E40 – The Fascinating History of Roadside Attractions
During my episode with Steve about his road trip adventures, my intrigue for roadside attractions skyrocketed. These kitschy landmarks, found sprinkled along America’s highways, had always been curiosities to me. I realized that these attractions were not just random oddities – they were pieces of history, each with a unique story of creativity, entrepreneurship, and cultural significance. My fascination for these attractions turned into an appreciation for the local artistry and the spirit of adventure they embodied. From the colossal Paul Bunyan to the world’s largest ketchup bottle, each attraction seemed to symbolize America’s cultural tapestry in its distinctive way. I discovered how roadside attractions not just added a sense of whimsy to a road trip but also served as a testament to American optimism – a belief that anything was possible.,
In this episode, we will:
- We’ll take a thrilling trip back to the early 20th century and uncover the spirit of adventure that sparked the creation of these roadside wonders.
- Discover how the rise of the automobile transformed the American landscape, leading to the emergence of eye-catching attractions along the highways.
- Immerse yourself in the golden age of roadside attractions, where we’ll showcase beloved classics like the Wigwam Motels and nostalgic diners that continue to enchant travelers.
- Learn about the resurgence of roadside attractions, inspired by counterculture movements and artistic expressions like the famous Muffler Men statues.
- Finally, we’ll explore how roadside attractions have adapted to the digital age, blending nostalgia with modern cultural influences and embracing the impact of social media.
Here is a transcript of the podcast. Please remember this was done via AI, so there are typos and mistakes.
road trips in the early 20th century were much different than the ones you and I experienced today. limited infrastructure including roads that were unpaved, narrow and poorly maintained, as well as slow and often unreliable vehicles, made road trips, equal parts adventures and exploration. Without the tools we use today to plan our trips, imagine driving down a road and coming upon a 25 foot tall Paul Bunyan, you probably stopped to check it out, right? This is the whole reason roadside attractions were created. Welcome to the Roman Yeti podcast where we share travel stories, both nostalgia, interesting locations and the tales behind those locations. I am your host and head Yeti Beth Schillaci. my conversation with Steve the other week was about his road trip really got me thinking about these fun, and actually useful stops you make along the way of your journey. So I wanted to know more about these roadside attractions, how they got started, why they’re so popular today. So I sent our favorite Yeti Addy out to investigate and she brought me back her field notes, which I’m going to share with you now in something I like to call the ADDIE files. Roadside Attractions were designed to capture the attention of passing travelers. They can range from whimsical to the bizarre and are frequently associated with creative displays of art, architecture, or even kitsch. They’re also known for being photogenic and often serve as popular photo stops for travelers looking to document their journeys in a memorable way. Like how did this all get started? Um, that was my first question to Addy. How did this get started? So here’s a breakdown of the history. Throughout history, the concept of the roadside attraction has evolved from simple stops for rest and refreshment to encompass a wide range of experiences that cater to the curiosity and the wonder lust of all large US travelers. The enduring appeal of roadside attractions lies in their ability to provide memorable experiences, unique stories and a sense of adventure that keeps the spirit of exploration alive on America’s highways. So again, let’s dive in a little deeper. Let’s let’s go sort of look at that history. The early years of the 18th and 19th century, the origins of roadside attractions can be traced back to the early years of the United States. As transportation improved, more people began to travel and entrepreneurs saw the opportunity to create unique attractions to cater to these travelers. Um, so in the late 18th, and early 19th centuries, early roadside attractions mainly included natural wonders like Niagara Falls, and Mammoth Cave. But they also were some manmade attractions, in what is said to maybe be one of the earliest roadside attractions is the ye old, ye old Curiosity Shop in Seattle, Washington. This shop was founded in 1899 by Joseph Edward Stanley and initially sold Native American artifacts, artifacts and curiosities. It quickly gained popularity among tourists, who disembarked from ships, marketing, one of the earliest examples of destination designs strictly to attract