by Brett Leveridge
Nothing says summer like a road trip, and with the days of warm weather slowly winding down, you just might have it in mind to take to the highway one more time.
In the summer of 1992, I took the road trip of a lifetime: Four months, 23,000 miles, 48 states, and a seemingly infinite number of quirky, vintage roadside attractions. I don't think a day goes by, even all these years later, that I don't think of that trip, so I decided to share some of my favorite attractions with our readers. So roll down those windows, find your favorite oldies station on the car radio, buckle your seat belt and let's hit the road.
Did you ever have an uncle or neighbor who built a small to-scale town to run his model trains in and around? The late Laurence Gieringer was just that guy, only he went much further, filling a small warehouse with a panorama depicting 200 years of life in small-town and rural America for his trains to run through. Today, Roadside America, now operated by Gieringer's grandaughter and her family, looks just as it did when he passed away in 1963. It's a delightful trip back in time that kids of all ages will enjoy.
When my brother and I were children, our grandparents took us to Nashville, where my grandfather was to attend a national Kiwanis convention. Traveling to and through Tennessee, one was then, and is still, bombarded, mile after mile, by barns with roofs emblazoned with the proclamation that one must See Rock City! After hours, even days of such propaganda, my brother and I were frenzied in our insistence that we simply must take in this place of wonders. Our grandparents acquiesced, a side trip was undertaken, and we enjoyed ourselves immensely.
Located atop Lookout Mountain near the Tennessee-Georgia border, Rock City, which opened to the public in 1932, is paradise for a child—all nooks and crannies, caves, and crevasses with lush vegetation and huge boulders. On a hot summer's day, it's cool, damp and mossy; a place of secrets. On a clear day, you can even see, from a spot called Lover's Leap, seven different states.
Towards the end of the trail through Rock City, one reaches Fairyland Caverns—dark, damp passageways with windows in the rock through which one can view scenes from fairy tales, glowingly lit with blacklight.
A statue in a small Alabama town named Enterprise pays homage not to a general, a senator or an author, but to an insect (and a destructive little bug at that): the humble boll weevil.
This monument is composed of a statue of a Classical Greek female figure, attired in flowing robes and surrounded by a fountain, holding aloft a big, black bug. A nearby plaque reads,"In Profound Appreciation of the Boll Weevil and What It has Done as the Herald of Prosperity."
Back in the summer of 1915, the fields surrounding Enterprise were infested with weevils, robbing the local farmers of two-thirds of their yearly crop. This disaster forced the farmers to diversify their crops, adding peanuts, potatoes, corn and sugar cane, among other things. The soil that had been almost drained by the cotton crop now yielded a variety of riches, turning around what had been a struggling agriculture-based economy and adding a lushness to the Alabama countryside. Knowing it never would have happened without the boll weevil, the good people of Enterprise erected this monument in 1919 (the crowning bug was added in 1949), and it stills stands today.
The Orange Show for Visionary Art is the work of the late Jeff McKissack, a postal worker and citrus connoisseur who devoted 26 years of his adult life to building what has been called "his own personal utopia" to tribute to what he considered to be the perfect food. The structure is something of a folk art masterpiece, made of plaster and scrap metal, with mosaics and pithy sayings imbedded in the walls.
The sum of all these parts is a quirky structure that might, had it been built by an artist, have seemed a little, well, precious, but McKissack didn't consider himself an artist at all. The inspiration just came to him and he set about building it. He started construction in 1954 when he was 52, it was completed in 1979 and he died about eight months later. A non-profit foundation was formed to keep the place going and now, children's workshops, musical performances and other events are held there. It's open to the public five days a week in the summer and on weekends during the cooler months.
I heard a great story about McKissack, by the way, that illustrates just how unpretentious, and perhaps uninformed, he really was. The painter Willem De Kooning came to view the Orange Show and when McKissack was introduced to him, he asked De Kooning what he did for a living. "I'm a painter," the acclaimed artist said. "Oh, well, they're doing a lot of construction around here," McKissack replied. "You ought to be able to find a lot of work."
In north-central Indiana, right there on State Highway 35, you'll find the town of Kokomo. On the southwest edge of the city sits Highland Park, a municipal oasis which features two rather odd attractions that are available for viewing, free of charge. One is a taxidermied steer named Old Ben. Way back in 1910, Ben was the largest steer in the world—4,720 lbs., 6'4" high, 16'2" in length—until he fell on a patch of ice, broke his leg and had to be put to sleep. He was stuffed and sent on a nationwide tour before settling here in a windowed shelter for all to see, even all these years later
Next to Ben stands The World's Largest Sycamore Stump, as large a tree stump as you might ever hope to see at 57 feet in circumference, 217 inches in diameter, and 12 feet high; if you were to hollow out this stump, you could put it on the market in New York City as a studio apartment, possibly even a one-bedroom, and make a pretty penny doing so.
