DICKINSON, N.D. Larry and Alice League are the founders, curators, cashiers and janitors of a bare-bones operation.
The Dakota Dinosaur Museum is their labor of love, an exhibit that features 11 full-scale dinosaurs, including a 25-foot triceratops skeleton and a 6-foot triceratops skull, both of which are real, not casts or sculptures.
Existing mostly on entrance fees and souvenir sales, the husband and wife team has weathered tough times to keep their lives on display for the private, nonprofit corporation.
''It takes a lot of sacrifice to make a museum,'' Larry League said.
''We just keep cutting until the budget balances,'' Alice League said.
The shock of the terrorist attacks of 2001 and a sluggish economy have taken its toll on tourism, but especially small museums, Larry League said. To make matters worse, many schools have managed tight budgets by cutting field trips, hurting late spring and early fall attendance.
But as the summer season opens, there are signs of life. Attendance for the Memorial Day weekend was up 33 percent from a year ago, League said.
''Of course last year was so bad,'' he said. ''But we really don't look too seriously at attendance until the end of the summer.''
Mark Edevold of Bagley, Minn., has driven by the museum on a handful of occasions, intrigued by the signs on Interstate 94. He finally stopped in last week while returning from a vacation in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Edevold spent nearly two hours in the museum, making two trips around the exhibits.
''This museum is a real bargain, considering all the places I've been ripped off at.'' The cost of admission is $6. John James travels here from Seattle several times a year to do business, and rarely does he leave town without stopping at the museum. Last week he bought $200 worth of rocks and fossils from the gift shop, which accounts for 40 percent of museum revenues.
''My desk at home has all kinds of things from this museum,'' James said. ''I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I first came here, but it was a pleasant surprise.''
His favorite exhibit?
''Everybody likes T-rex,'' James said.
''And here you can touch it,'' he said, referring to a Tyrannosaurus rex bone at the entrance to the exhibit hall.
The museum also includes several cases of rocks, minerals and fossils, including a fluorescent mineral display that is popular among student groups, Alice League said. There are more than 12,000 items in the museum, she said.
''It's like you're walking back into a different world,'' said Amy Braun, spokesperson for the Dickinson Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Mayor Dennis Johnson said he sees something new with every trip to the museum.
''I know attendance has diminished since it first opened,'' Johnson said. ''But that's pretty typical of museums, depending on what's happening in the world.
''I think it adds to the community in an economic sense and a cultural sense,'' he said. ''It's an all-around good deal to have here.''
League, a former professor of geography and geology at Dickinson State University, started dinosaur hunting in 1984. The idea for the museum originated in 1987, when the collection had reached about 10,000 items, he said.
It took seven years to become reality. Funding for the building was secured from the city's hospitality tax revenues. Local businesses and individuals also contributed about $275,000 in cash and donated supplies and services. The museum opened in May 1994.
''The nice thing about this museum is that the person who collected all the bones and helped build the museum is there every day,'' Braun said. ''He can tell the story with almost every exhibit. It's his passion.''
League has been asked by some customers, mostly kids, to autograph postcards.
''I think some of them are excited to meet a dinosaur hunter,'' he said, smiling.
INFORMATION: Write the Dakota Dinosaur museum, 200 Museum Drive, Dickinson, ND 58601; call (701) 225-DINO; visit www.dakotadino.com/.
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