The end of summer is upon us and with it the prime season for road-tripping. That doesn't mean you have to say goodbye to the best part of some roadside attractions: the kitsch.
Giant statues of French waiters have no problem standing tall as the fall colors appear, and if a 50-foot-long green dinosaur could survive extinction, it probably can weather an Ohio winter. No matter what time of year it is, these pieces of Americana are hard to miss.
“This is a landmark here,” Len Tieman said of the fiberglass-coated apatosaurus that beckons drivers on State Rt. 163 to his Prehistoric Forest and Mystery Hill in Marblehead. Around these parts, people define distance in terms of “two miles past the big dinosaur,” he said.
Just up the road is another strange, picture-worthy sight: a larger-than-life waiter with no hands. The book Weird Ohio dubs him “Giant Jacques” and explains that the gigantic statue once held a sandwich for a restaurant in north-central Ohio.
The people at Young's RV Centers in Fremont, which owns the Marblehead property but never used the statue that ended up there, just call him the Marblehead Man. Even though there's no business on the site now doesn't mean that Jacques — or any other transplanted oddity like him — isn't working hard.
“It's still doing its job because it's still making people stop,” said Weird Ohio co-author Jim Willis.
That's always been the point, harkening back to the era of Route 66 and the creative one-upsmanship that took place as hotels, restaurants, and other businesses vied for customers. That's why Original Igloo Ice Cream, at the corner of Monroe Street and Douglas Road, resides in an actual igloo, and it's why Par 2 Golf Courses on Alexis Road has a 19-foot-tall giraffe standing atop a 25-foot waterfall.
“It sends the message, ‘Hey! Look at us!'” said course owner Terry Grady.
You may not plan your travels around these unique attractions, but you're not likely to forget them. That's part of their beauty, according to Matthew Donahue, a pop culture instructor at Bowling Green State University.
“It kind of gets away from the homogenization of America,” he said. “A lot of it, to me, gives sort of an identity to a community.”
“It's a way for businesses to help promote themselves, but after a while I think these things take on a life of their own,” Mr. Donahue said.
Consider the example of the towering Uncle Sam figure off U.S. 23 in Ottawa Lake, Mich. Originally, the 42-foot statue hawked hamburgers for a local chain of restaurants founded in 1965. Now, after a stint when he was painted like Abe Lincoln, he helps push product for All-American Fireworks and is a place where GPS-wielding treasure hunters hide things.
He's also become an indisputable feature of the local landscape and a destination in his own right, one that got some extra attention when Hampton hotels decided to give it a face lift in 2001 as part of its Save-A-Landmark effort. Spokesman for the program and pop culture author Chris Epting says the value of such kitschy attractions shouldn't be overlooked, especially on road trips.
“In a way, those places get documented way more often than the serious sites,” he said. “That's what you remember. That, all of a sudden, defines those 500 miles.”
More often than not, they serve a larger purpose too, telling passers-by something about a community. The giant artichoke in Castroville, Calif., is a reminder that the small town is known as “The Artichoke Center of the World,” Mr. Epting said, just as the “World's Largest Tire” in Allen Park, Mich., off of I-94, ties into the Detroit area's automobile heritage.
Of course, this isn't exactly high art, and you can't force people to appreciate it.
“There are people who will never want to go near a giant dinosaur,” Mr. Epting said. “I feel bad for them, but hey, to each his own.”
Contact Ryan E. Smith at:firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6103.