At a glance, tiny Penobsquis, NB looks like any other southern New Brunswick village: corn fields and pastures. Woods. A couple houses and fading motels. More woods. The rectangular columns of the potash mines. Yawn.
But if you find yourself Sunday-driving down more scenic old Route 114, you'll notice something bizarre along what was once the Trans-CanadaHighway: a freaky figure that will sear itself into your nightmares for eternity.
This stark statue of an emaciated racehorse is the sole reminder of Animaland that's visible from the road. The effigy of Blow Hard the Race Horse lured tourists to the now-defunct theme park from the early 1960s until the sweet retro sign was finally taken down in the mid-1990s.
Animaland billed itself as a "sculptured zoo" of giant, cement animals - a rinky-dink Maritime roadside attraction much like Mystery Crater, Dinosaur Land, or present-day Magnetic Hill and Mastodon Ridge.
Animaland's impressive brutalist concrete menagerie remains, albeit abandoned for over two decades. A lobster with jagged wire antennae, climbable claws, and a rough concrete slide down the tail. A mouldering yellow giraffe arching its 10-foot neck, staring impassively. Further into the park on an overgrown trail, two 8-foot fighting black bears look are so realistic that my friend totally panicked, seeing them through the fog. A massive albino moose peeks over a sea of cat-tails. The sculptures' once-friendly faces are peeling off in huge flakes. Mould and moss have clouded their wide, cartoon eyes. The quaint, log-cabin-style out-buildings are shuttered and collapsing, and spooky urban legends abound about the place. The overall vibe is, to put it mildly, incredibly fucking eerie.
It's a playground that could've only been conceived in a simpler time, when parents were totally cool with letting kids climb precarious 15-foot-high sculptures made of concrete.
Animaland was the brainchild of serial-entrepreneur-turned-sculptor Winston Bronnum.
Winston was the sort of kid whose grandmother once had to stop him from trying to fly a homemade airplane off the chicken coop. As a young man, he left the family potato farm in New Denmark, NB to work in Ontario on bridges and hydro dams.
He came back to the Maritimes "after his marriage went south," according to his nephew, Wayne Nagy, 62.
"Working for him was like working for Burt Bacharach. He had unique sense of humour—great personality and very disciplined."
Enterprising and energetic, Bronnum found it impossible to sit still. By his nephew's account, he'd stay up all night carving wooden animals in his studio. Carving, working, drinking, and playing his fiddle consumed most of Winston's time until a catastrophic fire ripped through his wood shop, destroying all of his tools and supplies.
Bronnum took the only logical step: he started using the skills he'd observed as a tradesman to build giant, concrete animals. In this unexpected artistic niche he found his obsession for the next 30 years.
The idea of charging admission to see the animals was pure opportunism. In Ye Olde Tymes before iPads and Netflix in the backseat, parents needed a place to stretch their legs and temporarily silence Junior's screaming on long car trips. And like a scaled-down Penobsquis version of Walt Disney or P.T. Barnum before him, Bronnum wrung the tourist trade for as much as it was worth.
"He charged tourists at the gate to watch him work in the studio, and salespersons had to tape a dollar bill up on his office cabin wall before he'd negotiate deals," recalls his nephew, William Nagy.
"He was a little cranky," says Patty Ackerman, who's been working at the nearby restaurant since 1975. When he wasn't attending to visitors, Bronnum would hang out in the old-timey lounge and drink Aquavit with Patty's father, Bill MacIntyre.
But Bronnum's real devotion was to the park. He was always looking for new ways to expand: printing postcards and souvenirs. Rigging up the whales so that they spouted water from their blowholes. Installing a pool. Experimenting with new sculptures. Keeping live deer, rabbits, chickens, and, at one point, a lobster tank.
Constant, minor innovations and the flow of tourists en route to Fundy National Park allowed Animaland to turn a slim profit through the 1970s. But as years passed, Bronnum found it increasingly difficult to keep out vandals. Nagy says Bronnum was tormented by hoodlums stealing from the canteen, clogging the toilets, deer-jacking, and trashing the place. Eventually, he resorted to sleeping at Animaland while his wife and kids stayed at home.
"Break-and-enters were Winston's low mood points," says Nagy.*
Visiting Animaland now requires roughly zero break-and-entering skills. It's easily accessible from the shoulder of Route 114. Bizarrely, the workshop, too, remains intact, in a creaky storage barn filled with miscellaneous hoarded junk.
Old mattresses, fake flowers, golf carts, a corroded stretch limousine straight out of Silence of the Lambs. A wall-sized, airbrushed mural of the Shediac Lobster, Bronnum's magnum opus completed just a few months before he died. Hand-pencilled plans and diagrams, tools, and bags of cement mix rest alongside the workbench. Tendrils of vines are infiltrating the shed underneath the doors, and a thin layer of white dust coats every surface.
Bronnum passed away in 1991, before the twinning of the Trans-Canada Highway sounded the death knell for many of Penobsquis's small businesses, including Animaland.
He remained preoccupied with his art until the end of his life. "A week before he passed away," in 1991, recalls Nagy, "he asked the nurse if he could use his wood-carving chisel to cut his toenails."
While it's sad to contemplate the failure of Bronnum's ahem, massive artistic undertaking, his legendary status within the genre of Atlantic Canadian Giant Animal Art survives beyond Animaland.
Tourists still stop and snap selfies with Bronnum's creations at various tourist spots across Canada, including the World's Largest Lobster in Shediac, NB, Jumbo the Elephant in Saint Thomas, Ont., and this moose (featured memorably in the Trailer Park Boys episode "Gimme My Fuckin' Money or Randy's Dead") in Cow Bay, NS.
And there's another way to look at the decline of the roadside attraction. Even though Animaland is now more an offbeat explorer's gem than a family destination, it's still an object of curiosity for local dog-walkers, observant drivers intrigued by the statue of Blow-Hard, and bored local teens.
Through the windows at the Timberland, Patty Ackerman says they see people going in "all the time." And so, in a way, Animaland lives on, a decrepit memorial to 1960s kitsch—and Winston Bronnum's strange, cemented vision.
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Disclaimer: Animaland isn't safe, kids, and if people feel the need to explore there they should be respectful and leave things where they found them.