Without a doubt the most prevalent form of roadside kitsch, the larger-than-life statue takes a familiar image and presents it in an entirely new context.
Maybe it's a fish out of water. Or a corporate mascot finally free from the label on a can of beans. Or it might be a city's favorite son or daughter, molded in concrete to forever remind people of the local link to greatness.
There is something at once disconcerting and reassuring about colossal statues near the highway. Like guardians of this strange land you're speeding through, they watch and protect. It's nearly impossible to escape the stare of someone who looms 100 feet over a city.
But they also beckon, primarily because
they are so hard to absorb while moving at 75 miles an hour. In order to avoid a car accident, the safest course of action is to take the time to pull over and examine this colossus of Anywhere, USA, up close.
While the very oldest roadside Americana predates the car, the bulk of roadside statues came to be in the latter half of the 20th century.
When the West opened up to the middle class as a vacation destination, it catalyzed a movement to create the brashest statues and put them up in places where the most out-of-towners could see them.
While the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, and religious icons the world over inspired the artists responsible, regionally grown legumes and brightly colored animals also proved themselves effective muses.
So who exactly is deserving of having their likeness magnified, carved or molded, and presented to the occupants of passing vehicles? To be honest, the bar hasn't been set all that high. The inspiration might be an animal, even a common household pest like a termite, and somebody could still find a reason to build a super-size model to scale.
These larger-than-life creations don't even have to be real people: The subject of a roadside sculpture can be the stuff of tall tales or legend. Alternately, it could be a generic stereotype -- say, a pirate, a cowboy, or a lumberjack. Or a cartoon character who has migrated from the funny pages to the side of the highway.
Sure, a statue can be a respectful homage to a truly great person, but once the thing is bigger than life (i.e., humongous), the exaggeration tends to undercut the sanctity.
No matter what the finished product looks like, there was an inspiration behind each and every one of the roadside effigies you'll find in this article.
Let's get started on our road to roadside statues with a 40-foot-tall character from Arizona in the next section.
Hobo Joe Statue: Buckeye, Arizona
Erected in 1989, the Hobo Joe in Buckeye, Arizona, is one of the only remaining statues that once fronted a now-defunct restaurant chain called Hobo Joe's.
This 40-foot-tall statue is enjoying a second career as a memorial to one Marvin Ransdell at a meatpacking company in downtown Buckeye.
When he was actively fronting restaurants, Hobo Joe was marketed as "World Traveler, Philosopher, and Connoisseur of Good Food."
Check out the next page for a roadside relic from the 1940s -- the Arrow Statues.
Arrow Statues: Twin Arrows, Arizona
The now-shuttered Twin Arrows Trading Post survived for a spell after Route 66 was replaced by I-40, but the store/motel/cafe complex closed in the 1990s.
Just like the nearby Two Guns Trading Post (also closed), all that remains of the Twin Arrows Trading Post is the advertising -- which includes the twin arrows embedded at the foot of the Colorado Plateau.
Find out how a cartoon character became larger than life in Idaho Springs, Colorado, in the next section.
Steve Canyon Statue: Idaho Springs, Colorado
In 1947, locals changed the name of Idaho Springs' Squirrel Gulch district to Steve Canyon, in honor of a patriotic cartoon character from the 1940s.
Three years later, the U.S. Treasury Department financed this 40-foot-tall limestone carving.
A plaque for the statue pays tribute to "all American cartoon characters who serve the Nation."
A headless chicken sculpture? Yes, it’s true. Check it out on the next page.
Mike the Headless Chicken Sculpture: Fruita, Colorado
In 1945, Lloyd Olsen chopped a chicken's head off but missed its brain stem. Rather than getting fried, the bird, dubbed "Mike the Headless Chicken," lived for another 18 months, with Olsen feeding it with an eyedropper.
In 2000, sculptor Lyle Nichols paid tribute to Mike's fortitude with this 300-pound interpretation, and the city of Fruita, Colorado, plays host to an annual festival that invites visitors to "party their heads off."
Learn about a sculpture fit for the president on the next page.
Jimmy Carter Peanut Sculpture: Plains, Georgia
Created by Democrats in Indiana for a Jimmy Carter visit during his presidential campaign in 1976, this roadside statue -- a 13-foot peanut -- pays homage to the former president's peanut-farming background and toothy grin.
