Three Years of Sordid and Personal Tales from a World Traveler
Category: Big Things/tourist traps
America is full of things like this, with the world’s biggest ball of twine probably being the most famous (In the movie “Michael” (1996) the Arch Angle Michael — played as less than angelic by John Travolta — comes to earth to see these things); I argue that anyone doing a roadtrip across America is sort of obliged to search them out… because they are “Americana” — (that said, I’ve found them in Australia as well)
Found a very good quote on the topic, courtesy of Neil Gaiman
“So what is this place?” asked Shadow, as they walked through the parking lot toward a low, unimpressive wooden building.
“This is a roadside attraction,” said Wednesday. “One of the finest. Which means it is a place of power.”
“It’s perfectly simple,” said Wednesday. “In other countries, over the years, people recognized the places of power. Sometimes it would be a natural formation, sometimes it would be a place that was, somehow, special. They knew that something important was happening there, that there was some focusing point, some channel, some window to the Immanent. And so they would build temples or cathedrals, or erect stone circles, or…well, you get the idea.”
“There are churches all across the States, though,” said Shadow.
“In every town. Sometimes on every block. And about as significant, in this context, as dentists’ offices. No, in the USA people still get the call, or some of them, and they feel themselves being called to from the transcendent void, and they respond to it by building a model out of beer bottles of somewhere they’ve never visited, or by erecting a giant bat house in some part of the country that bats have traditionally declined to visit. Roadside attractions: people feel themselves being pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that.”
If you’re driving along route 80, near Pine Bluffs Wyoming off on the North side you might notice this HUGE, 30 foot tall (37 if you add the pedestal) white statue, which you may or may not identify as the Virgin Mary… off to the side of the road. According to one of the signs near it weighs 180 tons and is one of the largest Marian statues in the United States.
And along side the stature (and closer to the highway) are these Stages of the cross [Note: a friend of mine who is a lapsed Catholic has corrected me, stations not stages… please excuse the error, I’m Jewish)
Technically, it is still its own town (suburb — according to Wikipedia there are two families that live there, in addition to the six ‘households’ where the boys live… making up a total population of around 745 people, according to the 2010 census), but rather than being located near Omaha Nebraska, as it was when founded, it is now pretty much utterly engulfed by it. (Just below Green Meadows, and west of the Sheraton)
Like most Americans my age my knowledge of Boys Town Nebraska has till now been based ENTIRELY on the 1938 Hollywood biographical film. Apparently, the town had been called the “City of Little Men” before the movie came out — I vaguely remember it being described as such by the Flanagan character in the movie, but Hollywood had effectively ingrained the name Boys Town in the world’s consciousness, along with the sort of image branding money just can’t buy — so smartly, Flanagan changed its name.
That said, what I knew about Father Flanagan, was entirely based upon the movie. He was a catholic priest who had founded a different sort of orphanage; in effect he had pioneered and developed a completely different paradigm that emphasized teaching children to take care of themselves and each other, rather than the traditional model of adults taking care of children… and my image of the man was indelibly formed by the Spencer Tracy’s performance. That said, I have to admit that because of recent events regarding the catholic church, and some of what I’ve learned on my previous travels (please click the link), that is no longer the case…
My connection to the place, via my having seen the movie repeatedly while growing up [note: back before cable TV, when the TV world consisted of maybe 10 channels total, if you were lucky… it was one of popular movies that was in the public domain that local TV stations could run repeatedly, at very little cost to themselves], and as such, I was actually excited to see the place. In my mind’s eye it was going to be that same town from the movie, with a fire station and barber shop — all run by boys of varying ages… with very few adults to be seen… but no such luck.
A “campus” as described in the sign above, is for the most part what I found, indistinguishable from any other ‘campus’ educational or business. Now granted, on the day I arrived the weather was both blistering hot AND humid, of the sort the drains your energy and sours your mood, and that might have been part of it. But my expectations were SO dashed upon my arrival… I didn’t even find anything resembling a ‘downtown’ with any businesses run by the boys,
or even of them growing their own food (other than in the above historic photos, and these I found on line)… and the reality of what it had become kind of killed my excitement (well that and the heat).
