By Gerald E. McLeod
OCTOBER 20, 1997: The Port Aransas Zoo is not your ordinary zoo. The animals aren't in cages, but they're not free to roam either. The six animals in the zoo have their feet securely anchored in cement pads, and everyone is welcome to pet them and ride some of them.
In this zoo at the entrance to the Island RV Resort at Avenue G and Cut-off Road there is an elephant with big pink ears, a three-foot tall grasshopper with a saddle, a bucking bronco, a giraffe, a burro, and a tall pinto mare. All are constructed of solid cement and serve as playground equipment. Peter Helferich, owner of the RV park, calls it the "Port Aransas Zoo."
Earlier this year a couple of winter Texans, Hank and Phyllis Hampton of Nashville, Michigan, repaired and spruced up the 30-year-old animals. Once again the animals have become a tourist attraction in this island community.
The animals were built in the Sixties by the late Dusty Rhodes, says Gilbert Gibbs, owner of Gibbs Courts on Alister Street. Gibbs grew up a few blocks from Rhodes' house at Alister and Beach streets.
"His yard was an original jungle," Gibbs said of the Rhodes' place. Behind a privacy fence, the animals and his other art objects attracted tourists. He would charge 25cents to come into the yard and have your picture taken on the animals, Gibbs says. He also had a wishing well that cost a nickel.
At one time there were eight or nine of the animals, Gibbs says. He remembers a kangaroo and a couple of birds that didn't survive the weather and vandals. A lion built by Rhodes is in front of Charlie Brown's garage at Avenue B and 12th Street.
"Rhodes was a folk artist and didn't realize it," Brown says. Gibbs agrees. He said that Rhodes would carve figures from driftwood and things that he found at the city dump where he worked. If somebody stole or broke one of his works, he would just make another, Gibbs says.
"One time he told me: 'The missus wants me to build her a birdbath.' The next time I was over at his house he had built the birdbath and the birds," Gibbs says. When Dusty Rhodes died in the early Seventies, his wife Kate sold the animals to different people around town.
Helferich can't remember how he acquired the six concrete critters, but says he got them one at a time. The pinto horse was the first one, he thinks. He says he didn't pay for any of the animals. They were all donated to the zoo. The elephant he got in a trade-off with Brown.
"Another fella bought them [the elephant and the lion] from Mrs. Rhodes. When he passed on, the people that bought the property gave them to me if I'd move them," Brown said. Brown told Helferich that if he would help haul the lion to his house, then Helferich could have the elephant for his collection. "He helped me and I helped him," says Brown, a retired oil company employee.
Everyone in town who knew him remembers Dusty Rhodes as a unique character who made the fishing village interesting. "He was always coming up with a surprise," Gibbs says. Everyone remembers him as friendly and pleasant, and a great storyteller who was quick with a joke and not above a practical joke.
"He was kind of a farmer-type," Gibbs says. Rhodes wore overalls and always had on heavy boots. He was about six feet tall and "kind of portly." "After he built the animals, he was the cock of the town," Gibbs says with a laugh. Tourists and residents loved the animals and Dusty enjoyed the attention.
He used "bargain basement materials" for his art, so not much of it survives other than concrete animals. What is left of the Rhodes house is now occupied by an insurance company, but the old wishing well is still on the property. And of course, the Port Aransas Zoo was Dusty Rhodes' philanthropic gift to the town he loved.
Coming up this weekend...
NXT Fall Show surrounds the Medore von Koffler Glassblowing Studio northeast of Wimberley on FM3237 with 50 visual artists, culinary artists, and music, Oct. 17-19. 512/847-7002 or http://www.nxt.org.
Ottine Swamp Fest at Palmetto State Park centers around the 106-year-old post office with entertainment and food, 10am-5pm, Oct. 18. 830/672-3266.
Cowboy Jubilee brings cowboy poets, music, and the chuckwagon to Round Rock's Old Settlers Park, Oct. 17-19. 512/388-2183.
Ogletree Gap Folklife Festival in Copperas Cove combines history with Halloween and the fall harvest celebration, Oct. 18-19. 254/547-7571.
Heritage Antique Show in Georgetown at the community center in San Gabriel Park
Oktoberfest Bier Halle in Galveston celebrates the season with authentic German food and drink in a German dancing pavilion, Oct. 24. 409/765-7834.
Project Deep Clean invites divers to a coastal cleanup, Oct. 25. 512/881-1249 or http://www.glo.state.tx.us.
Central Texas Live Poets Society hosts readings and discussions at One World Coffee house in Temple every Wednesday evening. 254/773-9926 or http://www.io.com/~owen/ctlps/ctlps.htm.
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