Road trip news, rants, and ruminations by the Editors of RoadsideAmerica.com
April 25, 2018
Big John, a giant Indian outside Pratt’s BBQ Barn in Kingsport, Tennessee, broke his neck in early April 2018. We quickly informed Mark Cline, fiberglass wizard and creator of Dinosaur Kingdom II, of the calamity. This is his report:
“I called up Pratt’s and spoke with April the manager. Apparently it’s not so easy to find a professional repairman of giant Indians in the Kingsport area. Fortunately, the city was close enough to drive down from my Enchanted Castle Studios in Natural Bridge and get a good look at him.
“The original plan was to hoist the head up with a bucket truck and for me and my crew to fiberglass it back into place. That would have been fine — except that we quickly found that the head was much too heavy to do that safely. The biggest concern was that there was inside structural damage that we didn’t know about, so the best plan of action was to just take the head down, bring it back to my studio, make an exact lightweight fiberglass duplicate, and put the new one back up.
“When we got the head back to the studio I put the head on the scale and it weighed 120 pounds. The new one will weigh about 17 pounds when complete. Due to our super-slammed spring schedule it will be at least a month before we can return and complete the head transplant. As for the original head, we are removing some of the concrete that was inside to lighten it. It was repaired before we began making the duplicate.
“The original head will also be returned to Pratt’s where, who knows, they might auction it to help pay for repairs. But I think it would be a groovy idea to strap it onto one of their vans to ride around when they do their catering gigs… not to mention how great it would be for parades!”
April 1, 2018
Future historians may wonder how John Strong Jr.’s World’s Largest Oldest Traveling Sideshow became the permanent World’s Largest Sideshow Museum in Uranus, Missouri. This is how it happened, as described to us by Uranus mayor Louie Keen:
“John Strong Jr., he’s the Big Dog in the sideshow game,” Louis said. “He owns the World’s Largest Oldest Traveling Sideshow. He was searching for two-headed goats, and when he Googled ‘two-headed goat,’ up popped an article about my two-headed goat in Uranus. And he said, ‘This sounds like my kind of guy!’ And he called me and said, ‘Man, we’re tired of the touring. Would there be any space up there for us?’ And I said, ‘Yes!'”
That was in December 2017. Louie promptly closed his Big Louie’s Burlesque Saloon and turned over its 8,000 square feet to the Sideshow Museum – probably the only time in history that strippers have been shoved off a stage by a two-headed baby. “John has one of only three real two-headed babies,” said Louie. “It’s a very famous piece,” he said (It was featured in the 1967 film, She Freak). We remember seeing the baby, floating in a big jar, in the early 1990s. Its sideshow banner became the frontispiece of our New Roadside America book.
Louie’s personal collection of freaks, including a half-fish-half-monkey, an Alligator Boy, and the two-headed goat, already serves as decor in his Uranus Fudge Factory and General Store. But the John Strong Jr. collection dwarfs all others, and Louie is thrilled that it’s come to Uranus.
“It’s mind-blowing – an unbelievable collection. There’s just nothing else like it,” Louie said. “People are gonna make trips just to see it. It’s that cool.”
March 11, 2018
The Wright Brothers were long codified as achieving the first powered flight, in 1903. Maybe. Other flying machines claim to have flown earlier, and the “Queen of the Air” may be the earliest. It’s clearly the most improbable. It has no wings or propellers, and looks like a cross between a diving bell and a gas chamber.
It was built in 1860 by Ohio inventor Daniel McFarland Cook, who announced in a widely-printed newspaper letter that he would fly the Queen on a round-trip between Ohio and San Francisco in the span of 12 hours — in an era when such a trip, even by Pony Express, would have taken weeks.
Queen of the Air resembles the projectile-capsule in Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, but Cook unveiled it five years before Verne’s book was published. Built of quarter-inch-thick riveted steel, its bullet shape was not meant to be fired from a cannon, but propelled by an “electric engine” of Cook’s design. He promised that it would “navigate the air at will with an inconceivable velocity.”
Cook’s subsequent silence is taken as proof that his trip was a flop, but just because nothing was said publicly doesn’t mean that the flight didn’t happen. Maybe Cook simply decided, with the Civil War brewing, that the world wasn’t a safe place for his invention.
Queen of the Air, unlike the flimsy contraptions of other early aeronauts, was built to last. After Cook’s death the airship was repurposed by less-visionary Ohio farmers into a chicken coop, a corn crib, and a smokehouse. Local historian Timothy Brian McKee tracked it down in the woods outside Mansfield in 2017, and donated it to the North Central Ohio Industrial Museum.
We spoke with museum president Jerry Miller, who said that Queen of the Air will be on display when the museum opens to the public later this year. “Mansfield is a really cool old industrial town,” Jerry said (We know! It’s the home of Elektro the Robot, among other marvels). Queen of the Air is currently in the shop having rusting parts stabilized, and when finished, said Jerry, visitors will be able to sit inside and gaze out the portholes much as Daniel McFarland Cook must have done.
No flights are expected, unless someone can track down Cook’s mysterious motor.