When you arrive there’s a “visitor” center that you’re directed to. From its gift shop you can get the map of the property, if you want to try touring it yourself. I had timed it wrong to do the tour, arriving at around noon, and the next one wasn’t until 2 o’clock. The woman at the gift counter, where you sign up for it said “if you don’t do the tour they might not let you into all of the buildings. We don’t necessarily have a docent standing there ready” Not even for Flanagan’s home, which is listed as a tourist location of note, on every website I looked at before arriving. (I didn’t have enough time to hang around for an extra hour to wait for it— I was cross country driving and had to be San Francisco by a set date)
However, she told me that if I went right now into the cafeteria (also in the visitor’s center) — it’s open to staff and visitors and apparently is very popular with locals —
I had been lucky enough to arrive to witness the swearing-in for five new boys to become citizens of the town (this link is to a page with a video where you see a little video about what that means). During the event I learned that all of the boys being sworn in had already been here between a few weeks in a few months before taking the oath.
The priest began the event by sharing the history of the town with any visitors in the room (which included family members of the boys, as well locals who come here regularly… The boys then all got up, took an oath, and then each talked about three things about themselves they want to work on while they are here, the thing that had been hardest for them since they arrived, and one other thing I’m forgetting what it was.
That said, I have to admit that as this was happening some part of me was shocked to realize how many priests were involved in the this program (some part of my brain hadn’t really made the connection that this was in fact a Catholic charity), and I found myself wondering to what extent if any the recent sexual molestation of children (with boys from troubled homes being at the top of the victim list) had touched Boys Town… Only to find this, and then THIS …. which sort of soured my whole experience of what was happening…
I didn’t realize that the song, “he ain’t heavy he’s my brother” was actually inspired by a quote from here… that was also used in the movie,
Apparently, the one of the towns older boys was carrying around Howard, who was handicapped by polio, and abandoned by his mother (read the description in the picture above) … even though he wasn’t so small anymore and father Flanagan had asked him “isn’t he getting a bit heavy for you?” and the boy had answered, “He ain’t heavy, Father… he’s m’brother” and this image of what the town taught boys about their responsiblity to each other became the symbol for the town.
So, I wasn’t all that miffed about missing the tour or seeing Flanagan’s home, as the town wasn’t what I was expecting, and if it wasn’t going to be that, then the only other thing I wanted to see while there was THIS, which is located in the Visitor’s center right behind the gift store:
I got the docent/woman working the gift shop to repeat her spiel into my phone, and let speech to text do it’s thing for me: “OK Father Flanagan started boys town in 1917 and was a stamp collector… he died in 1948 so this was even after his death in ’51 … anyway to honor him the boys started wrapping used stamps around a golf ball… so if you cut this huge ball in half you’d see it’s all stamps to the golf ball center. It weighs 600 pounds and it’s made up of 4.6 million stamps and it’s 32 inches in diameter …. they did it in less than two years” The wall immediately behind the ball is also impressive, it’s a floor to ceiling mural also made up entirely of used stamps.
And then there’s a whole little museum area dedicated to the hobby of stamp collecting:
And possibly because of his fame, and the fact that he was stamp collector himself, this happened:
And apparently someone at boys town was collecting baseball cards, because there’s a room dedicated to that too
On the way out of the building to my car I noticed this, they have peppers as decorative plants, which I thought was kind of brilliant.
Albert the Bull is located along side a trailer park in Audubon, Iowa. This nine times larger than life-size Hereford Bull is 53-year-old, and stands 28 feet tall. It is 15 feet wide between the horns, and weighs 45 tons; and, unlike most of the other big things I’ve found which are usually made from fiberglass, Albert the Bull is made from concrete with a steel work frame.
