Before There Was a Jurassic Park

Driving through the desert on Interstate 10 between Palm Springs and the Los Angeles megalopolis, you’ll be traveling through dinosaur country.

In 1958, after a career as a sculptor and portrait artist at Knott’s Berry Farm, Claude Bell moved to his 62 acres in Cabazon, a dot on the map adjacent to the new freeway. There he opened his Wheel Inn restaurant. To persuade motorists to exit the interstate, Bell began construction on “Dinny,” 45-foot high sprayed concrete on metal-frame, dinosaur. “The first dinosaur in history, so far as I know, to be used as a building,” he boasted. A second beast, a tyrannosaur named “Rex,” was erected a few years later.

The food and the giant sculptures gained Bell’s roadside dining spot a listing in Jane and Michael Stern’s Roadfood, an indispensable eating guide for intrepid travelers. The Wheel Inn and its creatures have been featured in music videos and most famously, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.

Claude Bell died in 1988, at the age of 91. His family sold the property a few years later to a development partnership. The new owners obtained approvals for “a children’s science and museum exhibit,” including restaurants, a museum, and gift shop, and a 60-room motel. The developers built dozens more prehistoric creatures and promote their “Cabazon Dinosaurs” attraction, but don’t mention that it is a “Young Earth Creationist” museum. “Dinny” now houses a gift shop selling creationist souvenirs.

More recently, Cabazon became the home of “Desert Hills Premium Outlets.” The restaurant closed in 2013.

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