By Dan Nienaber
---- — GOOD THUNDER — Margie Pasbrig doesn't do much explaining when she decides to bring her friends and family out to Arnie Lillo's place for the first time.
It would take hours to describe all of the metal silhouettes and gadgets that have made the transformation from a wandering blip of an idea in Lillo's mind to the overwhelming scenes that decorate his 13-acre spread between Mankato and Good Thunder. So Pasbrig chooses to let visitors see for themselves.
"I don't tell them anything about it," she said. "I just tell them I'm taking them on a surprise trip and they sure are surprised when they get there."
Lillo's most known accomplishment is the series of silhouettes that tell the story of the James-Younger Gang's famous trip to Minnesota: The foiled bank robbery in Northfield, their escape and the capture of the Younger brothers outside Madelia. It's a park by itself, but it's only a fraction of all there is to take in at Lillo's place.
There's the gigantic eagles' nest that towers above a series of silhouettes with a Native American theme behind his shop. Out front is his first project, a huge weather vane he built in 1996. A metal playground is highlighted by a 12-foot-tall elephant full of holes that make climbing easy for kids. A metal palm tree and umbrella surrounded by sand are the start of what will someday be a beach side tiki bar for adults.
Lillo admits he can get sidetracked by unexpected projects that pop up during his 12-hour days in the metal shop.
"There are times I go to the shop and I've got my day all planned," Lillo said. "By the time I get going everything changes.
"My ideas just evolve. I go from one thing to another. Whatever I'm most interested in, that's what gets done first."
His latest derailment sent him in a somewhat new direction. After he and friend/helper Larry Craig finished a horseless carriage project, Craig suggested the idea of building a replica of Cinderella's pumpkin shaped-carriage.
"You can buy one of these things for $20,000, then there's $350 shipping and $150 for packaging," Craig said. "Then you have to buy the horses.
"So we decided to make a horseless version on our own."
The white carriage is powered by an 11 horsepower Honda engine that's hidden by the shiny silver driver's seat. That seat is propped above the front two wheels and flanked by handles on the right and left that the driver uses to steer the hydrostatic drive system. The wooden wheels, 36" tall in the front and 42" tall in the back, were built by an Amish business in Pennsylvania.
"I told them the sizes and they said, 'We'll start on it tomorrow,'" Lillo said.
Colorful LED lights will eventually decorate the top and bottom of the passenger area, adding an extra flair to rides after dark. Lillo hopes the machine will be popular for parades, weddings and birthday parties.
"It's basically for anything that's for a little girl . . . or a big girl," Lillo said.
Pasbrig would qualify as a big girl. On the back side of her 80s, she gushed as she described the first time she saw the ball-shaped buggy. She was out at Lillo's this winter, bringing him a quick fix-it project. He brought her in to see what he was working on.
"I came in his shop and just held my breath," she said. "He had it all together. It wasn't finished yet, but it was beautiful."
Lillo's current project, if he doesn't get sidetracked, is bringing him back to his Jesse James Theme Park. It's a large steel locomotive that he plans to place on a train trestle that spans across a ravine next to the park. He plans to add silhouettes under the bridge depicting the camp, located at what is now Minneopa State Park, where the James and Younger brothers decided to split up.
When that's done, he will build one more silhouette showing the legendary 18-foot "Outlaw leap" Jesse James allegedly made with his horse while escaping a posse in eastern South Dakota. Many historians don't believe it would have been possible for a horse and rider to get across what is now the highlight of Devil's Gulch Park. But it's still part of the James-Younger story that has grabbed Lillo's interest, despite the sidetracks, for decades.
"That should pretty much round out the story and the park," Lillo said.
For those who know Lillo, that statement might sway a skeptic's scale at least as much as the tale of Jesse's jump.