By Jamie Davis
Natural Bridge, the town named for the natural wonder of its 215-foot limestone arch, today is the home of a lot of unnatural wonders too. Some say that the fiberglass monsters, dinosaurs, body parts and imitation monuments of Mark Cline are the most outrageous examples of this strange outcropping of the artificial.
But more unnatural than any of this was the fire that destroyed his one-of-a-kind Enchanted Castle Museum one April night 11 years ago. Then, on a night in April 2012, his Haunted Monster Museum in Natural Bridge also burned down, another unsolved case of arson.
Cline, a 51-year-old artist who looks like David Carradine playing a karate cowboy, has made his living in a most peculiar way, capitalizing on America’s nostalgia for the roadside attraction. Working with fiberglass to create monsters, mascots, park signs and more, Cline has clients all over the country. His most recent creation, “Lady in the Lake,” is a giant female figure with bare knees and head showing above the water’s surface at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala. He prefers, however, to work in his home state. Every year he celebrates April Fool’s Day with an elaborate joke somewhere in Virginia. In 2003, Cline scattered 16 life-sized dinosaurs through the town of Glasgow. A fiberglass Raquel Welch still rides a brontosaurus next to a gas station there.
Originally from Waynesboro, he has lived in Natural Bridge with his wife and two daughters since 1982, when he opened the first museum. But Natural Bridge wasn’t his original destination. “You just don’t open up a monster museum anywhere,” he says.
He dreamed up the idea of what would become Professor Cline’s Haunted Monster Museum in his early 20s when he was living in Virginia Beach, and had planned to open it there. After failing in Virginia Beach, Cline spent his last $5 on a palm reading. Inspired by the palm reader’s advice to strive for his dreams and never give up, Cline took a chance on the unincorporated town of Natural Bridge nestled at the junction of U.S. 11 and State Route 130.
Since then, Cline has expanded his attractions throughout the area. The Natural Bridge rock formation, a historical landmark, is a 20-story arch carved into limestone by Cedar Creek. At one time, it fascinated George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and became a ritzy tourist destination. In an era of cheap entertainment, the Natural Bridge itself can’t stand up against rollercoaster parks and Disney World, Cline lamented. “There’s not much you can do to enhance [it]…But you can build these other things around it to compete [in] today’s market.”
Today, the town of Natural Bridge is better known for its array of kitschy tourist traps – Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park campgrounds, a wax museum, a drive-thru safari park and such. Cline’s attractions stand out in this landscape, with his quirky imagination that runs from the whimsical to the nightmarish. “Anything I can draw, I can build.”
Foamhenge, a full-sized foam replica of Stonehenge left over from a 2004 April Fool’s joke, is visible from the highway. Dinosaur Kingdom, a museum of fantastical statues where Yankee troops fight dinosaurs, is another one of Cline’s creations. Damage from the most recent fire, on the night of April 16, forced Cline to close both Dinosaur Kingdom and Professor Cline’s Monster Museum for the remainder of 2012.
No charges were filed after the first fire in 2001, but Cline thinks he knows enough about who did it. “There were notes left in my mailbox saying I was doing work of the devil and [that] I needed to be destroyed by fire.”
With visitors to his studio bearing gruesome tattoos and body piercings, it’s no wonder some Natural Bridge residents suspect Cline’s magic shows and the Ghost Tours he conducts in Lexington of being pagan, or worse. This is rural Virginia, after all.
At a recent monster-making workshop, one woman with horn implants flanking a tattoo of an open wound on her forehead said she would love to decorate her home with some of Cline’s creations – specifically, a string of bloodied body-part props stored hanging in his warehouse.
Although his groupies might scare off a typical Virginian living in the Bible Belt, Cline is a welcoming face and has a philosophy on life one wouldn’t expect from a man who calls religion one of the most dangerous things created by man.
“We are here on this planet,” he says, “to help other people and inspire them.” Cline participates in Lexington’s Christmas parade every year – the red and green throne and great red sleigh stored in his warehouse stand out among mummies and other monster props. He also frequents local nursing homes in costume. “[I] play Elvis – they love Elvis.”
Cline’s efforts to spread his imagination and “inspire” Natural Bridge is not welcomed by everyone – as evidenced by having his business torched twice. But he isn’t discouraged. Just a month after the most recent fire, Cline was making jokes about his bad luck. “P.T. Barnum had three fires,” he said. “I’m only one behind him.”
Facing the challenge of reinventing himself again, the words of the palm reader more than 30 years ago still apply. Cline is positive going forward, and surprisingly free of grudges. He is toying with plans for an “Escape from the Titanic” attraction and a school in Natural Bridge that would teach future Mark Clines all over America what he has taught himself about sculpting in fiberglass.
“Life is an unpainted canvas,” he said. “Let’s all try to paint it beautiful.”