Road trip news, rants, and ruminations by the Editors of RoadsideAmerica.com
May 24, 2013
Birger was a mob boss/Robin Hood figure in Southern Illinois in the 1920s, part of a complicated story that involved bootlegging, immigrant coal miners, and the Klu Klux Klan. He was charismatic, but after he ordered the execution of the mayor of a nearby town, the authorities felt it was in everybody’s best interest to hang him.
The execution was done as a public spectacle on April 19, 1928. Photos from that day show Birger standing above the assembled crowd, clearly enjoying his last moment in the spotlight.
The gallows were disassembled, stuck in a basement, made a brief reappearance in 1973 at a July 4 event, then vanished.
The jail where Birger had been hanged eventually became the Franklin County Jail Museum, which displays Birger’s jail cell, his bulletproof vest, his Tommy guns, and the handcuffs he wore for his execution.
That was until Bob got a phone call on May 3, telling him that the gallows could be found hidden in the loft of a nearby abandoned barn. What had happened, Bob said, was that a farmer had stored the disassembled gallows as a favor, and did it so efficiently that even after he had been dead for 15 years, with the barn ransacked by treasure-hunters, no one had found it.
The real gallows are now displayed as they were found, in pieces, on the floor of the jail, protected from the elements, disassembled because they’re 18 feet tall and the ceiling isn’t high enough. Bob said that reassembly is still some time off. He said he really wasn’t in a hurry to have it done because he now knows that the replica, built to be accurate, is “way off.”
George visited the local radio station, was interviewed on-air, and was allowed to play the Beatles’ new record, “From Me To You.” He was then politely told, according to Bob, that, “British music wouldn’t sell.”
Subsequently realizing its error, the county preserved the radio station studio inside the Jail Museum — including the microphone and turntable, but not the record, which is still owned by the daughter of the station manager. “That’s her most prized possession,” said Bob.
Bob said that later in 2013 year, on the 50th anniversary of George’s visit, a historical marker will be unveiled in Benton calling attention to the important event. He also said that, for now at least, the Jail Museum has no plans to bring back its very popular t-shirt, “I Hung Around the Franklin County Jail,” illustrated with a picture of the Birger hanging.
“We thought it was a bit distasteful,” said Bob, although he acknowledged that it sold out in a hurry.
May 15, 2013
May 10, 2013, was the 150th anniversary of the death of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson (His arm was dead and buried seven days earlier). Mark Cline, born and raised in the South and a builder of large and unique sculptures, thought that Stonewall should be remembered on this date. The general’s hometown of Lexington, Virginia, however, was content to let the anniversary pass quietly. So Mark decided to build a permanent, 20-foot-tall statue of Stonewall, mount him on a five-foot-high stone wall, and stand him at the outskirts of the city, facing north, as if protecting it from the Yankees.
“It was also about the hat,” said Mark, who is something of an authority on Stonewall, having portrayed him in a local theater production. Stonewall, said Mark, was famous for his little cap, given to him by his wife. Lexington has two statues of Stonewall, yet one depicts him bare-headed, and the other has him wearing “some old funky-looking thing,” according to Mark, that does not resemble Stonewall’s famous headgear.
The statue, Mark added, was scheduled to be anchored in place at 3:15 pm, the moment of Stonewall’s death. It’s on private property, but Mark placed the statue to be “extremely visible” to those driving south into town on US 11.
“Stonewall stands for our heritage, our Christian values, and our rights,” said Mark, noting that the statue’s official title, “Onward Christian Solider,” is written very tiny to avoid violating local zoning codes against signs. “To some people around here he’s like Jesus,” said Mark of Stonewall, but to Mark the statue is more an expression of freedom of expression, the right to put up a big statue on your land without fear that some local bureaucrat will take it down. “We’re exercising our freedoms as Americans,” Mark said, although whether Stonewall would endorse this particular interpretation of freedom is something we will never know.
Brandon Dorsey, Commander of the Stonewall Brigade in Lexington (a Civil War reenactor group), worked with Mark to erect the statue, and noted that it depicts Stonewall with his officer’s saber raised. “There are some who would question that,” said Brandon, as Stonewall was known to have assumed that pose only once, “and the sword was so rusty he had to raise it in its scabbard.” So Mark Cline’s statue may be ending the hat controversy and starting another.
