Dinosaurs lurk in Montville couple's backyard

Montville — Drive north on Route 32. Pass the St. Bernard School, the Pearl Market and Arooga's restaurant. Stop at the stoplight, then drive slowly and look to the left.

There's a Tyrannosaurus rex there.

Rex is the biggest in a collection of about 40 dinosaurs that Jeff Wells has been building in his back yard since 1981.

Wells, an artist and recently retired designer at Electric Boat, pointed last week to a 5-foot-long figure painted with red and yellow stripes lying in the mud, where water sometimes runs down through his yard from a reservoir just west of the property.

It looks like a dinosaur, but years of exposure to water, mud and snow have left it pretty rough around the edges.

Wells said he can do better.

"I keep it here only as a benchmark to illustrate how bad I was," he said.

The dino was one of the first ones Wells built, when he first decided to fill his yard with prehistoric creatures in 1981.

The woods behind the house where Wells and his wife, Leslie, have raised their two kids since 1980, are now full of stegosauri, protoceratops and other hard-to-pronounce creatures.

Some of them hang from trees, some blend into the leaves. Some, like the T. Rex, look like they could eat you up at any moment.

Others look as if they could be picked up with one hand.

And they're all free to look at, as long as you knock on the door and let the Wellses know you're there.

The life-size T. Rex standing right behind him is proof of how far he's come, Wells said.

"It’s an easy thing to draw one of these things on a piece of paper," he said, running his hands over the olive green fiberglass that covers the dinosaur's steel frame.

But building it, and keeping it upright, is another thing.

That's where the submarines come in.

Decades ago, Wells had written part of a book about dinosaur parks across the United States, with pictures of other people's creations and text describing each one.

But then his publisher went out of business, and Wells realized he would rather make dinosaurs than write about them.

It was before the "Jurassic Park" movies came out, when Wells said the "dino-mania" began in the United States.

But the wooden dinosaurs quickly attracted crowds of schoolchildren, and even earned him a letter of congratulations from former Montville Mayor Howard "Russ" Beetham.

And Wells wanted to get better, so he got a job at Electric Boat hoping he would learn to weld and craft big things out of metal.

He ended up spending 33 years with the company, the last 15 as a submarine designer.

"I learned my craft there," he said.

In Groton, Wells learned how to weld and bend fiberglass over his dinosaurs' frames to make pieces that could stay intact in his yard for years.

The T. Rex is enormous, narrow on both ends and wide in the middle.

"Kind of like a submarine," Wells said.

Wells built the dinosaurs while he was working full time and raising two children with Leslie, so each one took years to finish.

It has always been a hobby for him, although Montville zoning officials granted him a commercial zoning change last year, he said.

The dinosaurs have always been free to look at, Wells said. It's worth it to see parents bring their kids to run around among the prehistoric creatures and watch their excitement, he said.

"I want it to be free and accessible and fun," he said. "That's what it's always been about."

Wells retired in August, and said he's been using his free time to make even more dinosaurs.

Starting this month, he'll show five new dinosaurs, and a collection of old favorites, at the Sandywoods Farm arts center in Tiverton, R.I.

An unfinished triceratops head hanging outside the Wells' house will go along with them.

Wells said anyone who wants to see the full collection should wait to come by later in the summer, when the dinosaurs in the exhibit have been returned.

But the rest of the dinosaurs are there year-round, and Wells asks only that visitors knock on the door or call the house before taking a tour.

He knows that the dinosaurs won't last forever, even the ones made of steel and fiberglass.

They stay outdoors all year, and some show signs of damage from weather and overeager visitors. But Wells said that's what he likes about his dinosaurs.

"I like the naturalness of things," he said. "How they just weather away."

m.shanahan@theday.com

If You Go

What: Wells Dinosaur Haven

Where: 2464 Route 32, Uncasville

More information: (860) 848-0616

Admission: Free

 

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