Residents in a rural Utah town worry about losing their identity as ‘the dinosaur people’ as the area grows

As the gateway to “Dinosaurland,” the town is known for its charming and whimsical decorations. But Rex, the giant T. rex, has slipped into disrepair.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The green Tyrannosaurus rex statue in Vernal, is pictured on Thursday, May 19, 2022, as the town rallies around the deteriorating giant by fundraising to save it.

Vernal • The giant green dinosaur that looms over the west side of U.S. Highway 40 here has become an icon in this proud rural town.

The locals call him “Rex,” and like a pet that they all share, he’s beloved. Some have even taken wedding pictures with him, the bride’s gown matching his white claws.

He’s stood on his roadside perch for over 50 years, meant to welcome tourists with a sharp-toothed smile as they arrive in the area nicknamed “Dinosaurland” for the paleontological treasure chest of fossils found in the surrounding desert.

The people here are quick to tell you about what was unearthed from the Jurassic period — don’t even mention the word “Cretaceous” in these parts. They’ve painted murals of the discoveries and even brewed beers named after them. They love being the folks who love dinosaurs so much that they come up with new ways to put them on street signs and bus stops so they can love dinosaurs even more.

“It’s who we are,” said Ginger Bowden, owner of the Dinosaur Brew Haus and creator of its smooth Allosaurus Amber Ale. “We’re the dinosaur people.”

But as the eastern Utah town has expanded, the location of the 25-foot-tall cartoonish Tyrannosaurus rex statue — one of the first dinosaur attractions here, built by a resident in the 1950s — has evolved from being at the entrance of Vernal to what has now become the center. The town’s edges have extended to include a new Walmart and fast food chains, alongside the two boot shops and the barbecue brisket joint that have long been here.

And over that time, the original friendly and famous statue has started to fall apart.

Pieces of Rex’s painted plaster skin are flaking off, exposing the rusty rebar frame underneath. A few less prehistoric critters — mostly raccoons — are beginning to take up residence in the holes in his legs. And, though too young to be extinct, he’s certainly not looking so fierce with faded paint and chipped feet.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The green Tyrannosaurus rex statue in Vernal, is pictured on Thursday, May 19, 2022, as the town rallies around the deteriorating giant by fundraising to save it.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The green Tyrannosaurus rex statue in Vernal, is pictured on Thursday, May 19, 2022, as the town rallies around the deteriorating giant by fundraising to save it.

Repairing him was calculated to come at a high price for a town that, outside tourism, is largely dependent on the boom and bust of its oil rigs. The tab for cement, paint and labor to fix Rex up was estimated at $30,000.

Some in Vernal have suggested replacing him, instead, with a newer, flashier — and cheaper — animatronic dinosaur like the ones at an amusement park.

Others ask whether that would mean sacrificing their identity as the quirky place with the whimsical dinosaurs in a town where American flags still fly on nearly every porch, flyers for the rodeo are pinned on every bulletin board, trucks sit in almost every driveway and everyone used to know everyone before the major developments came in.

It’s the same tension over growth that many Utah towns face. At its heart, it’s about deciding how to hold onto local character while growing toward the future.

‘What makes us Vernal’

Across the street from the T. rex statue is a diner called The Sloppy Pig.

The locals brag it has the best barbecue sauce in the world — and the aroma really bolsters their argument. In here, they are passionately pro-Rex.

“Everyone loves him,” said 19-year-old Melody Lacombe, who grew up in Vernal and has worked at the restaurant for two years. “We have to keep him up.”

Every summer, she watches out the window of the eatery as tourists — and some residents — line up to take their picture by the life-size stucco beast.

She remembers when she was younger and it would roar when you’d walk past it; that function no longer works. The town also used to decorate him for every holiday: a pair of cupid’s wings for Valentine’s Day, light-up bunny ears for Easter and a massive drumstick for Thanksgiving. That stopped, too, as the budget dried up.

(City of Vernal) The iconic green Tyrannosaurus rex statue in Vernal, Utah, is seen in this image from Jan. 27, 2016, dressed up for Valentine's Day. The statue has fallen into disrepair in 2022 and members of the community are fundraising to save it.

