I was a young boy when my parents first took me to Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo and it would have a profound effect on me. The sight of their infamous Asian elephant, “Ziggy,” would inspire a lifelong love of elephants while a lone statue standing at the park’s west end would solidify my fascination with dinosaurs. Back in the early ‘70s when I was growing up, just about every dinosaur depicted was either T-Rex, Triceratops, Stegosaurus, or the long-necked Brontosaurus (later changed to “Apatosaurus” before recently going full circle). The zoo’s dinosaur, however, was none of these but rather an obscure duck-billed variety called (at that time) a Trachodon. Despite what I’d seen in books and cartoons, this dino gave me something none of the others had…a sense of scale. For the first time I could look up and appreciate the true size of these amazing, prehistoric beasts. Over forty years later, I’m fortunate to still be able to see this dinosaur standing at the zoo though only recently gaining an appreciation for the treasure that it is.
The Trachodon, later identified as an Anatosaurus and nick-named “Archie” at the zoo, was actually one of nine dinosaurs created by the Sinclair Oil Company back in the early ’60s. These full-sized renderings were all designed by the world-renowned wildlife sculptor, Louis Paul Jonas, who was known for his lifelike animal replicas displayed at several museums. His most notable work was a group of African Elephants created for the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Jonas would finally settle in Hudson, NY where he’d head his own studio.
The Sinclair Oil Company (already using a dinosaur as their mascot) hired Jonas to design a group of dinosaurs that were to be displayed at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. It would take a team of paleontologists, engineers, and robotic experts three years to prepare them for the 125 mile boat ride down the Hudson River to the event’s “Dinosaur Pavilion.”
It’s estimated that over ten million visitors visited the Pavilion; enthralled by the life-sized, moving dinosaurs. Yes, originally these dinosaurs were animatronic before having their robotics removed after the Fair ended. Accompanying the dinosaurs was yet another mechanical innovation called Mold-a-Rama. For fifty cents guests could create their own collectible via big, blue machines that formed small plastic pellets into replicas of the animals on display. There were seven dinosaur Mold-a-Rama machines at the fair, including one for our Trachodon – ironic considering the zoo it resides in is known for their own Mold-a-Rama machines; a proud Brookfield Zoo tradition that began even before Archie’s arrival. I was able purchase several of these original molds on eBay, including the one for our duckbill.
Guests could also pick up a program featuring the Sinclair dinosaurs; also including our Trachodon in his blue, spotted glory. I purchased one of these on eBay, too.
When the fair ended, Sinclair offered all the dinosaurs to the National Smithsonian Museum who, shockingly, declined them. As a result, the dinosaurs would end up scattered throughout the United States with seven of them still accounted for and two missing (one of which, the six foot tall Ornitholestes, having been stolen).
I decided to make it a goal to track down as many of these I could find but my first attempt proved a misfire. During our 2015 Terror Dave Road Trip, we Daves searched unsuccessfully for the Triceratops in Louisville, Kentucky with no luck (if anyone has info on where we can find them, please comment). After circling the industrial park that “Roadside America” claimed it was at, we eventually found a Trick Shop instead. At least it wasn’t a total loss!
Last week, however, my dino dry spell would officially end and I’d come face to face with not one, but TWO of Archie’s fellow World’s Fair companions. More on that in my next post…
Coming up…A T-Rex in Texas