My eyes were opened at age 8 by a 26-foot-tall talking lumberjack who lifted his enormous limbs and guessed all the kids’ names, which scared the pants off of us. Just ignore the man behind the curtain of the animatronic Paul Bunyan in Brainerd, with the microphone and ropes and pulleys to move his massive arms.
That same year, I saw a photo of a man posing next to a giant ball of twine in “The Guinness Book of Records.” He lived just an hour west of where I grew up in Minnetonka. He had made the big time. Another homegrown hero.
These local wonders were just the beginning. Ever since then, I’ve researched and snapped photos of every attraction I’ve seen along the roadside to compile my book, “The Impossible Road Trip.” Most travel guides ignore this essence of Americana, but these one-of-a-kind marvels are the fruit of the creativity of individuals who refuse to succumb to the ubiquitous monoculture of suburban sprawl and strip malls.
Beyond the wonder inspired by yet another bizarre sight, I’m always stumped by the perennial artistic question of “Why?” The best roadside attractions are the result of a practical joke, inspired boredom or a burning desire by an obsessed individual to create a giant monument to prove that “I Was Here.” This is not normal behavior, and the United States is full of it — thank heavens!
The superior roadside sights date back decades and required the gumption of a creative (some would say delusional) visionary who wanted to leave something for all future generations to scratch their heads over. These unusual icons inspire heartfelt pride in residents who rally around their endangered idols and restore them into beloved hometown symbols. Why else would Darwin’s Twine Ball have its own mailbox? Besides, who wants to see a stoic statue of some self-important town founder when they can look at a giant, leaping muskie like the one in Hayward, Wis.?
Here are some of my favorite roadside attractions in the Midwest and beyond.
Monuments to beer
Years before architect Frank Gehry covered his museums in stainless steel to make gigantic reflecting mirrors, John Milkovisch put his beer-drinking hobby to use. He regularly kept eight cases of cheap beer on reserve in the garage for emergencies. Why squander his money on new siding for his house when he had the answer in his hands? “Waste not, want not,” he thought, and flattened his cans to cover his entire home, now known as the Beer Can House in Houston.
Closer to home, La Crosse, Wis., once had the most bars per capita, and the World’s Largest Six Pack proved that they could hold their liquor. Six silos are packed with enough suds for 22,200 barrels of beer, or 7,340,796 cans. This Wisconsinite’s dream-come-true holds enough beer to provide one person a six pack a day for 3,352 years, or at least keep the whole city happily tipsy for a month or so.
Elephants on parade
Older than the Statue of Liberty, the six-story-tall Lucy the Elephant welcomed visitors to the Jersey Shore beginning in 1881. An even larger 125-foot replica pachyderm soon towered over Coney Island. Alas, the bigger beast caught fire in 1896 and went out in a blaze of glory, while “little” Lucy in Margate, N.J., survived. She has since doubled as a vacation home, a bar, a real estate office and the object of adoring kids at a summer camp.
The Midwest is full of smaller pink elephants on parade, which seem like a childish dream but are synonymous with alcohol-induced illusions — just ask Walt Disney, who drew Dumbo and the gang imbibing in champagne with the resulting psychedelic psychosis. These pink pachyderms dot the roadsides, and the Pink Elephant in Marquette, Iowa, was even plopped on water skis and towed on the Mississippi in front of the famous teetotaler President Jimmy Carter.
He’s a lumberjack and he’s OK
Minnesota historians assumed that Ol’ Paul Bunyan was native to our fair state, with the first mention of the monstrous lumberjack in a promotional brochure for the Red River Lumber Co. in 1914. Lies! Michigan predates this with an article of Bunyan stories in the Oscoda Press from 1906. Michigan lays its claim with some rather ugly statues, whereas Minnesota has our beloved Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox in Bemidji from 1937 that precedes any others.
Bangor, Maine, claims that the giant was born there — check out the must-see 1958 Disney short film for proof. In retaliation, Akeley, Minn., valiantly displays its World’s Largest Paul Bunyan with a giant cradle and birth certificate to prove his provenance. Klamath, Calif.’s Paul Bunyan stands at 49 feet, a full 16 feet taller than the lumberjack in Akeley, which claims theirs is larger because Paul is kneeling. With that argument, Kelliher, Minn., could beat them all with Paul Bunyan’s Grave, easily 50 feet long with a somber tombstone: “Here Lies Paul and That’s All.”
A lotta bull
Audubon, Iowa, had a vision to create an enormous steer as “a monument to the beef industry.” Salvaged windmills were bent into the shape of an enormous, anatomically correct Albert the Bull towering 30 feet tall and stretching 15 feet wide at the horns. The dedication of the 45-ton bull marked a weeklong party to celebrate the annual Operation T-Bone cattle run to Chicago.
Two enormous bovines break the seemingly endless horizon along Interstate 94 in North Dakota. A 38-foot-high Holstein, Salem Sue, is visible for 5 miles in every direction, and townspeople in New Salem even wrote the “Ballad of Salem Sue” in honor of milk production. Jamestown’s World’s Largest Buffalo weighs in at 60 tons to make all the real bison fenced in around it look like Lilliputians. Unfortunately, the giant has been vulnerable to castration by teenagers armed with Louisville Sluggers. A gaggle of college women, locals told me, even performed hazing rituals on the poor beast.
Perhaps the most beloved bovine of all is Chatty Belle, a relatively small Hereford who blabbed away about the value of dairy fat in everyone’s diet at the 1964 New York World’s Fair alongside “The Largest Cheese in the History of Mankind.” Chatty returned home to Neillsville, Wis., alongside her heifer Bullet. Chatty’s child was missing on my last trip, though. “You want to know what happened to Bullet?” the receptionist next door asked me, annoyed. “Its eyes were poked out, its tail broken. … Each time it cost $600 worth of fiberglass to fix, so my boss just threw Bullet in the trash. A lot of little kids were very unhappy. We thought about filling Bullet full of cement or putting an electrical fence around him, but that kind of would spoil the fun.”
The delirium of endless highways spurs my appetite as I imagine how many people giant food statues could feed if they were edible. The 1966 Big Coney Island in Bailey, Colo., would be about 1,272 cubic feet of meat from nearly 85 pigs. This giant wiener could provide a half-pound of pork every day for 118 years.
For vegetarians, why not nibble on the Jolly Green Giant in Blue Earth, Minn.? He is half peapod, after all, so it can’t be cannibalism. At 55 ½ feet tall, his body could provide approximately 97,941 nutritious vegan meals.
On the less healthy side, Dale’s Donut near Los Angeles comes in at the equivalent of 379,000 normal doughnuts, or more than 4 million grams of fat — enough to make 114 people morbidly obese.
All of this bounty pales next to the Longaberger Picnic Basket in Newark, Ohio. At approximately 2.35 million cubic feet, this building/basket/cornucopia could hold more than 82.3 million pounds of sandwiches and feed the entire state of Ohio a picnic lunch for more than a week.
If only it were all real, these roadside attractions could solve world hunger.
Eric Dregni is the author of “Weird Minnesota,” “Let’s Go Fishing!,” “Never Trust a Thin Cook,” and the new “The Impossible Road Trip: An Unforgettable Journey to Past and Present Roadside Attractions in All 50 States.”
The Impossible Road Trip
By: Eric Dregni. $35 pre-order, Motorbooks.
Reading: 5:30 p.m. Nov 30, Next Chapter Booksellers, 38 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul.
Tickets: $5, nextchapterbooksellers.com.
Also: 2 p.m. Dec. 2., Concordia University St. Paul library, 1282 Concordia Av.