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In Wyoming, 'Dinosaur Man' Mike Dawson Keeps His Own Museum Going

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TREX
Mike Dawson, seen through the jaw of his favorite dinosaur in his T-Rex Natural History Museum. |
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RANCHESTER, Wyo. -- Mike Dawson's mother had no idea what she was starting.

The year was 1958 and her six-year-old son was having his tonsils removed, so she got him two gifts: A bag of toy dinosaurs and a book about the animals, the price and full name of which he still remembers.

That's not all Dawson can tell you about dinosaurs these days; he's spent the last 53 years reading up on them and studying all he can, from the hunting habits of the Allosaurus to the walking patterns of the Tyrannosaurus Rex and the anatomy of the Velociraptor. And now he's opened a museum here in this small town of about 850 people, where he shares what he's learned with anyone who will listen.

This is not a museum like most others -- it's not even really a museum in the traditional sense. Housed in a small building on the side of the road, a sign on the front door says to knock on another door if the self-proclaimed "Dinosaur Man" isn't there. That second door leads to Dawson's apartment, in an almost identical single-story metal house.

On Wednesday, there was no need to knock, and there were no other patrons; Dawson, 59 with a scruffy face, came out of his house on his own, dressed in black jeans and a black t-shirt that was turned a lighter color from the layer of Golden Retriever hair. Inside what he calls the "T-Rex Natural History Museum," he pointed to a life-sized, cast skull of the female Tyrannosaurus Rex known as Sue. Next to that is a cast of a Triceratops skull known around the museum as "Mikey," after Dawson.

It took three months and $70,000 to build the single-story museum back in 1998. Now he spends about $16,800 each year to keep it open, losing roughly $3,000 of that annually. Much of the money goes to keep fluorescent lights on above the displays; at least Dawson, who is married to a cook at a local restaurant and has grown children, doesn't have to pay for guards or fancy brochures.

But business is particularly bad right now -- he expects just two to three hundred individuals and families will visit this year, though many will spend more than the $2 per person admission fee at his gift shop. Almost all his visitors are from outside of this small town, which has just one main road and a single grocery store. He does a small business charging people to use the bathroom at the museum, and insists that "you wouldn't try to use a movie theater's bathroom for free."

Dawson retired after 26 years as a maintenance worker for the National Park Service, and what keeps him going day after day -- the museum is open seven days a week -- is his belief in "just how awesome the T-Rex is."

"If I can get a chance to educate people, to share this passion I have with them," he said, staring at Sue the T-Rex as he spoke, "then it's worth it, even if I wish there were more visitors."

Those who do make it to Ranchester have the chance to see more than just dinosaur fossil dioramas and Dawson's own collection of minerals and crystals. There's a model of an F-86 fighter jet that sits next to a scale dinosaur skeleton, and, in the garage, a 1970 blue Dodge Superbee that Dawson likes to show off.

That's what makes Peter Larson, a renowned paleontologist at the Black Hills Institute and a friend of Dawson's, eager to visit the museum again.

"You get to learn about the biggest, baddest monster that ever lived," Larson said. "And also about a nice, great human who's...well, not like some other people I know."

This post is part of Patch: The Road Trip. Read Arianna Huffington's introduction to the project, and be sure to follow Paul on Twitter and MapQuest.

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