Chester, Illinois, is the birthplace of Elzie Crisler Segar, the man who created Popeye, and this pleasant little burg is mighty proud of that fact. In a small park on the shores of the mighty Mississippi, a statue of the spinach-eating sailor man himself stands as a fitting tribute to his creator.
But the good people of Chester didn't stop there. They continue to erect statues of familiar characters from the Popeye comic strip and cartoons. You'll find stone depictions of Olive Oyl, Bluto, Wimpy and other beloved characters. The town also holds an annual Popeye festival that includes a 5K run, a picnic, and a classic car cruise.
In Collinsville, Illinois, just a short drive from Chester, is the Brooks Food plant, which boasts the world's largest catsup bottle (it's actually a water tower that was first erected in 1949). Collinsville is so proud of the bottle that it holds the Annual Brooks World's Largest Catsup Bottle Festival Birthday Party & Car Show each year. This year's event, held in July, was the 17th.
Novelty architecture makes for fun roadside stops, especially retail and establishments designed to resemble the very thing they sell. These can be found across the country, but California has an especially rich tradition in this area.
Though many past favorites are no more, the Golden State still boasts Bakersfield's Big Shoe Repair, housed in a shoe-shaped building; the Giant Artichoke restaurant in Castroville, which serves artichoke hearts prepared in a variety of ways; Bono's 66 Orange, a closed (but preserved) orange juice stand; United Equipment, a company in Turlock housed in a building resembling a giant bulldozer, and not one but two donut shops—Randy's in Inglewood and The Donut Hole in La Puente—that feature giant sinkers just begging to be dunked in a giant cup of coffee.
Slogans on the website for Harold Warp's Pioneer Village read, "Witness a century of man's progress" and "Learn the story of America and how it grew," and the Village delivers on those promises. Pioneer Village contains over 50,000 items, from horseless carriages to a turn-of-the-century washing machine that was powered by a dog-propelled treadmill, from the first mechanical hay baler to a wide collection of sewing machines. At Pioneer Village, kids of all ages can ride the world's oldest merry-go-round, ring hundred-year-old church bells or watch brooms being made on equipment that's over 150 years old.
Built on 20 acres, Pioneer Village is made up of 26 buildings, including an old train depot, an original government land office, a sod house, a one-room schoolhouse and a 19th-century country church. One building houses a collection of furniture, featuring a kitchen, living room and bedroom as they might have been furnished in 1860, 1890, 1910, 1930, and 1950.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Pioneer Village is one of those attractions that really can't fully be described; it must be experienced. If you've an interest in historic Americana, Pioneer Village is a must-see.
At first glance, Evans Plunge might seem out of place in this gallery. After all, what's so unusual about an indoor swimming pool? What sets Evans Plunge apart is that it is fed by a thermal spring at the north end of the pool, so the water naturally maintains an average temperature of 87 degrees Fahrenheit, thanks to the 5,000 gallons that flow into the pool every minute.
The oldest tourist attraction in the Black Hills, Evans Plunge been a popular tourist spot since 1890 and remains so today, with a few modern additions. We find appealing the idea of going for a swim in a spot where people have been gathering to take refreshing dips for 125 years. Who knows, perhaps Calamity Jane herself did the backstroke across the Plunge in her time.
In 1931, Dorothy and Ted Hustead bought a drugstore in the tiny town of Wall, but they struggled to make a go of it. There was plenty of traffic going by on nearby Route 16A, but how could the Husteads get those cars to stop in Wall? Finally, it occurred to Dorothy that the one thing all those travelers crossing the prairie under the hot summer sun would crave as they neared Wall was a glass of ice water.
In the next few days, Ted prepared a series of signs in the style of the old Burma-Shave roadside ads. They read "Get a soda...Get root beer...Turn next corner...Just as near...To Highway 16 & 14...Free Ice Water...Wall Drug" and were placed so that they'd be seen by passing motorists. The response was immediate. People stopped in droves for a cool drink and, often as not, they purchased something, too.
Wall Drug now fills several buildings with souvenir shops, cafes, jewelry stores, a bookstore, a huge selection of postcards and much more. In the back yard, one finds such photo opportunities as a huge jackelope suitable for climbing, a six-foot stuffed rabbit, a stuffed horse posed in an eternal buck, a covered wagon, a preserved buffalo and a 1908 Hupmobile. There's also a tourist information booth, a traveler's chapel, a western art gallery and, of course, a pharmacy. And not surprisingly, they still give away free ice water at Wall Drug—over 5,000 glasses a day in the summer months.
The good folks of Mitchell, South Dakota, have long appreciated what corn has done for them over the years. In 1892, on the occasion of Mitchell's first annual Corn Belt Exposition, they set about to erect a sort of utilitarian monument to the grain. It would serve as a sort of town hall, a place where a yearly festival celebrating the harvest could be held. That first Corn Palace was decorated with stripes, patterns, and designs, all made from naturally colored corn—purple, red, yellow, white—and other grains, and the practice continues to this day.