tourist. So you know, people are coming off the off the ship. And it’s it’s sort of a protocol, a place to visit. And that was, you know, what do we say 1899. That was, you know, that’s pretty cool. The next era of roadside attractions was during the rise of the automobile in the early 20th century. And this was a real boom time for roadside attractions. Because it, you know, it the advent of the automobile and people were moving on, we’re on the move more and more Americans own cars, and we’re embarking on these road trips. And because of this, like I said earlier, these businesses recognize the potential to attract travelers by creating eye catching landmarks and attractions. These attractions ranged from world’s largest and most unusual to structures to oddities, curiosities that captured the imagination, and passing motorist. I’m starting to realize the reason I’m so attracted to this is my marketing background, and just how these entrepreneurs saw an opportunity and and created these things to attract the travelers and it’s just really, it’s fun from a travel standpoint, but also from a business and marketing standpoint. I think I’m looking at it now. And one example during the early 20th century was the Luton cut off trestle in Promontory, Utah. Sorry if that was Miss browns. It was a massive wooden trestle built by the Southern Pacific Railroad. It became a curiosity for travelers, as at the time it was the longest wooden trestle in the world, measuring 12 miles in length. Another example in this sort of rise of the automobile were these tourist ports and diners that popped up places. So as road travel became more popular small motels, cabins and diners sprung up along major highways, offering travelers places to rest, eat and even socialize. And some of these establishments had unique architecture or themes to attract the attention of the travelers. Now what they sort of called the golden age of roadside attractions is from the 1930s to the 50s. This is when construction of highways like route 66 and the spread of the interstate system really fueled the popularity of road travel. So this era saw the rise of iconic roadside attractions like the wigwam motels, classic diners and neon sign signs that really added that sense of adventure to Road Trips. So motels, gas stations and diners often incorporated this playful architecture, again, to market themselves and to bring in travelers when, when I saw when I saw these Wigwam motels were on my field notes. I immediately thought of cars, the movie cars and the Cozy Cone hotel I would have. I would have really loved a road trip during this golden age. Route sr 66 is still on my to do list. But I love the idea of those little towns and stuff and it’s probably honestly why the Radiator Springs Cars Land Area in California Adventures is one of my favorite areas in all Disney parks. But let me give you a few more examples of some other Golden Age roadside attractions. There was Brock’s there’s Rock City in Lookout Mountain Georgia and Garnet and Frieda Carter created Rock City as a garden with pads leading to a unique rock formations viewpoints and intricate gardens. They advertised by painting and see Rock City on barns which became a really distinctive and iconic ad campaign you know the the barn painting. There’s also the Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz, California, which is give you a little more detail later. But it’s a gravitational anomaly that defies the laws of gravity of physics. The Mystery Spot quickly gained popularity for its disorienting effects on perception and became a classic roadside attraction. And that started in 1939. We have the world’s largest ketchup bottle in 1949 in Collinsville, Illinois. This was 170 foot tall water tower that was built to resemble a ketchup bottle and served as a promotional structure for the Brooks ketchup company. This is one of those prime examples of using roadside attractions often to relate to local interests industries in the 30 year period of from the 60s to the 90s we sort of saw both a decline and then a revival and then the same time period with an increasing emphasis on speed and efficiency brought by interstate highways, many of the traditional roadside attractions face decline. However, there was a bit of a cult counterculture movement then in the 60s and 70s that created an renewed interest and people were getting out and checking them out more in the 1960s. One of probably, I’ve been seen a lot of attention to it lately is the muffler man statues started in the 1960s. And while they’re not the earliest these, these giant fiberglass statues began to appear in the 60s, often outside businesses. The first muffler man was actually a giant Paul Bunyan statue commissioned in the mid 60s to advertise the lumberjack cafe in Flagstaff, Arizona. And it was a huge success and soon other businesses and attractions wanted their own muffler men.
