Sleeping with T-rex

News Photo by Crystal Nelson Gary Stephan, who owns Dinosaur Gardens with his wife, Connie, shows the cedar planks he will use to construct treehouses in the park during the off season. Twelve treehouses are planned to be constructed in the park over the next two years, with the first treehouses slated to open next summer.

OSSINEKE — It was during an episode of “Treehouse Masters” that Dinosaur Gardens owner Gary Stephan thought treehouses would be a good fit for the dinosaur park.

Stephan, who purchased the property six years ago with his wife, Connie, had been looking to add another element to the park that would create a quality experience for families. Thus the idea for the park’s treehouse village was born.

“I’m really trying to create a place where families can go and spend quality time together and have it be one of the most memorable things they did when they were growing up,” he said.

Stephan plans to add 12 overnight-rentable treehouses to the park over the next two years — with the first of the treehouses slated to open next summer. Each treehouse will be themed after one of the park’s dinosaurs and include pictures, statistics and information about that dinosaur.

He said about eight treehouses will be elevated between eight to 10 feet off of the ground in a five-acre portion of the cedar forest and about four of the treehouses will be constructed on the ground for visitors who are not able to climb up to them.

Stephan estimates about 15,000 people visit the park between Memorial Day and Labor Day each year. He said the park gets a lot of repeat visitors from generations ago and they’ll share pictures of themselves in the park with Stephan and park staff.

Dinosaur Gardens Tour Guide Shell Hoffman has worked at the park for the past three seasons and believes the treehouses will create an “over the top” experience for the park’s visitors. She’s “very excited” about the addition and said the Stephans have worked very hard to make Dinosaur Gardens a family-friendly destination.

“If (families) stay in the treehouses, they have access to the park, the putt-putt golf, the fossil dig and the mining sluice, so there’s a lot of really great things for families to do here,” she said.

In order to learn how to construct the treehouses and how a treehouse resort operates, Stephan traveled to the Seattle area to meet with the staff who operate Pete Nelson’s treehouse village. Pete Nelson is a master treehouse builder and host of the Animal Planet TV show “Treehouse Masters.” Nelson has constructed more than 350 treehouses around the world.

Stephan was able to meet with the resort’s property manager and learn how to make reservations, how to check people in and out of the treehouses and how the rangers handle the park at night. While Stephan explored the possibility of having Nelson construct the treehouses and being on the treehouse master’s show, he said that ultimately did not fit within his project’s budget.

“We are getting all of the equipment to put the treehouses in the trees from him — all of the engineered pegs that you screw into the trees to hold the beams and all of the sliding systems they have for letting the trees sway and not have the treehouse get broke down — we’re getting all the hardware to put the treehouses up from Pete Nelson’s construction company,” Stephan said.

The Stephans will fund the construction themselves and will build the treehouses as they can afford to. Stephan estimates each treehouse will cost between $10,000 and $12,000 and construction will begin during the park’s off-season.

The gravel parking lot, located south of Dinosaur Gardens, was the first part of the project to be completed. This fall, Stephan, along with a construction crew comprised mostly of family, will install a central location on the ground for the bathroom and showers.

They will also prefabricate the treehouses in the heated shop on the park property, so all of the walls will be ready to install into the trees. Stephan hopes to have the first round of treehouses ready to rent between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July of next year.

“It could be six units, it could be four units or five units — it’s how many I get up there in the spring,” he said.

The project will also include the demolition of the white house directly to the south of the property, located at 1168 U.S.-23 S., to make way for a pavilion. A swimming pool is also planned as part of the project but will be the last part completed — about two or three years from now.

Sanborn Township Supervisor Ken Gauthier said treehouses seem to be “a big thing” on the other side of the country and expects they will go over well in Ossineke. Gauthier said the addition of treehouses would allow more people to stay overnight in the village and support the area’s restaurants and gas stations.

Gauthier said the project has helped to clean up the area and rejuvenate the park. He has known the Stephans for many years and hopes they get a good return on their investment.

“Hopefully it will work out well,” he said. “I think it will.”

Dinosaur Gardens is home to over 25 life-sized dinosaur sculptures created by the late Paul Domke, including an 85-foot-long brontosaurus, a tyrannosaurus, stegosaurus and triceratops. Domke spent 40 years of his life creating the sculptures out of concrete, according to Stephan, and was 81 years old when he built his last dinosaur.

Dinosaur Gardens is located at 11160 U.S.-23 S. and is currently open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 14. The park closes for the season on Oct. 15 and will reopen for the 2019 season on Memorial Day weekend.

More information on the park can be found online at dinosaurgardensllc.com or by calling 989-471-5477.