Excerpt from "The Bulls of Durham" living history book by Sheila Amir.
At Northgate Park located on Lavender Street, there’s a rock foundation and chimney. There is no signage posted explaining it, plus no safety fencing around the structural remains. It comes across as a bit eerie, even more so because no one visiting the park is phased by it. Fret not, there’s actually a delightful story behind this, and a dinosaur gets involved. It’s all very Durham.
The remnants are of a special house built sometime in the 1930s when making foundations and chimneys out of rocks must have been all the rage. The surrounding Northgate Park was also established in the 1930s. In 1946, the house was the very first home of The Museum of Life and Science. Today, the Museum of Life and Science sits northwest of its origins in an expansive 84 acres of scientific wonder featuring everything from real life bulls, bears, and butterflies to dinosaurs that are rumored to come alive at night.
The Museum of Life and Science, like nearly everything else in Durham, came from humble beginnings. The museum opened in the small house on Lavender Street and was called the Children’s Museum. It was the first “trailside” nature center in North Carolina. From there the museum expanded with exhibits on minerals and fossils. And, because Durham, it was only a matter of time before a space exhibit became the next logical step. A volunteer kindly rented a truck and transported the famed Mercury Redstone rocket all the way from Alabama. The rocket still stands tall outside of the current museum location on Murray street.
The small house at 404 Lavender Street may have literally had a rock-hard, solid foundation, but unfortunately, it was built in the Ellerbe Creek floodplain. After over 8 decades of intermittent flooding, maintaining the structure became a wash. The City of Durham, who had ownership of the building, was unable to even use it for storage because of water, mold, and mildew damage. Nostalgia is no match for black mold. In 2014 the house was torn down leaving the foundation to house the very flora and fauna that gave the museum its roots. Pun intended.
Follow the Ellerbe path alongside the Ellerbe creek towards the current home of the Museum of Life and Science, and there is another ‘Only in Durham’ relic that is beloved beyond belief. A giant, 77 foot-long, fiberglass brontosaurus. Meet Bronto. According to The Museum of Life and Sciences records, Bronto was built in 1967 and was part of a Prehistoric Trail exhibit. He was painstakingly custom built with a wooden frame and fiberglass body. Bronto is 77 feet long, a full 5 feet longer than experts state real-life brontosauruses were. Chalk it up to Durham’s longstanding history of going above and beyond.
At the time of his construction, Bronto was thought to be the largest dinosaur replica in existence. The exhibit took a total of 4 years to build and included several dinosaurs, some cave people, and luscious North Carolina foliage giving the feeling of being transported to the Mesozoic Era. The exhibit was all the rage from the day it opened in 1967 clear through to the early 90s. But, just like the humble house on Lavender Street, the Prehistoric Trail exhibit was also in a floodplain. Years of floods took their toll on the exhibit and then in 1996 Hurricane Fran wiped out Durham’s dinosaurs near the brink of extinction, leaving only Bronto in her wake. Perhaps he was spared because brontosaurus means Thunder Lizard and so the storm found a kindred spirit in Bronto.
Bronto withstood time, floods, ice storms, and hurricanes only to be abruptly decapitated in a senior prank gone wrong in June 2009. This sparked public outrage akin to losing a human member of the community. His head and neck were hacked off with an ax early one Monday morning. Pieces of his neck were found near his body.
By Wednesday the community put down their metaphorical pitchforks when the head was located in northern Durham county on Preston Andrews Road. It was surprisingly undamaged for a hacked 42-year-old fiberglass dino head. News of Bronto’s stolen head reached all the way to the Smithsonian who ran an article on Smithosian.com titled, “Dinosaur Decapitation in Durham.” The article reported a Durhamite named Mark Shiflett had offered a $100 reward out of his own pocket. The community love for Bronto was and still remains no small thing.
This is where the story takes a very Durham twist.
The head was found, and so were the pranksters. Names were never revealed, and charges were never pressed. The Durham community, especially the Northgate community who viewed Bronto as a living, breathing neighbor, were outraged at the Museum’s decision not to press charges. Because the Museum owned Bronto and the property surrounded the long-necked celeb, it was entirely up to them how they wanted to handle the situation.
The pranksters spent their senior summer being schooled instead of in court hearings. The Museum and Life and Sciences chose to have the culprits spend their summer volunteering at the museum as general laborers while their peers embarked on their first summer as freshly graduated adults. In the end, the publicity of the dino decapitation helped raise much-needed funds to restore Bronto and the area surrounding him. The Thunder Lizard stands fortified by sturdy repairs, community love, and even validation from the scientific community that brontosauruses were, in fact, real, something Durham has always known.
Special thanks to Ro Rodes of the Museum of Life and Sciences for providing photos, history and a special tour to get to know Bronto. She's truly a Bull City gem.
Discover more Bull City Gems in "The Bulls of Durham" living history book!
The Bulls of Durham 1st Edition *Special Reserve
$50.00 - $60.00
Signed, first print copy of "The Bulls of Durham" living history book. Projected book launch is April 10th, 2019, Durham's 150th Anniversary. This purchase includes your book and support for the project.
"The Bulls of Durham" living history book blends Durham's rich history with stories and perspectives of our city's greats that are continuing to build upon that history. And in this way, this is the story of Durham, North Carolina through the bulls' eyes.
Learn how a city that literally started from a tobacco seed in the ashes of the Civil War grew into the best city on earth. Discover how a stolen bull brought about a history shifting, global tobacco empire; and how 150 years later that relates to a British mustard company having beef with Sheila. #NotSorry
Find out the backstory to how the now hippest, foodiest, tech-hub of the South also gave rise to the bullpen, billboards, branding and baseball cards. Delve into our city's strong Black history that proves "Do It Like Durham" isn't a passing trend and will give you a profound sense of reverence walking down Parrish Street.
Best of all, see the common thread that runs through the stories of teachers, politicians, business owners, hip-hop artists, painters, activists, historians, architects and the real Bull City OG's. Hint: it's the BULLief that in Durham anything is possiBULL.
Welcome to Durham the incrediBULL place where grit meets grace. Here all you have to have is a dream and faith the size of a tobacco seed, because well, tobacco seeds build global empires, not mustard seeds.
Project book launch date: April 10, 2019 - Durham's EXACT150th Anniversary.
Cover Art by DeCario Allen.
"Welcome to the Bull City" Book
"Welcome to the Bull City" coffee table book is a taste of what's to come in "The Bulls of Durham" living history book.
This 6"x6", 140 page book he answers of nearly 100 of "The Bulls of Durham" interviews to one Major question: "Someone comes to visit you whose never been to Durham before. What is the FIRST thing you want them to know about the Bull City?"
This book is an absolute must for every home and office in the Bull City!
***For bulk orders of 12+ please contact Sheila Amir at Info@TheBullsOfDurham.com.***
Bull Love Mug
11 ounce coffee mug featuring "Someone in Durham Loves Me" design complete with a love bull. Makes for an incrediBULL gift to someone you love, including yourself.
*For bulk orders of 12+ email Sheila at TheBullsOfDurham@gmail.com for bulk rate discount pricing.