Though they started as lumberjacks they became known as muffler men due to many automotive companies swapping out Paul Bunyan’s axe for a muffler. So, these are becoming popular they’re being restored their sights based on where you can find them. I think it would be really fun to To take a trip and, and see as many as possible. Now, you know, we’re sort of in this nostalgia and preservation area, which is just sort of talked about. There’s been a resurgence in this industry, this interest in vintage and nostalgic Americana. I know for sure I’m, I’m one of those people. I totally resemble that statement. But many roadside attractions that survived the decline have been preserved and recognized as historic landmarks. And they, they Additionally, the rise of social media, for for good or for bad, has led to a new wave of attention as travelers share their experiences. And this has made some lesser known attractions gain newfound popularity. Today’s roadside attractions often blend the past with modern sensibilities. And many of these attractions have adapted to change taste by incorporating interactive elements, educational components, and art installations that make them more engaging for the contemporary audience. And these attractions are also more likely to incorporate, incorporate sustainable practices and emphasize community engagement. A few examples that that popped into my, my head upon reading the field notes was, I know, in the spring, the past spring, on the route rode out to Coachella. Marvel put up a, I think it was basically like a gas station they took over. But they it was based on Guardians of the Galaxy, their home planet of nowhere. And it was a pop up where you could go in byproducts, a lot of Instagrammable picture scenes and stuff. So that was sort of a cool, temporary roadside attraction. Stay in with the Marvel theme, because that’s what I do. There was a they did a 1980s themed McDonald’s in Brooklyn to promote the upcoming season two of Loki. Again, just something that Trump brought people in as they were going by. But a lot of people make these destinations as well. So I think that’s the real interesting thing. I’m also going to throw bikinis into the mix for the modern roadside attraction. It’s a gas station in the South. I have not it’s on my, my To Do lists, we did not stop on our last drive down to Florida, because I didn’t fully appreciate or know the, the, the tale of buches but I do now. So it’s a gas station has a store but it’s become so popular because of the food items and their little cute little beaver mascot. And people go out of their way to visit. Look on YouTube look on Instagram reels. There’s a lot a lot of bikinis people out there. And they recently opened in Somerville, Tennessee, what is considered to be what is thought to be the world’s largest gas station. So you know, I think roadside attractions come in all all flavors and sizes now. I think it’s just really fun. So, I mean, I guess it comes to what, who cares bath, right? Why should we care about these roadside attractions? In the US, they really hold a unique cultural significance that goes beyond their quirky and playful nature. These attractions have become iconic symbols of our roadtrip culture here in America. And they create a sense of adventure, curiosity and a connection to the open road. Now you’re probably saying cultural significance. Yeah, right. Sure, Beth. But no, let’s let’s dig in. Let’s get some insight here. Roadside Attractions evoke a sense of nostalgia for a bygone era of travel. When road trips were a popular way to explore the country. They remind people have family, vacations, childhood memories, and the simple pleasures of the open road. Routes and attractions also blur the line between art and everyday life. Their imaginative designs and architectures serve as public art installations. That really, you know, challenge our traditional Noce notions of artistic expression. And, you know, I just mentioned the Marvel ones certain roadside attractions have become pop, pop culture icons on their own. They’re featured in movies, TV shows, music, videos and literature. And they have become a recognizable symbol beyond just what they what they symbolize. You know, I think how many times you’ve probably seen the Randy’s do donut, Donut, you know, huge donut that’s on their roof in movies and television. It’s transcended. You know, people go to the donut shop because they saw it in these movies. So it really has become these pop culture icons here in our country. And as I mentioned earlier, many roadside attractions were established by small business owners, seeking to attract travelers and boost their local economies. And this really represents a spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation that really embodies the American dream of creating something from nothing. And the wonder of the sense of wonder and whimsy that the Brog you know, they just they spark wonder and curiosity. And they really do encourage people to take a detour, explore the unexpected, and embrace that joy of discovery. They also create the shared experience, the art of visiting roadside attractions has become a shared experience for generations of travelers, it creates a sense of community among those who have embarked on these similar journeys, and experience the same attractions. And there are preservation of history of some roadside attractions are tied to historical events or figures or moments. And they serve as reminders of the past and contribute to the preservation of local and national history. And really, it’s just a reflection of American optimism. The sheer sheer audacity and creativity of some roadside attractions really just reflect our spirit of optimism and the belief that anything is possible.