April 30, 2013
Schwarzenegger was once a Mr. World, but even in his prime he was no match for Zuverman.
Zuverman was a colossal version of Bob Zuver, bodybuilder and proprietor of Zuver’s Fitness Center at Muscle Beach, California. Built in 1968, he was 18 feet tall with six-foot biceps and eight-pack abs (The body may have been exaggerated, but the head was a faithful copy of Bob’s).
A plaque next to Zuverman listed his vital stats, and claimed that a flesh-and-blood version would eat 16 eggs for breakfast and a 10-pound steak for dinner.
Muscle Beach’s popularity waned in the 1980s, and Zuverman was bought by George Comalli, a Zuver fan and fitness buff. He trucked the beefy goliath to Portland, Oregon, painted him gold, and stood him on the roof of his business, Giant’s Gym.
The city declared that Zuverman violated its signage codes, so George moved him indoors and stood him among the weight machines, his head invisible up near the roofline. Separated from his identity, Zuverman became simply “He-Man.”
The statue was so big that one of its brawny arms had to be sawed off to get it into the truck.
Rick is a long-time fan of RoadsideAmerica.com and, like the now deceased Bob Zuver, understands the value of standing an 18-foot-tall muscleman outside his gym. He told us that Darlington, unlike Portland, approves of Zuverman’s outdoor display. He said he will reproduce the original Zuverman plaque to once again give the giant an identity and a name.
Rick expects to have Zuverman up on a concrete pedestal, “better than new,” by July 4.
“He’s gonna be here until I get old and somebody else takes him,” said Rick, who is excited that passers-by will once again be able to pose for photos next to Zuverman. “Why did I do this? I don’t know; I guess I really wanted him,” Rick said. “He’s really big!”
April 24, 2013
No matter how you feel about guns, it’s hard to resist the urge to fire one that’s 66 feet long.
That’s the thinking behind the Turret II Experience at the Battleship New Jersey. The former warship, docked in Camden since 2001 as a tourist destination, unveiled the new attraction-within-an-attraction in April 2013. At $30.00 per person, it’s a way to bring in added revenue after the state scuttled funding for the battleship (This year, New Jersey’s contribution to its namesake is $0).
The tours, scheduled twice a week, take paying customers five decks deep into the ship and then into the turret, through a special visitor entrance cut into it. The tour-takers “play the role of the crew,” according to a battleship press release: they move shells into the hoist; load powder bags into the chamber; input distance, wind speed, and other variables into a vintage analog computer (If you’ve seen the movie Battleship, you already know the drill). Each visitor is then offered the chance to wrap his or her hands around the giant brass trigger and “fire” the gun.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the experience is convincing enough — with video of the hell-howitzer blasting away and subsonic rumbles and shakes — that at least some young participants have believed that they may have accidentally leveled nearby Philadelphia.
The gun, the largest in the U.S. Navy, hurled 1,900-pound shells up to 23 miles against foes ranging from Imperial Japan to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. 23 miles is just shy of the state capital in Trenton, a fact that has not been lost on Battleship New Jersey’s publicists, who playfully insist that the Turret II Experience in no way suggests any hard feelings between New Jersey’s battleship and its politicians.
The Turret II Experience reminds us of the Tang Submarine Experience at the National World War II Museum in Louisiana, which also opened this year. The Tang, however, is fake, while the Turret takes place in a real turret using real equipment. It is, the battleship says, only the first step in a five-year plan that will progressively open older, deeper parts of the ship to the public. Perhaps in 2018 we can look forward to the debut of The Bilge Experience. New Jersey’s lawmakers would certainly be invited.
April 17, 2013
Muffler Men and their ilk have always been a wily, nomadic bunch. One minute a Bunyan is standing in front of a mountain motor lodge, the next he’s chopping wood on a beach 500 miles away. Ever wonder how these giant fiberglass statues got around — how they moved from one location to the next?
According to commercial statue pioneer Steve Dashew, it wasn’t easy. So back in 1966 he set out to solve the problem.
A bit of history on RoadsideAmerica.com and Steve — we’ve corresponded over the years, ever since we first connected in 1999 to discuss his role in the early days of the big brand men (what we refer to as Muffler Men) and his company, International Fiberglass. Since 1963, the company had sold large molded sculptures to oil companies (for gas stations), muffler repair shops, restaurants, and other businesses that might benefit from “3D traffic stoppers.” Based in Venice, California, International Fiberglass was responsible for creating most of the giant fiberglass humanoids standing along America’s highways.