Sections: Coming Soon
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February 7, 2018
They’re called “Scenic Viewers” by some. The man who runs the company that builds the devices calls them “Binocular Viewing Machines.” They don’t have an official name, but they’re instantly recognizable to anyone who’s been on a scenic road trip.
Their design is as distinctive as the Coke bottle, and the oval shape of their face plate is eerily similar to the head of the Flatwoods Monster.
The Viewers were invented by the Tower Optical Company, which began placing them at tourist attractions in 1933. Made of bronze and cast iron, weighing over 300 pounds each, they’re built to survive extreme weather and clambering kids with a minimum of maintenance. They have no electronics, because many of their locations have no power.
We spoke with Greg Rising, who runs Tower Optical, started by his great-grandfather. He told us that well over 2,000 of the Viewers are scattered across the U.S., usually in places with a long vistas that make people want to peer at things far away, such as the rim of the Grand Canyon or the observation deck of the Empire State Building.
“We’ve kept changes to a minimum,” Greg said, with the oldest and newest Viewers virtually indistinguishable from each other. The only way to date a machine is to look at the serial number stamped into its face; the lower the number, the older the Viewer. “I have machines in the very low numbers still in service,” Greg said, “built in the 1930s.” Most of the oldest machines are in the company’s home state of Connecticut, he said, but machines get moved, some get lost, and the only way to know for sure is to check the number.
We asked Greg if the Tower Optical Company gave factory tours. He laughed. The answer was No, and the idea that his Viewers might now be considered attractions themselves hadn’t occurred to him, although he said he had occasionally received queries from people wanting to know the location of a nearby Viewer, so they could take a picture of it.
“I know where most of them are,” he said. “We have a big map.”
December 13, 2017
He was once revered as a martyred President, assassinated in his second term. But modern William McKinley fandom is in short supply. Critics condemn him as an imperialist who imposed Yankee colonial rule on thousands of islands, viciously put down Filipino insurrectionists, and annexed Hawaii.
2017’s Confederate statue controversy ignited in the South and then spread to every other statue loathed by a group with a gripe. It was no surprise Arcata Plaza’s McKinley was back in history’s crosshairs. McKinley haters rise up every few years, and now the national moral momentum threatens to topple him like a deposed dictator.
In late 2017, the city council heard from citizens urging for the statue to be removed, relocated, melted down, hauled to nearby McKinleyville, or shipped to McKinley’s birthplace in Ohio. The least disruptive suggestion was to add a contextual plaque listing his crimes. One public speaker claimed he was Leon Czolgosz (McKinley’s 1901 assassin) and suggested a plaque noting McK was the “Only President Killed By An Anarchist.”
(oddly appealing, that idea)
We stopped in at Arcata Plaza on a December Saturday morning, and McKinley was surrounded… by the weekly organic Farmer’s Market, and the home-free populace.
As usual, we were the only ones gazing up at the bronze of President McKinley. The statue has a history of ad hoc decoration and occasional defacement, a blank canvas for protest. The current Christmas wreaths around his pedestal seem non-controversial — except perhaps as symbols of the discredited imperialist holiday. Then we noticed an evergreen wreath tightly wringing McK’s neck, an itchy collar of shame for his nation-building misdeeds.
A tear stain falls from one McKinley eye; either bird poop or some anger-flung organic produce rotting in the sun. McKinley knows this might be his last Christmas celebrating with the people of Arcata.
And McKinley isn’t alone as an outcast: another controversial landmark in Arcata Plaza is being assessed for change, move or disposal — a plaque about local history that casually mentions “Indian troubles.” The city council may decide the fate of both monuments in February 2018.
Update: As of May 2018, the statue was still in place. The town council voted for its removal in February. Subsequent public meetings and an environmental study (since it is designated as a “historic feature of the Plaza”) are underway to determine the details. It seems almost certain to be removed later in 2018; alternative locations are under consideration.
See also: A Mountain of McKinley Sights
October 26, 2017
Set the dial on your time machine for 2014, and along America’s highways you’d find ziplines sprouting like “Hey, let’s make something exciting AND interactive!” weeds. As with any tourism trend, most ziplines are ultimately unmemorable, while a few achieved Roadside America status for their sheer excess or their oddball themes.
Today, the hot attraction is competitive ax-throwing. We visited and reviewed an example of this new breed in New Jersey in May, and since then over a dozen more have thunked their way into cities from Atlanta to Chicago to San Francisco. Las Vegas now offers two ax-throwing attractions, built by competing franchises. Visitors can even throw an ax on Route 66, at the Uranus Fudge Factory, whose owner told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he saw an ax attraction in Philadelphia, copied it, and then borrowed the name from one in Las Vegas (Axe Hole).
Ax-throwing offers a more nuanced approach to ultimate justice than another recent attraction trend, machine gun ranges. The only people who usually get axes thrown into them — at least in the virtual world — are zombies or henchmen of the Chinese mob — so there’s virtue as well as entertainment in mastering the ax hurl. We’ll keep an eye on this trend, as we do all others, and note that while there can always be too much of a good thing, who knows, maybe someone will figure out how to offer ax throwing while riding ziplines.
And remember, ax-chopping attractions are something else entirely.
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