Inside the new Walmart down the street from The Sloppy Pig there’s a mural with pictures of how Rex and the town used to look, ironically, before the Walmart arrived. Vernal has doubled in size from when Lacombe was a kid, to 10,000 people living in the Uinta Basin town today. She’s had a front row seat to the dramatic changes.

“It’s become this bustling area,” Lacombe said. “All of Main Street is changing up. Even I hardly recognize it.”

She wants some of the old magic back, starting with fixing Rex.

Most of the local business owners feel similarly.

Bowden grew up here and owns three businesses that get at the heart of how this town operates. She has the Dinosaur Brew Haus that serves up “beer, burgers and bones,” according to the advertisement on the colorful painted dinosaur mural outside, as well as the adjoining Vernal Brewing Company. She also runs a consulting business for oil and gas leases.

The town, the 43-year-old said, needs both its dinosaur tourism and its rigs to stay afloat. She grew up here, and her family’s name is on a historic marker up the hill. She said she understands the power of holding onto a legacy and doesn’t want to see too much change.

(City of Vernal) The iconic green Tyrannosaurus rex statue in Vernal, Utah, is seen in this image from 1971. The statue has fallen into disrepair in 2022 and members of the community are fundraising to save it.

As one sign in the town puts it: “We love two things, dinosaurs and Donald Trump.” It’s no mistake that dinosaurs are listed first, that passion as steadfast as the conservative values in blue collar Vernal.

On its other sides, the dinosaur statue is surrounded by Vernal’s welcome sign, a Fast Stop gas station and the one post office here, whose staff gave the town its name in the late 1800s so mail could be delivered without confusion. White settlers had been referring to the area only as “The Bench.”

To the west are the new developments, Burger King and TJ Maxx. To the east is the older part of town, including a thrift store with a “work clothes” section filled with overalls.

Nearby, you’ll find the 7-11 Ranch Restaurant and gift shop, which opened in 1939 as the first restaurant in Vernal. It’s been passed down from grandparents to parents to Kam Pope, the current owner.

Inside is every dinosaur souvenir you can imagine. Postcards and keychains and lollipops and candy eggs and hot chocolate that turns green when it gets warm. There’s a whole wall of T-shirts, too, including some that feature Rex.

Pope said the green dinosaur needs to be saved, though he does bristle a bit at the cost. He has joined the camp to support repairing Rex through donations — not the town’s taxpayer dollars.

“We’ve got to hold onto our tourism, what makes us Vernal, the real thing,” he said. “We are Dinosaurland. The second we walk away from that, it’s all over.”

Chris Baughm, from Boise, Idaho, visited Flaming Gorge in May and then detoured back to Vernal to see what the town is known for.

“Ever since I saw a picture of it, I wanted to see it up close and in person,” he said, standing near Rex and taking his own photo.

History, opposition and extinction

Growing up in Vernal, Melinda Barlow remembers her backyard being filled with three things: rebar, buckets of cement and dinosaur statues taller than her house.

Her dad, George Millecam, created Rex. Her mom, Helen Millecam, made the other iconic dinosaur in Vernal: a 40-foot-tall pink Brontosaurus named Dinah, who now sits at the east entrance of town.

(Melinda Barlow) Pictured is Helen and George Millecam who made the green and pink dinosaurs that are iconic in Vernal, Utah.

(Chris Detrick | Salt Lake Tribune) Vernal's happy pink dinosaur greets visitors at the east entrance to the city along U.S Highway 40 in 2005.

Both creations — along with five others that have since been moved to the Colorado side of Dinosaur National Monument, created in 1915 — were made as friendly attractions for the Millecam family’s Dine-A-Ville Motel, Barlow said.

“My folks loved Vernal,” she added. “They just loved it. And they loved the tourism industry. They were really among the first dino fans here.”

George and Helen started putting the plaster dinosaurs together around the late 1950s, when Barlow was about 10 years old. She believes her dad used her stuffed animal dinosaur, which she still has, as a model for Rex, who was originally painted in more of a greenish brown shade with a stripy stomach, like the doll.