I think there’s that positivity that we all sort of want and and that that unifier. But really overall roadside attractions contribute to the cultural tapestry of the United States. Serving has touchstones that celebrate the country’s diversity, our creativity and our sense of adventure. They remind us that the journey itself can really be as meaningful if not more so than the destination. These factors are also what is behind the resurgence in the popularity of roadside attractions. In addition to nostalgia, there are a few other factors that come together to create renewed interest in these quirky and unique landmarks. Social media, the rise of social media platforms like Instagram, has transformed the way people share their experiences, roadside attractions, with their eye catching visuals and unusual features are perfectly suited for sharing on social media. And that leads to viral post and increased intention, attention for these attractions. And many travelers are seeking a authentic and off the beaten path experience these days. And roadside attractions really offer a break from the mass tourism and commercialized destinations. Even though they’re they’re commercialized. It’s a little different. I guess we look at it that way. But it really provides a chance a lot of the times to connect with the local culture and the creativity of that that location. And there’s been some cultural shifts. A broader cultural shift towards valuing experiences over material possessions has really led people to prioritize these unique adventures. And road trips, road trips have experienced a resurgence as a preferred mode of travel, probably due to the pandemic and not flying for a while, but I think it’s cool, like people are setting their own pace. They’re exploring these hidden gems, and just some unexpected attractions along the way. So really, all these factors have combined to breathe a new life into roadside attractions, and it’s transforming them from simple stops on a journey to sought after destinations in themselves. The resurgence in their popularity highlights the enduring appeal of whimsy, curiosity and exploration in the world of travel. So in addition to all this great information, I also asked Addy to do a little extra homework for me and give him give us a few roadside attractions that are iconic and these are some she founds I’m guessing a lot of these are going to be ones you have at least heard of, but I still thought they were fun to share Cadillac Ranch in our Marilla amarilla sorry about that, Texas. Cadillac Ranch is a famous roadside art installation located near Amarillo. And it was created in 1974 by in art group farm, and it was commissioned by an amarilla billionaire. And this installation consists of a row of 10 Cadillac cars, buried nose first into the ground on an angle corresponding to the Great Pyramid of Giza, so the Cadillac Ranch has become this iconic landmark and a popular tourist attraction, and visitors are encouraged to bring their own spray paint to add to the colorful graffiti that covers the car, making each visit a dynamic and evolving artistic experience. This installation is located along historic route 66 and is a symbol of the American fascination with cars travel and art. If you’re on if you’re from the East Coast and have ever traveled along the southern part of 95, you know this one south of the border in Dillon, South Carolina. South of the border is a famous roadside attraction located in South Carolina, right over the border and up from North Carolina, and was established in 1949 by Alan Schaefer. Initially, and I did not know this initially, it was a small beer stand. It gradually expanded over the years into a sprawling complex featuring restaurants, shops, motels, amusement rides, and various Theme Locations. The name south of the border refers to its location just south of the North Carolina, South Carolina borderline. This complex is known for its distinctive billboards. There’s billboards that you see a lot 95 letting you know the distance from it. And it does have a Mexican themed decor. It has become an iconic stop for travelers along on Interstate 95. And its unique marketing and advertising campaigns have really contributed to its popularity over the years. So like I said, if you have driven 95 You have probably at least in billboards, if you didn’t go far enough, but it’s there. This one sounds really cool, and I definitely want to check out the Fremont Troll in Seattle, Washington. The Fremont Troll is a large public art sculpture located under the Aurora Bridge in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle, Washington. And it was built in 1990. So it’s a relatively new one. The sculpture was created by artist and it was done as part of a contest sponsored by the Fremont Fremont Arts Council to rehabilitate the area beneath the bridge. The Fremont Troll quickly became a beloved local landmark, and a popular tourist attraction. The sculpture depicts a troll holding a real Volkswagen Beetle and its hands and visitors are often enjoy interacting with the artwork by