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Country artist designs, builds unique metal pieces

When you step onto the yard of the Arnie Lillo farm for the first time it may be difficult to decide where to look first at the 155 pieces of uniquely crafted metal art creations stationed all over his spacious outdoor studio.

A wide variety of life-size subjects entertain visitors but if frontier history has a tendency to reincarnate itself, then it can be found here, too, front and center at a place located next to quiet woods several miles south of Mankato off Blue Earth County Road 16 near the town of Good Thunder.

Lillo, 76, a sheet metal artist craftsman, has constructed his vision of a one-of-a-kind Jesse James Theme Park on part of his 13-acre set-up. In all, a series of 35 metal silhouette sculptures stand to tell the story of what happened at the infamous bank robbery attempt in Northfield and the capture of the Younger brothers near Madelia in 1876.

Arnie started his project in 2004 with a cast of metal art objects that included outlaws, horsemen, horses, townspeople, buildings, bridges over ravines, sheriff posse members, a gunfight scene and a buckboard bringing the Younger prisoners back to justice. He completed the panorama for a grand opening by June 2005. Nearly every year since there’s been some sort of show presented for spectators.

Lillo’s even built the Jesse James House on his property. Inside he’s duplicated the authentic interior almost exactly right down to matching the design of the wallpaper from historical photographs. It features three silhouettes, with gang member Bob Ford shooting James in the back while standing on a chair to hang a picture frame on the wall.

He’s fabricated promotional metal cut outs for the city of Madelia, which stand along Highway 15 highlighting the Magnificent Seven posse members who captured the Younger brothers near the town.

“I never knew much about the event until I went there and listened to historian Rex McBeth narrate the whole story about the raid and capture,” he explained. “I knew then that I wanted to do something with it and started building the theme park.”

Although opening a full-time metal shop on the farm where he’s lived with his wife Janice for 45 years was always his dream, it had to wait another 15 years until he finished working for Mankato State University, where he maintained air conditioning and refrigeration units.

“It was a good place to work, but I was 57 years old, and there wasn’t enough time left in the day for me to do the kind of things I really wanted to create in my shop,” he noted.

It didn’t take long for a flood of project ideas to begin pouring through his head. He says he can wake up in the middle of the night with his mind racing about the next new thing he wants to make, which is why his bedside notepad and pencil comes in handy for him to sketch something down on paper.

Lillo knows he probably has the only yard in the area with so much metal standing in it, but he says it’s important for him to stay active. He can be found working in his shop most days from 9 a.m. – 9 p.m. “Sometimes I’m out there until midnight or 2 a.m. if I’m working on something interesting or have a deadline to meet,” he explained.

As Lillo’s metal art reputation grew he became involved with some high-profile restoration projects with two courthouses and the Hermann the German Monument in New Ulm.

When the 1998 tornado swept through St. Peter the storm tore the 29-foot-tall weathervane off the Nicollet County Courthouse. Lillo was able to replace it only by looking at a remaining piece of shaft, half the letter “N” which stood for “north” and three small photos.

He’s been to the top of the Martin County Courthouse in Fairmont, too, after officials asked him to restore a pair of 4-foot-tall and 7-foot wingspan copper-covered eagles. Four such eagles once perched on the roof, but two disappeared many years ago, and high winds ripped a third one off over 30 years ago and was stored in the building’s basement. He replaced it after pounding out the dents and fixing a broken wing. The fourth eagle still stood precariously alone on the roof until Lillo examined it, repaired some bullet holes and exchanged its rusting support pole for a stainless steel rod.

His creativity has earned him an invitation to the White House when a commemorative plaque he designed and crafted was chosen to be part of the 1999 exhibit focusing on national monuments.

“The City of New Ulm got a letter from President Clinton’s office, and I was contacted to design something for their Hermann the German Monument,” recalled Lillo. “After New Ulm approved it the plaque was sent to the White House to be included with all the other monument pieces submitted from around the country. I received an invitation from the Clintons to tour the White House and see where it was displayed.

“I recall seeing my plaque in one of the White House hallways. The Clintons weren’t there, but we met their great staff. My son Greg went along with me on the trip, and we had a good time. I’ll always be grateful for that as he passed away a few years ago,” Arnie stated.

Lillo wasn’t done with Hermann when he was asked to design a limited edition plaque as a fundraiser for New Ulm’s effort to restore the monument in 2004. Later he was hired by the city to do the inspection and appraisal work for the restoration bidding. Lillo said Hermann is the second-largest copper-covered statue ever made in the U.S., and when he was taken down, it was Arnie’s job to make a very detailed report. “I had to identify each panel in the statue and record if it had cracks or needed bullet holes fixed or graffiti removed so the city knew what it was going to take for competitive bid quotes.”