The Palace has been razed and replaced several times over the years, but one thing hasn't changed: Every year, the Palace has a new look when the Corn Palace Festival rolls around, as it is decorated with murals made of ears of corn. One might see a cowboy on a bucking bronc, a patriotic flag display, Mount Rushmore—it varies every year.
Each year, during the weeklong festival, big-name performers appear on the stage of the Corn Palace, continuing a tradition of big-name entertainment begun in the late 1800s when the people of Mitchell paid the then-exorbitant sum of $7000 to bring John Philip Sousa and his military band, then among the biggest names in show business, to the festival.
I'm a sucker for the attractions boasting the World's Largest...well, just about anything, and Minnesota reigns supreme in this realm (worldslargestthings.com claims that Minnesota has 51 World's Largest things, outpacing its closest competitors, Texas and California, both much larger states).
While traveling in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, I've come across, in addition to the many Paul Bunyans the state boasts, the World's Largest Prairie Chicken in Rothsay, the World's Largest Pelican in Pelican Rapids, the World's Largest Tiger Muskie in Nevis, the World's Largest Loon in Vergas, the World's Largest Turkey in Frazee, and the World's Largest Viking—Big Ole—in Alexandria.
Blue Earth, Minnesota, used to boast a Green Giant canning facility, and since 1979, a 55.5-foot replica of that company's mascot has stood guard over the small town. Some years back, local radio station owner Paul Hedberg learned that I-90 was going to bypass the town, and he arranged to have the statue erected, hoping it would motivate motorists to exit the interstate and spend some time in Blue Earth.
The canning facility is no more, but the Giant endures, and it's a sight that brings a smile to young and old alike. Ho-ho-ho!
If you build it, they will come...
For more than a quarter-century, baseball fans and movie buffs have made their way to the Field of Dreams Movie Site on a farm just outside Dyersville, Iowa, to enjoy the bucolic setting, the fresh air and the chance to take a few swings or track down some fly balls on the field the beloved motion picture made famous. And it doesn't cost a dime. There's a souvenir stand, if you'd like a memento, and you can chip in to support the site on a purely voluntary basis, but everyone is welcome, and there is no price of admission.
Some Sunday evenings in the summer even see scenes from the movie recreated when "ghost" ballplayers emerge from the adjoining cornfield in vintage baseball uniforms to compete in a friendly game, so if you want the full experience, plan accordingly.
Baraboo was, in the old days, the winter home of the Ringling Brothers' Circus (and other traveling shows), making the Circus World Museum, which opened as a historical and educational facility in 1959, a must-see for circus buffs. A museum that began with a single acre now encompasses 64 acres and boasts a wide variety of collections, including vintage circus posters and fully restored historic circus wagons. The museum also has its own circus tent, with regularly scheduled circus performances.
The House on the Rock is a residential structure of odd angles and low ceilings, built into a 60-foot cliff. It was designed by architect Alex Jordan of Madison, Wisconsin. The story goes that some of Jordan's designs were once rudely ridiculed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and Jordan vengefully vowed to outdo the master. I can't verify that tale, but his creation is quite a sight, indeed.
It overlooks the Wyoming Valley, some 450 feet below; this becomes frighteningly apparent when one enters the Infinity Room, a 1985 addition to the structure. It's a 218-foot, needle-shaped room that extends out from the cliff and over the valley. It contains 3,264 small windows and grows ever smaller the farther into the room one walks.
The folks behind the House on the Rock have also gathered together a collection of varied and sundry artifacts and housed them in a series of buildings that adjoin the House. The Mill House holds antique guns, mechanical banks, musical machines and paperweights. In the Streets of Yesterday building, you can stroll recreated 19th-century lanes past a clockmaker's shoppe, a sheriff's office, and assorted other shops and offices.
Music of Yesterday contains immense automated music machines from the 18th and 19th centuries. Next is the World's Largest Carousel, which boasts 269 handcrafted animals (not a horse among them) and glitters with over 20,000 lights. It stands 35 feet tall, is 80 ft. wide, and weighs 35 tons. The House on the Rock and the collections housed in its adjoining buildings are, put quite simply, a must-see.
In Portsmouth, Rhode Island, there's a Victorian house that sits on a small country estate overlooking Narragansett Bay. Mr. Thomas E. Brayton bought the house and surrounding land in 1872 and a century later, his daughter, Alice, left it to the Preservation Society of Newport County. Why? Behind the house is the oldest and most northern topiary garden in the United States.
The estate, now commonly known as Green Animals (it was so dubbed years ago by Alice), contains over 80 creatively trimmed shrubs, many in the shapes of various creatures from the wild. There are 21 animal- and bird-shaped bushes in the gardens, including a camel, a donkey, an elephant, a horse (and rider), two bears, a unicorn and many more.
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