaws and limbs squeaked open in tandem with tape-recorded roars as tourists passed by in the Safari Train. At the front of the park stood a towering waterfall, a water slide and a volcano that belched smoke. It was campy and kitschy and had the early 1960s written all over it.
But the construction of I-94 soon after drew much of the travel traffic away, changing entertainment tastes and redirecting tourists elsewhere. The theme parks along U.S.-12 began to wither, the tourist stops closed and the route is now a graveyard of once-popular roadside attractions.
When Prehistoric Forest closed in 1999, many of the dinosaurs were left behind in the woods, suffering through Michigan's harsh seasons. They also became a favorite target of vandals.
In 1985, students from Saline High School stole three statues and placed them in front of their school. In 2010, teenagers from Onsted High did the same thing. But the real damage was done in 2012, when 13 students from local high schools, along with two adult chaperones from Waterford, sneaked onto the property and smashed the heads and limbs off many of the dinosaurs. They were visitors in town for a track meet, and they were caught only because the students didn't have enough sense not to wear their varsity jackets when committing crimes at a place that had surveillance cameras.
They were charged with various misdemeanors, but they were honor students with scholarships to college, their attorneys noted, and this status earned them a slap on the wrist in court. Ever since their visit, the dinosaurs they attacked remain headless, or lie on their sides in the forest, barely visible among the brush. It makes Crabb's already difficult dream of restoring the park that much harder.
Last year, the township asked her to either demolish or repair the park's towering mountain, which once hosted a waterfall but which is now a rickety mound of rotting wood and moldy foam. Township officials fear that someone climbing on them will plunge through with all the other debris that's caved in through their roofs.
"We've met with her up there, we've tried every way possible to help her," Gentner said. "It's been unsafe for quite a while, and all she had to do is come up with a plan to take care of that problem. Every time she's come in she never had a plan."
But Crabb insists she's bursting with ideas for the park. Film shoots, for one. In fact, she said, she's had several crews shooting music videos and independent movies on the surreal site. She might add zip lines among the trees one day, and maybe historical exhibits about everything from dinosaurs to the history of Irish Hills. But other than adding a tall fence last month to try to keep trespassers out and buy some time, the park is essentially the same as when she bought it.
"I don't want to just raze it," she said of the mountain. "I like to look at it and dream of the future and the past and everything in between. But we have to be safe, too. So we're trying to shore it up and see where we go from there. It's very possible we may have to take it down. We'll see."
But all those practical concerns were a distant afterthought as she strolled the park's trails on a pleasant spring afternoon, greeting her dinosaurs as she passed them. She talked to them, gave them names, imagined their thoughts, became playful in their presence.
She came upon a dinosaur still lying flat after an encounter with vandals. She looked it over carefully, imagining its life. "It's rather colorful, so I think I'll call her Sally," she said. "She got mowed down by some probably Tyrannosaurus Rex, a big guy to knock this little lady over."
Further up the trail, a giant prehistoric bird with black fiberglass feathers and a red beak stood tall in the grasses. "I think this one is named No Fuss. Gets up, her hair is done for the day, and she might even give you a ride if you were nice," she said.
She wound her way past a wood shelter with benches, which were spray-painted with graffiti. "This was a nice place to sit down and relax and enjoy the day," she surmised. "Looks like a bus stop. Probably some animals lined up to get on board with the kids."
At the end of the long trail, huddled together in the cool darkness behind the locked doors of a pole barn, was a gathering of many more of her prehistoric friends, protected and undamaged. There were gentle Brontosauruses and giant birds, massive mushrooms and smiling trees. Crabb hid them here for safety, away from the dangers of an outside world that seems to have lost its sense of wonder and imagination.
"Times have changed and some people are afraid of the magic," she said. "They don't understand the magic of the moment, the magic of imagination, and I think some people are lacking that, yes. They don't see the mystery and the mystique and the joy that separates this park from everything and anything else."
But she does. For her, the park conjures a bridge to childhood, when grinning dinosaurs standing in the woods were enough to spark an afternoon of simple fun. For her, that's worth preserving.
"It's a lot of upkeep, but yes I'm glad I bought it," she said with a giggle. "Not everyone owns a dinosaur park, do they?"