Lillo also crafted the intricate metal Heritage Tree for New Ulm, which stands along a downtown city sidewalk on South Minnesota Street. “I’m a self-taught metal artist,” he explained. “I had no training for this, and I can’t draw, but with my computer software, I can conceptualize what I want to do,” he said.

So, he keeps on creating. He’s donated the metal artwork of an ox and cart pulling a Native American family, which stands on display at the History Center Treaty Site in St. Peter.

Then there’s the five life-size sports figures, including one resembling Kirby Puckett that he placed at the Thunder Valley Park in Good Thunder along with an Indian brave on horseback for its new park dedication in 2006.

Arnie’s work is often in demand for shows or to be in parades. He built a portable jail cell, a Cinderella carriage and the world’s largest firing rifle. The white-colored pumpkin-shaped Cinderella carriage is self-propelled with a 11-horsepower engine and has a hydrostatic drive system.

The big gun, built in 2009, was modeled after his Winchester level action Model 94. He was mowing around all the lawn ornaments one day and noticed he is practically built everything, from a T-rex dinosaur to Hermann the German, all kinds of animals, insects, horses, Native Americans, cowboys, Elvis with his guitar, a Minnesota Viking emblem, townspeople, wagons and signs, along with many other subjects. That’s when he realized he needed a big rifle out there.

“So, I quit mowing, got my rifle, measured it up and drew it out on the computer,” said Arnie. “At first it was only going to be a silhouette cut out to stand up against a pole but then I thought since I already had the pipe I’d make a realistic gun, and I did that with the help of a friend. Now it’s permanently mounted on a trailer, and the 6-inch barrel tubing is 20 feet long, which launches a golf ball 300 yards,” he said.

One of his next projects includes completing a steel railroad trestle coffee table with a glass top on it. “It’s a heavy one. You won’t move that around very easily,” he joked. Also on his agenda is to make new metal brackets for the restoration of a direct drive 1897 Massey Harris wooden rim wheel bicycle owned by a collector.

Next he will be finishing the starship Enterprise from the Star Trek television show. “That’s a work in progress and when it’s done will be a parade vehicle with a motor inside of it and lights. It’s already booked for the Amboy parade next year,” he explained.

In addition, he wants to expand his backyard Native American Indian Village that currently has three warriors on horseback and a large triangular configuration of teepee poles with a nest of eagles perched on top.

Arnie Builds a Train

Two of the features in the Jesse James Theme Park are a walking bridge going over a ravine just like the one that went into Northfield and a railroad trestle that crossed the creek near Minneopa State Park, where the bandits were spotted while on the run from Northfield.

“If I had a railroad bridge then I needed a locomotive which became the focus for my next big thing to build, and it took six months to complete,” he said.

Working from a plastic model and scaling it up to size, Lillo constructed an Omaha One locomotive, a mail car and the tracks for them to stand on. Altogether, the three pieces weigh 11,000 pounds when he loads them onto a specially designed flatbed trailer to go to scheduled events.

Last summer, he was asked to bring his train and several hundred feet of track to the Nicollet County Fair for a re-enactment performance by the Elm Creek Cowboys acting troupe in front of the grandstand. The show depicted the July 1, 1892, train robbery by members of the Sontag-Evans Gang on the Omaha One as it headed south out of St. Peter on the way to Kasota.

Lillo recalled the rush to finish building the mail car the night before the performance at the fair. “We got it done by 9 p.m., loaded it up and had it set up and ready for the noon show the next day. It was close but that’s okay as I wanted my train to have as much detailed workmanship as possible,” he noted. Among the features Arnie added to the mail car that can catch the audience off guard is the mini explosion he’s rigged inside to mimic the robbers blowing the safe in a cloud of smoke.

Arnie the Inventor Back in the 1970s, Arnie’s mind was locked on inventions and he owned a couple of patents.

The first one, in 1973, was for his Cook and Ride oven that was strapped to a snowmobile muffler to cook a hamburger in 10 minutes while the snowmobiler rode along the trail. “It really worked well, and the people riding behind you would be licking their lips because it smelled so good,” Arnie recalled. But the snowmobiling industry was struggling at that time, and his invention went to the wayside.

In 1976, he patented his invention of a wood-burning furnace for mobile homes, complete with a gravity flow system that supplied the furnace with wood. It was installed on the exterior of the home to reduce fire hazards. However, he only sold about a dozen of the units before the idea went away due to lack of marketing and funding for a factory.

He believes his inspiration for the things he builds comes from a variety of sources, including his grandfather and father while growing up on a farm near Oklee, Minn. “My grandfather held a patent for a grain sacking machine, and dad was always making stuff for the farm and that impressed me,” Arnie said.

He enjoys his work and likes to stay busy. “It’s all a labor of love, and it’s a creative hobby I enjoy sharing with others,” he commented. “This year we had about 1,000 visitors, and I get a lot of satisfaction talking to all of them and meeting interesting people who appreciate my efforts.”

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