taking pictures and exploring the unique site. We also have Carhenge in alliance Nebraska. Carhenge is a replica of Stonehenge made with vintage cars, and was created in 1987. It is located near Alliance and was conceived and built by artists Jim Reinders. As a tribute to his father Carhenge consists of 30 automobiles arranged in a circle to resemble the iconic stone monument in England. It’s become a popular roadside in that attraction and a unique example of outsider art. It draws visitors who are intrigued by its creative interpretation and playful combination of automobile and ancient cultural symbolism. Now, we mentioned the Mystery Spot. But I got a little more information for you on this one. This is in Santa Cruz, California. And it’s located in the Redwood Forest of Santa Cruz mountains in California. It’s known for its gravitational anomaly and optical illusions. And it creates a sense of disorientation and mystery for visitors. And it was discovered in 1939 by George Prather, who noticed unusual gravitational and optical effects in a small area of the forest. So he opened the site to the public in 1940, offering guided tours to showcase this peculiar phenomenon. And the main attraction of the Mystery Spot is a tilted wooden cabin, built on a steep hillside, and inside that cabin, visitors experience a series of optical illusions that meet the law of physics seem to behave strangely. Water appears to flow up hill visitors appear to change in height depending on where they stand. And objects seem to defy gravity. The guides who playfully explain the effects add to the with whimsical atmosphere. So, uh, sounds like a fun, fun place to check out. Another one that we’re probably fairly familiar with, but I just, it’s fun is the Roswell UFO Museum. The International UFO Museum and Research Center, commonly known as Roswell UFO museum was established in Roswell, New Mexico. And that was done in 1991. The museum is dedicated to the study and presentation of information related to the Roswell UFO incident of 1947. The incident involves, involves claims that an unidentified flying object crashed on a ranch near Roswell and the US military initially announced that it was a flying disc, quote, unquote. The military later retracted that statement attributing the debris to a weather balloon. This event has fueled conspiracy theories and speculation about extra terrestrial counters for years. And the museum was created to provide a platform for discussing the incident preserve presenting evidence and just exploring the cultural impact of the event on popular beliefs. Next one we’re going to talk about is the corn palace in Mitchell sin, South Dakota,
the corn Palace is an iconic building, known for its unique exterior decorations made entirely from corn and other grains. The original corn palace was built in 1892 as a way to showcase the area’s agricultural products and attract settlers to the region. However, the current structure that stands there is not the original. The current corn palace was built in 1921, after the original building underwent several renovations and expansions. The new structure was designed with Moorish architectural influences and features intricate murals and designs created using corn grain and other natural natural materials. The corn palace has become a cultural landmark and a symbol of the region’s agricultural history and heritage and it serves as both a tourist attraction and a venue for you know, various events and performances. That sounds like a I’ve seen pictures it’s just not a place I’ve I’ve been so again, I feel like I have to do a road trip. I need to take like six months on the road, I guess. But we’ll see. The last one I have to share with you is a little more local to me. It’s called Dinosaur kingdom to in Natural Bridge, Virginia. And it’s a unique and imaginative outdoor attraction located in natural bridge and it open to the public in 2016. Definitely a newer one and it was created by artists Mark Klein and it’s a whimsical and slightly tongue in cheek depiction of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures engaged in battles and adventures set in an alternate history. Definitely interesting definitely. Kitchen and and one that should definitely be checked out if you’re on in the neighborhood. But roadside attractions have always been an integral part of Americana, and roadtrip culture. And it’s just with many becoming iconic landmarks that just hold a special place in our hearts of travelers. They represent the spirit of adventure, curiosity and the joy of discovering the unexpected while exploring the open road. So who’s ready for a road trip? And which one or which ones do you want to visit? Start making that list and let me know. I hope these episodes inspire you to get out and roam even in your own neighborhood. So please subscribe so you don’t miss future episodes. And if you like what we’re doing here, please leave a review and a rating. Also to help support us please head to Yeti to shop.com to pick up some rooming Yeti merch. I’ll talk to you soon and keep roaming