(Melinda Barlow) Pictured is a stuffed dinosaur made by a company in Germany in the 1950s that Melinda Barlow believes inspired her dad to great the iconic green dinosaur in Vernal, Utah.

It was magical, she said, watching the dinosaur statues come to life and be moved around the town by a huge crane.

“My siblings and I were captivated from the very beginning to the end,” Barlow said with a laugh.

She has since become a leader in the effort to repair Rex (and maybe even paint him back to his original colors), who along with Dinah was gifted to the town when the motel shut down. Dinah is in good shape, with some minor fixes over the years, although her eyes no longer blink as they once did. But Rex hasn’t held up as well.

Barlow understands there are some opposed to the effort to repair him, who don’t share her attachment.

Vernal ran a survey among residents, which more than 2,800 answered, to gauge their interest in saving the statue. About one in four locals — or 24% — supported ditching Rex and getting a cheaper, more realistic dinosaur. Another 18% were neutral.

One person wrote in the comments: “It looks like a 10-year-old made that with papier-mâché. Replace it!” Another suggested it was too goofy, making Vernal look like it was “Flintstones-themed.”

Several said they still want dinosaurs, just animatronic ones, like the ones that the car wash on Main Street just installed — more “Jurassic Park” than kids cartoon. (Only 2%, overall, said there were too many dinos in town on a different question.) Many noted it was time to move toward the future, to embrace the inevitable growth and lean into it with a newer look.

Those wanting to keep the original statue still came in above half, at 58%.

Many shared memories of seeing Rex over the years, saying they wanted their kids and grandkids to have the same experience. One wrote: “I really prefer the kind, inviting, welcoming dinosaurs. Let other places have the angry dinosaurs while we keep our friendly ones.”

But even with that support, most residents, like Pope at the 7-11 Ranch, opposed spending too much of the city’s budget to repair him. They love the history; they just don’t love the expense.

(Melinda Barlow) Pictured is George Millecam working on the green dinosaur that's iconic in Vernal, Utah, sometime between 1965 and 1970.

The members of the Vernal Council agreed. They briefly looked at other ways to raise the money — including selling NFTs, or Internet tokens, which would be a really modern concept to save a prehistoric figure.

Instead, though, they moved forward with allocating $10,000 toward the cost and asked residents who wanted to preserve the statue to donate the rest.

“This way, their voices, all their voices matter,” said Dave Everett, a thickly mustachioed council member during a May 18 meeting.

And so that is how the locals here banded together to ultimately save Rex.

Fundraising to save a dinosaur

Darlene Burns, chair of the Charitable Friends of Ashley Valley, agreed to help organize a GoFundMe page. The group has previously sponsored the Vernal Theatre: LIVE and fixing up the Dino Trails in the area.

“We hated to see the statue go into disrepair,” said Burns, who was born and raised in Vernal, and is now 73 years old. She notes with a smile that means she was here before Rex.

In 19 days in May, the effort raised even more than needed for the repairs. More than $17,000 came in to the online GoFundMe site, including many residents putting in $5 and $10 to the cause after selling items or searching couches for change. Plenty came from tourists, too, who’d previously visited. One wrote: “Dinoland just wouldn’t be the same without him.”

Locals also gave $3,500 directly to the city. And an anonymous family in the town contributed the final $10,000. Together, they collected more than $31,000.

“We did it,” said Quinn Bennion, Vernal’s city manager, who gave the first donation. “We’re keeping him. It’s just really remarkable.”

Bennion sees it as a strong vote that the majority of locals in the town want to hold onto the character of this place — even as it grows.

Now the town will put the project up for bid. The hope, Bennion said, is to have the statue looking new — and 150 million years old, of course — by the end of summer or early fall.

Some hope to use the extra money that was raised to bring back the holiday decoration displays on the dinosaur. Others want to fix up the landscape around him, maybe push him back away from the highway a bit for safety.

A few wonder if they could now afford additional dinosaurs. They love them, after all.

(City of Vernal) The iconic green Tyrannosaurus rex statue in Vernal, Utah, is seen in this image from the 1960s with the dinosaur looming over Helen Millecam. The statue has fallen into disrepair in 2022 and members of the community are fundraising to save it.

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