Its creators subsequently gave it to the president, and it now sits only a stone's throw from his old campaign headquarters in Georgia.
Find out how some discarded objects became a model of the Statue of Liberty on the next page.
Junk Statue of Liberty: McRae, Georgia
In 1886, France gave the United States the Statue of Liberty.
In 1986, the local Lions Club chapter in McRae, Georgia, commemorated Lady Liberty's centennial by fashioning a one-sixteenth scale model out of Styrofoam, a tree stump, and other objects normally considered rubbish.
Thanks to a coat of green paint, the resemblance is uncanny.
Learn how an Illinois town adopted Superman as its own in the next section.
Superman Statue: Metropolis, Illinois
Metropolis, Illinois, with a population of 15,000 (including the city and the county), is not quite the Metropolis of DC Comics fame. But it predates Superman by a long shot, as it was founded in 1839.
In 1972, the town decided to capitalize on the association with the comic book hero and adopted the "Hometown of Superman" moniker.
A seven-foot statue went up in 1986, only to be replaced seven years later by this more impressive 15-foot bronze piece.
Find out about a unique roadside dinosaur statue garden in Kentucky next.
Roadside Statue Garden: Dinosaurs, Cave City, Kentucky
As archaeologists discovered dinosaur skeletons in far-flung places, many a visitors bureau saw their area's status as one-time dinosaur stomping grounds as the key to tourism growth.
Learn about a controversial sculpture commemorating Detroit son Joe Louis on the next page.
Joe Louis Sculpture: Detroit, Michigan
A gift to the city of Detroit from Sports Illustrated in 1987, this sculpture by artist Robert Graham honors legendary boxer (and Detroit native son) Joe Louis.
The 24-foot bronze fist, which is poised as if to strike, has been the source of local controversy since its unveiling. Locals love it or hate it -- there is no middle ground.
Find out about the statue of one of the most recognized advertising icons in the next section.
Jolly Green Giant Statue: Blue Earth, Minnesota
Ho, ho, ho -- Green Giant! Wearing a size 78 shoe, this 55-foot-tall likeness pays homage to the third-most recognizable advertising icon of the 20th century.
The statue's geographical significance: The Green Giant company began in the fertile farmland that surrounds Blue Earth, Minnesota.
To learn about another "giant," check out the next page for interesting facts on Paul Bunyan statues.
Paul Bunyan Statue: Bemidji, Minnesota
Big Paul Bunyan might just be the mascot of the American road. Throughout the northern forests -- and almost every other corner of the country -- the hero of so many tall tales is immortalized as a gigantic statue, often accompanied by his sidekick, Babe the Blue Ox.
The giant lumberjack was said to be 80 pounds when five giant storks delivered him as a baby, and he grew so fast he was wearing his father's clothes within a week. He grew up on the coast of Maine but relocated with Babe to Minnesota.
Legend has it the young and rambunctious duo created the state's 10,000 lakes with their horseplay. Later, Paul went on to
invent the logging industry and chop down vast tracts of forest by himself.
The big fella is the subject of so many statues and woodcarvings it's impossible to tally them all. This one resides in Bemidji, Minnesota, while a few of the other notable ones can be found in Brainerd, Minnesota; Bangor, Maine; Klamath, California; and Ossineke, Michigan.
In the end, however, Paul Bunyan is the unofficial patron saint of clear-cutting and carries all of the political baggage that the title now entails.
Learn about Bunyan's statuesque gal pal on the next page.
Paul Bunyan's Girlfriend Statue: Hackensack, Minnesota
The town of Hackensack, Minnesota, is the home of Paul Bunyan's sweetheart, Lucette.
Sometimes called his wife, other times just his girlfriend, this formidable but friendly-looking woman towers over the Minnesota resort town, about 50 miles southeast of Bemidji, Bunyan's hometown.
You're sure to become enchanted with the statues from North Dakota's Enchanted Highway featured on the next page.
Enchanted Highway, North Dakota
The highest population density of huge roadside statues might well be North Dakota's Enchanted Highway, a 32-mile stretch of two-lane blacktop that runs between the towns of Gladstone and Regent in Hettinger County, North Dakota.
The statues are the handiwork of one Gary Greff, a self-taught sculptor and onetime schoolteacher and principal who feared that Regent would become a ghost town if its economy did not diversify beyond agriculture.
So what was Greff's solution to the problem? You've got it -- a colony of enormous sculptures on the side of the road.
