I recently wrote about my second visit to the famous “The Thing” on I-10. The roadside attraction was first set up sometime prior to 1969. It was set up by Thomas Binkley Prince and then taken over by his wife when he passed. As I mentioned in my piece, the entire roadside attraction has recently been redone and modernized but still has pieces of what it once was. But for all of its fame, “The Thing” is not the first nor the most popular roadside attraction in America. It is one of the most commonly referred to, but the phenomena of roadside attractions is something that stretches across the entire country and has been around for a lot longer than many might imagine.
While there is no official “first,” one of the earliest noted roadside attractions is “The Mystery Spot,” located near Santa Cruz, California. In 1939 a man by the name of George Prather was exploring an area when supposedly his compass went mad; he bought land there and built a shack for people to visit. While we now know that everything in the shack is all illusions and messing with tourist perceptions, for a time, the Mystery Spot seemed to be a gravity-defying strange area. Balls would roll uphill, the shack was oddly angled, things of that nature. Even now that we know it’s basically all tricks, people still love to visit because there is something visually appealing and fun about it.
In 1947 in Weeki Wachee, Florida, a stunt swimmer founded his Mermaid Shows, which are still active to this day. As I said, sometime before 1969, The Thing was also founded.
Of course, not all roadside attractions brought spectacle like these. Some were simply formed out of necessity, and all they provide is a cool place to stop. One such location was on I-90 on the way to Mount Rushmore. A couple would provide free water at their small drug store, and the road was so devoid of everything else that many people would stop. Slowly the drug store grew into an entire themed area with plenty of places for people to eat and shop. There was no central “Mermaid Show” or “gravity-defying shack,” but nonetheless an interesting and appealing place for people to get out of their cars while traveling.
Route-66 in and of itself is almost a “roadside attraction” as along the highway, in various places, people would set up their own things. If you drive down the road, a lot of it has disappeared, but much of the route was once filled with restaurants with zany designs and anything and everything that would say, “hey, stop here, experience something cool” to bring in all the travelers on the road. Route-66 itself got quite the reputation, and people wanted to drive it and just explore the various roadside offerings.
This, of course, spun into what was extremely popular among roadside attractions, “The World’s Largest.” Many of these are not official or anything, with there being more than one “World’s Largest Frying Pan,” for instance, but the competition and who could do the most with the attraction drove people for decades, trying to appeal to long-distance travelers. “Stop here, see our large frying pan and why it’s the best.” Currently, there are still dozens of “World’s Largest” from The World’s Largest Pistachio in New Mexico to the World’s Largest Pelican in Minnesota.
But why such an American thing? Well, the placement and general founding of these attractions pretty much tell the story of the highways crossing America. Long desolate drives required places for people to stop. As I said, the drugstore on the way to Rushmore brought in so many people because it was simply the only stop for a long stretch of that drive, and people needed a place to get water. The Thing first starts being advertised somewhere in Texas and continues all the way until its location in Arizona. If you drive that road now, you will be confronted with long stretches of nothing, and that is several decades of development later.
People were having to build gas stations and stops in these various areas anyway, so it drove the need for others to find a way to make money off of it. A gas station goes in off a highway in Arizona, the owner finds a “mummy,” and suddenly not only are people stopping for gas, but they are paying you money to look at your weird little museum and staying longer to buy food and drinks.
The reality is they are fairly unique to America because the entire concept of long highways is. However, Western Canada was right behind America with roadside attractions, once again driven by long stretches of road. They have also caught on in Australia. That is not to say that there are similar things in other countries, there are, of course, but the spiraling and large numbers of just silly roadside attractions is something Americans really embraced and did a lot of.
If you pull up the list of the World’s Largest, you will find that America still boasts a lot of these, and that is only one type of our many varieties of odd roadside attractions. I mean, heck Weeki Wachee mermaid shows are part of Flordia’s state park system.
There is also the bad side to roadside attractions, however. A lot of private zoos (and fake rescues that are mislabeled private zoos) take advantage of this same thing. Stop by our restaurant in Florida and see a gator show, for instance. However, the pushback on those kinds has been growing. The pushback on all of these attractions has actually been happening. Since so many of these were established many, many decades ago, they have changed ownership a few times, and it kills a lot of them. The recent changes to The Thing may end up being the death of it, only time will tell. There is also the fact that a lot of these places get away with not being well maintained until ownership changes hands and new inspections become a must.
There is good and bad in this. As I said, a lot of private zoos are starting to close in the wake of all of this. But so are other smaller attractions that maybe they needed upgrades to their buildings they couldn’t afford but is unlikely to get people hurt.
Conversely, it also seems like there is regrowth in popularity. I’ve noticed I am not the only millennial (let alone other generations) that seem to love this type of kitschy and odd Americana. I often hear about people wanting to go to the UFO museum in Rosewell, and I highly encourage it. The great thing about all of these is they tend to be local, fairly affordable and have their own special identity. I love visiting museums when I go out of town, big and small. But something like The UFO Museum is nothing like most others you will visit, and I mean that in the best possible way.
So from strangely built buildings in California meant to play with people’s perception and make them doubt gravity, to the odd little “mummy” in the middle of nowhere, to a mermaid show in Florida, since the 1930s, America has had a long history of saying “hey stop here while you are driving” with some great, horrible, morbid, interesting, silly places to stop.
Many of them have been lost. Route-66 is not even close to what it used to be, and sadly that “historic drive” no longer brings the thrill that it once did. Many have been upgraded for both the better and the worse. But many are still there, slightly changing with the times, still offering long, weary drivers a place to stop and something to kill some time with.
Before your next road trip, I would suggest looking at the various sites that track and give news about these roadside attractions and find at least one for you. You’ll spend a few bucks, stretch your legs, and get to experience a little bit of one of the weirdest aspects of America’s history.