I was traveling alone when I passed by here, but I managed to waylay a passing teenager into taking my picture for me.
That said, there’s something equally imposing about Albert that you can’t see from the above photo….
Actually, come to think of it, he reminds me of a guy I know…
The Gemini Giant is 28 feet tall fiberglass “bit Thing” named after the Gemini space program of the 1960’s, located on Historic Route 66, (it was one of the very first major highways in America, was built in the 1920’s … and is also known as the Will Roger’s Highway, the Main Street of America, or the Mother Road). This roadside attraction was built during the very beginning of the space race as a way to lure travelers off the road with a photo opportunity, in the hope that they’d stay long enough to buy a hotdog or a drink.
The statue stands directly adjacent to Route 66 (yes, really, it’s the nondescript two lane road in the picture)
and is in the parking lot of the Launching Pad restaurant (which was once a drive-in)
The restaurant was built in 1956 at which point it was a 600 square-foot shack…they actually hired Hopalong Cassidy (well, the actor who in the 1950’s played the character in a series of sixty-six movie serials based on the character, William Boyd) to come and cut the opening ribbon (Boyd is the one in the cowboy hat)
(According to the owner of the Launching Pad, who was thrilled to share the places history with me, after the show ended Boyd had gone to the studio and bought the licensing rights to the name Hopalong Cassidy for $450,000, a lot of money in those days… and in a few short years turned it around into $5 million by putting his picture and name on lunch boxes. I will note that Wikipedia disputes some of this but hey…) The new owner went on to tell me that the same family owned it for the next 50 odd years, passing it through the generations (and it was always wildly successful that whole time, open from around 7am to midnight — at least I think that’s what he said — with a staff of 20, and always doing good business) until 2010 at which point they sold it to somebody outside of the family who ran the business into the ground in the course of two short years (by buying cheaper ingredients, refusing to run the air conditioning, etc, all in an attempt to increase his profit margins I assume). As such, this Route 66 landmark business quickly went broke as its bread and butter local customers abandoned it, and has stood empty until this new owner bought it in 2017. The new owner is financing it solely from his own pocket and with any money he’s made by merchandising the image on T-shirts and bumper stickers and what not.
He tole me he has licensed the image of the giant (something the previous owners never bothered to do), so that nobody else can replicate it and he has tracked down all the old recipes for their dishes and intends to have the kitchen up and running in about two months. ￼Till then, he’s filled the restaurant with a random collection of memorabilia intended to keep visitors happy.
Even without the restaurant up and running, he told me that nn a slow day he says an average of about 200 people showing up in the store/resturant, while on a fast day it’s 500 to 800 people coming in from all over the world because they’ve heard about this place. Just during the time I was there, for about half an hour at about 2:30 in the afternoon on a Wednesday, I saw a Chinese guy and a French couple stop in to check the place out, all of whom were folks that were road-tripping Route 66 on motorcycles.
Not much to say about this, it’s a very big (30 foot) fiberglass statue of Victorian man riding a vintage bicycle called a Penny-Farthing, so-called because its two wheels were of very different sizes and looked like you were holding a penny coin (small) up to farthing coin (large)…. Its located in the tiny riverside town of Port Byron, IL. Usually, the “Big Things” sculptures on my blog have a bit more whimsy to them than this one did… Not sure why this failed to do so, but it did. As such, this one really didn’t “make me happy” in the way the other fiberglass statures tend to and unless you’re needing a break on your cross-country drive, I don’t suggest it.
I learned about it from the traveler’s web page, Atlas Obscura and since it was ‘almost’ directly along the route I was intending to drive anyway, and at exactly about a point where I was going to need a break anyway (about once every hour or two, just to stretch the legs), I went.
According to Atlas, there are actually two of these (not identical), this one in Port Byron Illinois and the second, called “Ben Bikin”, located in Sparta Wisconsin, that have spawned a 300 mile bike tour that zig zags cross-country from one statute to the other, called the Will to Ben Bike Tour.