Greff went to work in the early 1990s and is still at it today. At the time of this writing, the Enchanted Highway was home to six of Greff's installations -- Tin Family (1991), Roosevelt Rides Again (1993), Pheasants on the Prairie (1996), Grasshoppers in the Field (1999), Geese in Flight (2001), and Deer Crossing (2002).
Greff also runs the Enchanted Highway Gift Shop in Regent and plans to build several more oversize attractions before he hangs up his welding torch.
Tires and turtles -- a logical combination. Find out about them on the next page.
W'eel Turtle Sculpture: Dunseith, North Dakota
Made in 1982 from 2,000 tire rims that never made it to their destination, W'eel stands sentinel on the North Dakota prairie and lures customers to Dale's Thrifty Barn, the gas station/cafe/motel responsible for its existence.
The 40-foot turtle's one-ton head bobs from side to side, perhaps acknowledging the surrounding Turtle Mountains or the annual turtle derby in nearby Boissevain, Manitoba.
Learn about the world's largest freestanding statue in the next section.
Golden Driller Statue: Tulsa, Oklahoma
Originally erected in 1953 for the International Petroleum Exposition, the Golden Driller claims the title of world's largest freestanding statue -- 76 feet tall and 43,500 pounds.
The big guy was refurbished and relocated to its current home at the Tulsa Exposition Center in 1966, where it has since survived tornadoes, art critics, and even the occasional shotgun blast.
Next up: a fiberglass Neanderthal who draws visitors to Grants Pass, Oregon.
Caveman Statue: Grants Pass, Oregon
In 1874, a hunter discovered a cave system near Grants Pass, Oregon. The men in the community eventually used it as the launching pad for an Elks-like club named the Cavemen.
After a secret subterranean ceremony in 1922, the group dressed in skins and marched in local parades.
The club isn't as visible today, but members left a lasting mark on the town in 1971 in the form of an 18-foot fiberglass Neanderthal who welcomes visitors.
The statue detailed on the next page will provide a bit of Chinese history.
Forbidden Gardens Statues: Katy, Texas
Built in 1997 by a Hong Kong tycoon as a testament to Chinese history, this Houston-area attraction features a one-third scale model of one of China's greatest archaeological finds: Emperor Qin's tomb and its resident army of 6,000 terra-cotta soldiers.
The Gardens also include an elaborate model of the Forbidden City.
Learn how a troll statue helped revitalize an area of Seattle in the next section.
Fremont Troll Statue: Seattle, Washington
Like a postmodern Brothers Grimm tale, a gigantic concrete troll lurks under the Aurora Avenue Bridge in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood, mangling a Volkswagen Beetle in its massive meat hook.
That location had been increasingly littered with junk before the troll was built in 1990 and the Fremont Arts Council revitalized the area.
The legendary critter from Wyoming described on the next page gets a statue and an annual festival. Learn more.
Jackalope Statue: Douglas, Wyoming
Douglas, Wyoming, is the self-proclaimed "Jackalope Capital of the World" because, as the tall tale goes, pioneers first spotted the legendary critter in the area in the 1820s.
The city pays homage to the beast with a statue built in the center of town in 1965 and an annual festival.
Jackalope hunting licenses are even available through the local chamber of commerce, but only to those whose IQ is more than 50 but less than 72, and the season is limited to two hours a year.
Learn about the statue of another critter -- a catfish -- on the next page.
Chuck the Channel Cat Statue: Selkirk, Manitoba, Canada
From its home at the Daerwood Motor Inn in Selkirk, Manitoba, this 30-foot monument to the area's enormous catfish greets visitors with a smile.
Chuck's mission: to help promote Selkirk as the "Catfish Capital," a suitable title for the place where anglers often yank 30-pounders from the Red River.
Find out about Canada's top turtle in the next section.
Ernie the Turtle Statue: Turtleford, Saskatchewan, Canada
While not in the same league as W'eel in North Dakota, Ernie the Turtle claims the title of Canada's largest turtle with an impressive eight-foot peak at the crest of its shell.
Built in 1983, the sculpture is the work of Don Foulds, who was also behind several other big roadside beasts in Saskatchewan.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A Denver-based freelance writer, Eric Peterson contributes to numerous periodicals and travel guides. His recent credits include Ramble: A Field Guide to the U.S.A. and stories for Sky, the New York Daily News, and Westword.