There’s a half-scale replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Niles, Illinois. Burlingame, California is home to the largest Pez dispenser, while the World’s Largest Rocking Chair is on Route 66 in Fanning, Missouri. A kitschy roadside attraction in Weeki Wachee, Florida, has been offering “live” mermaid shows in an underwater theater since 1947.
Roadside attractions are a carnie culture of bizarre entertainments and oddball artifacts. There are museums devoted to ventriloquism and houses filled with dolls and puppets. Purple dinosaurs and giant pink elephants gaze at passing traffic from bright pastel eyes.
Many bizarre roadside attractions are off-the-beaten-path, existing in a Twilight Zone of forgotten byways. And then there are those that announce their folly to drivers well in advance –90 miles to “South of the Border,” 120 miles to the “Corn Palace.” Some of these attractions and roadside curiosities are maligned for their tackiness and bad taste –architecture’s version of John Waters -while others have become pilgrimage destinations and historic landmarks.
10. The Shoe Tree: Middelgate, Nevada
Once, on Highway 50, there was a lone Cottonwood tree with thousand of shoes hanging from its boughs. Historians of the weird and unusual say that a newlywed couple were camping and had an argument underneath the Cottonwood; when the woman threatened to leave, the man tossed her shoes in the tree. Others soon followed suit, until the tree had more footwear dangling from its branches than leaves. Sadly, vandals cut the tree down in 2011. Nevertheless, there are several shoe trees on the roadsides of America, including one in Salem, Michigan, as well the Mud Flat Shoe Tree, which is just south of Altura, California.
9. UFO Landing Port: Poland, Wisconsin
If you build it, they will come… maybe.
In 1994, Bob Tohak created this curious roadside attraction out of scrap iron and a 42-foot fuel tank. He then fitted it with flashing blue lights and a sign that says, “We Are Not the Only Ones.” The Landing Port soars above Tohak and Son Welding shop, among the sweeping corn and oat fields east of Green Bay. “It’s something I believed in ever since I was a kid, that there was somebody else out there,” says Bob. While Tohak’s roadside attraction might not have the notoriety of Roswell’s International UFO Museum and Research Center, visitors travel hundreds of miles to see if Tohak has had any close encounters of the third kind.
8. The Petrified Wood Gas Station: Decatur, Texas
Businessman C.F. Boydston built a gas station in 1927, and then eight years later decided to cover it with petrified wood. Apparently the petrified wood “look” was popular for auto camps in the early 20th century, and Boydston’s architectural taste may have been influenced by a similar gas station in Colorado. Or perhaps he had just returned from a trip to the Petrified Wood Park in South Dakota. Either way… Boydston didn’t stop after the gas station; he covered the next-door café and motor court with petrified wood as well. Legend has it Bonnie and Clyde spent a night at that motor court.
7. Coral Castle: Homestead, Florida
The story goes something like this… Edward Leedskalnin was jilted by his fiancé in Latvia one day before the wedding. He came to America, caught terminal tuberculosis, yet was miraculously healed, some say, by the use of magnets. He then spent the next 28 years creating Coral Castle in honor of his ex-fiancé. Leedskalnin was a small man, and there’s some mystery as to how he manipulated the 10-ton limestone blocks. He worked under the cover of darkness, and nobody saw him toil away for 28 years.
6. The Paper House: Rockport, Massachusetts
Elis F. Stenman, an eccentric mechanical engineer who designed the machine that makes paper clips, began construction on the Paper House in 1922. What started as a summer hobby quickly turned into an obsession, as Stenman spent the next 20 years layering, rolling, and pasting over 100,000 newspapers to create the two-room home. While the Paper House has a standard tar and shingle roof, the walls are built with 215 layers of newspaper. But Mr. Stenman didn’t stop there. Inside the house there are paper tables, chairs, lamps, bookshelves, a writing desk, radio cabinet, grandfather clock (constructed of rolled up newspapers from all the state capitals) and piano. Many of the newspapers are completely readable, and visitors can peruse headlines about Herbert Hoover’s presidential campaign.
5. Salvation Mountain: Niland, California
Created by outsider artist Leonard Knight, Salvation Mountains is a 50-foot high and 150-foot wide roadside attraction made out of adobe clay, straw, and donated paint. It’s located in the Colorado Desert of Southern California. Knight made the art installation as a parting gift to his hometown of Niland, California. The psychedelic mountain is resplendent with biblical and religious scripture and features brightly colored murals of suns, waterfalls, flowers, and birds. In an interview, Leonard Knight’s said his message was “God is Love.” However, this God’s love looks more like an LSD trip circa 1967 than a religious cathedral. In 2000, the Folk Art Society declared Salvation Mountain “a folk site worthy of preservation and protection.”
4. Dinosaur Kingdom: Natural Bridge, Virginia
Marc Cline calls himself “the modern Pt. Barnum.” The artist and entertainer didn’t just create one bizarre roadside attraction; he created three. The nearby Haunted Monster Museum and Hunt Bigfoot with a Redneck attraction are strange, but Dinosaur Kingdom is as campy and oddball as it comes. Over 50 fiberglass statuses recreate famous scenes from the Civil War; however, in this alternative version of American history, dinosaurs attack Union soldiers. The park’s theme is built around the idea that paleontologists discovered dinosaurs in Virginia in 1863. The Union Army wanted to use the dinosaurs as weapons, but the creatures turned on them. Perhaps Dinosaur Kingdom is the South’s way of winning the war.
3. Lucy the Elephant: Margate, New Jersey
From purple dinosaurs to giant alligators, almost every mini-golf course today has a piece of zoomorphic architecture watching over it. But that wasn’t always the case. Lucy the Elephant is the first example of zoomorphic architecture in the U.S., but she had nothing to do with vintage putt-putts. This New Jersey curiosity was originally designed in 1882 to sell real estate and attract tourists to Atlantic City, which is two miles away. Lucy is 65 feet tall and has a spiral staircase in the left rear leg. Over the years Lucy the Elephant has served as a restaurant, cottage, bar, and business office. In 1976, the famous piece of novelty architecture featured on souvenir postcards and t-shirts was designated a National Historic Landmark.
2. Cadillac Ranch: Amarillo, Texas
Created in 1974 by Ant Farm, an art collective featuring Chip Lord, Hudson Marquez, and Doug Michels, and funded by millionaire Stanley Marsh 3, Cadillac Ranch is a sculpture and art installation on Route 66. Ten Cadillacs ranging in model and year from 1949 to 1963 are buried nose-first in the ground at an angle corresponding to the Great Pyramid in Giza. Each car is spray painted with wildly colorful graffiti, and visitors are encouraged to leave their tmark. In 1997, the attraction was moved two miles west to place it farther from the encroaching city. Cadillac Ranch is visible from the road, and in Pixar’s 2006 movie, “Cars,” it was depicted as a mountain formation.
1. The Abita Mystery House: Abita Springs, Louisiana
Artist and Americana enthusiast Jon Preble opened the Abita Mystery House in 2007. The museum’s entrance is a vintage gas station, which also doubles as the gift shop, and it leads to a maze of buildings and exhibition halls featuring folk objects, miniatures, and artifacts from old carnival exhibits. There are fortuneteller booths and merman exhibits, a room devoted entirely to hot sauce, and others that feature Louisiana-themed sculptures such as the “Bassigator,” a half-bass, half-alligator creature that looks like it crawled out of a 1950s sci-fi film. Other rooms poke fun at Southern life, UFO enthusiasts, and carnie culture. The Abita House has been featured on the History Channel, and John Bullard, the director of the New Orleans Museum of Art, called it “the most intriguing and provocative museum in Louisiana.”