In Napoleon Ohio, on the edge of town is a massive Campbell’s Soup manufacturing plant, and sitting on it’s back corner is massive tank, painted to look like one of their Tomato Soup cans… because why not.
On my current cross-country road trip from Pennsylvania to California, one of the places I decided to stop along the way was this place… because why not. At first, I couldn’t find ‘the can’ and there was a massive rain storm threatening. In the descriptions I had read of the place everyone complained it was hard to find the thing, so I pulled into the company lot, right up to where the security guard is located, and asked. At first he looked at me confused, then he said to me “Ah! You’re a tourist and you’re from out-of-town!” So he directed me to where I would find ‘the can’ (it’s on the far end opposite from where the employees enter — check its location on my click map)
And then he gave me a very specific instructions about where I could and could not step so as to not trespass on private property. (Do NOT pass the little ditch/moat they’ve dug, or you’ll get in trouble — do NOT try to get close to it.) When I finally found it, and pulled the car to the side of the road so I could take the picture … there was a white truck inside the plant gates, and the guy in the truck was watching me very carefully. Just saying… Two seconds after I got back into the car the deluge began! And I’m taking a serious downpour.
The “Gavel” is a whimsical piece of outdoor art by Andrew F. Scott, that some are on the web have declared the World’s Largest Gavel (although I’m not sure that’s true). According to CivicArtsProject.com it is 30 feet long, 15 feet wide, and 12 feet high… so pretty frigging big! IF you’re in or driving through Columbus it’s worth a stop see, in part because it’s located in a man-made pond/water feature located adjacent to the Ohio Supreme Court building.
I searched online for verification that the “Gavel” was in fact the world’s biggest, but other than it being called such by various websites (of the tourism variety) I didn’t find anything from let’s say the Guinness World’s Records people verifying it such.
Anyway, the Ohio Supreme court is a rather impressive building and worth looking at in its own right
and it is right next to a very pretty river walk area, along the Scioto River. That and parking in the area was really easy to find — we arrived at about 6pm and had NO trouble at all finding a spot.
I didn’t really come to see Columbus this trip; rather my travel buddy and I were visiting Dayton, OH (about 1.5 hours away) and we arranged to have dinner with an old friend of his who used to live in San Francisco, but now lives in Columbus with her family. We’d arrived about a half hour early, so he said, “we’ve got a half hour to kill, what do you want to see?” (He was driving.) I quickly pulled out one of my travel apps Roadtripper, which allows you see what’s around right now, as well as plan in advance, and pretty quickly spotted this — and we all know how much I love big things.
This is exactly what it sounds like, it’s a sundial made using a very large cutout of woman’s leg. Apparently if it’s a sunny day the thing actually works… which is helpful since it’s located in a nudist colony (yup, lot’s of naked people, with no wrist watches). I had learned about this place years ago before my first commute from Chicago to Florida … pretty much EVERY road tripping web site lists it … but I haven’t managed to make it here till today.
Please note, I went to this shortly after TRYING to see the Jesus thing… note the puddles on the ground. The gods were NOT OK with me seeing Jesus stuff, but lots of naked people (??) sure, no problem with that…
Everything is invented somewhere, and while you might think that the Big Mac, the signature burger for McDonald’s might have been created by Ray Kroc, the chain’s founder, or the two McDonald brothers he had partnered with (it was they who had invented the business model) and whose business interests he ultimately bought out… or maybe at their food labs in their global headquarters in Oakbrook, Illinois, you’d be wrong. The Big Mac was invented in Irwin, Pennsylvania by a franchise owner by the name of Jim Delligatti in 1967…
To be honest, I don’t think I’d eaten a big mac in 20 years (I tend to go for the quarter pounder with cheese) but since I was here, I felt it was obligitory.
I am deeply embarrased to admit that there’s a 14 foot Big Mac somewhere on the property and I missed it… it is my intent to go there again at some point and take a picture of it.