LUSK – Todd Hoelmer’s spot on Main Street is not a visible one.
The white structure looks like an abandoned garage at first glance. Step inside, and it still looks that way, thanks to remnants of a 2015 flood Hoelmer said he is still dealing with.
Past empty rooms with concrete floors is The Skeleton Closet, as indicated by his business card. The work area, illuminated by dim lights and filled with fossils of early mammals and dinosaurs alike, is where he restores and preserves these ancient artifacts.
“It’s something I never imagined I’d end up doing,” Hoelmer said. “I had a childhood fascination with dinosaurs like everybody else has but the thought never crossed my mind. So when I got into it I just couldn’t tear myself away.”
His passion has brought him some national recognition. He was recently featured in Dino Hunters, a new reality show on The Discovery Channel. The series – set in Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas – features ranchers uncovering dinosaur bones on their land and selling them for big money.
In the first episode aired June 19, Hoelmer restored a fossil found on a northeastern Wyoming farm using a device called a micro abrasive sandblaster, one present in his space on Main Street as well.
“The value of a bone that’s been prepared is substantially larger than an unprepared bone,” he told cameras near the end of the episode. “Coming to a commercial prepper, we have the experience to streamline the process to the greatest degree possible.
“A lot of people don’t appreciate the grind that it takes to get a lot of this stuff looking good. It’s hard sitting in front of that sandblaster day after day and only making a few inches worth of progress on a particular bone. It’s personal at some point, you want to see it through.”
While he enjoyed his experience, he said it was long hours and a lot of repetition for only a “secondary character.”
After working odd jobs and taking some college courses, he was introduced to commercial paleontology by a friend in the late 1980s. They split up in 1995 and he set out on his own. He moved to Lusk in 2010. What brought him here?
“Primarily the dinosaurs,” he said. “And the location, I fell in love with the town the first time I drove through it.”
While the town’s underground isn’t teeming with dinosaurs, it’s in close proximity to digging sites that do find them, and it has its own collection of early mammals, he said.
As a freelance paleontologist, Hoelmer’s job is usually to restore fossils dug up by others, though he prefers digging himself when given the opportunity.
His coolest project was a restoration of a T-rex dug up by the University of Notre Dame that now sits in the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Mont.
“Last I heard, it was the third most complete T-rex ever found,” Hoelmer said.
The fossil community is small, he said, which is how he is hired for projects like that one. It’s also how he ended up on Dino Hunters. It’s clear that stardom hasn’t affected him, as he continues to spend upwards of 10 hours per day restoring fossils from his workspace in Lusk.
He knows how lucky he is, too.
Hoelmer isn’t like many history junkies who claim that preserving these artifacts is the meaning of life. He called it “a superfluous activity,” one he’s fortunate to count as his livelihood.
“There’s something about preserving and restoring these artifacts from God knows how long ago,” he said. “I find it immensely satisfying.”