As Muffler Men acolytes, we persuaded Steve in our discussions to thoroughly dredge his memories. He provided details on his statue manufacturing and marketing, and had few documents and mementoes from that time in his life (the company closed around 1974). But he also mentioned a patent he’d received for a novel transport trailer for giant statues, and said he might be able to find it in his files.
In those early days of researching the statue landscape, we were still in the thrall of the Great Muffler Men Conspiracy, so the trailer patent didn’t seem as mission-critical as, say, uncovering what happened to all of the Texaco Big Friends. So we forgot about the trailer.
Fast forward to 2013, when Steve’s storage unit must have finally collapsed under the weight of his life of accomplishments, unearthing the patent document for his first invention, the “Tilting Trailer.” Patent #3,368,827 was filed on June 7, 1966, and issued on Feb. 13, 1968. The patent drawings and text describe how this innovation of mechanical conveyance would make travel a pleasure for any fiberglass colossus (and its human handlers).
Transportation had long been the bane of the giant roadside statue business, with issues of truck size, transport cost, load stability and safety. The Tilting Trailer could streamline the process,and make it easier for a business owner to move a big guy.
Steve had the idea, and built one to test.
The patent describes the need:
“For advertisements and display purposes, large displays are generally employed to attract the attention of potential customers. Among the displays which are used are gigantic figures, placed in a vertical position to attract attention. By using modern materials, such as fiberglass, the weight of such figures can be held down. However, due to their large size, moving such figures to where they are to be displayed is most cumbersome, often requiring a large vehicle for transporting the figures and several men for erecting the figure at the desired location.”
The Tilting Trailer provided a means of stable transport, attached by a trailed hitch to a vehicle. The figure could be angled down to reduce wind resistance. At the destination, the figure could again be raised vertically, and a detaching mobile platform “including a plurality of wheels or casters” would be rolled to the statue’s final location.
Steve said that many of the tilting trailers were built and deployed during the statue population explosion of the 1960s. “They were the key to the itinerant use by various oil companies, including TEXACO and the Big Friend program.”
We wonder how many examples of Patent #3,368,827 survived… Once a Muffler Man was set up, the trailer might end up behind the garage, years might pass, its original purpose forgotten….
April 8, 2013
The good news is that the Minister’s Tree House will reopen.
The bad news is that the Minister doesn’t yet know when that will be.
Always popular with visitors, the giant tree house built by minister Horace Burgess was shut down by the Tennessee state fire marshal in August 2012. Horace, since then, has worked steadily to bring the tree house into compliance with Tennessee’s building codes, even though the state admits that it has no building codes for tree houses.
Some visitors, stopping at the locked gate outside the tree house, have seen piles of scrap at the base of the tree and assumed, to their alarm, that the house was being torn down. Horace, who sounded exhausted when we spoke with him, assured us that what they saw were just old pieces that he was replacing so that the tree house can reopen.
Whenever that will be, the tree house will not be as free-spirited as before. Visitors will have to read a set of posted rules and sign a waiver indemnifying Horace if they break them (or themselves). There will be an admission fee. There will be someone on hand to ensure that the tree house does not exceed its maximum capacity, although that capacity has yet to be determined.
The minister isn’t the only one anxious to reopen the tree house. Horace wryly placed a sign on the locked gate with the phone number of the state fire marshal. It has had its intended effect. “The last time I talked to him,” said Horace, “he was just getting inundated with calls. He said, ‘We’re gonna have to resolve this as soon as possible.’”
Horace understands that bureaucracy is slow. He’s under no illusion that the tree house will reopen as quickly as he thinks it should. All he knows for sure is that it will reopen, maybe sooner, maybe later; he just doesn’t know when. “I don’t want the tree house to just sit there,” Horace said. “It’d be a waste if people didn’t get to enjoy it. So I’m just gonna work it out so they can enjoy it, the best way I can.”
« Previous Entries
- Two Gallows, One Beatle: Good Times At The Old Jail
- Hats On To Stonewall Jackson, Defender Of Lexington
- Beefcake of Roads: New Home For World’s Largest Muscleman
- Join the Battleship NJ Gun Crew (Look Out, Philly!)
- Muffler Men History: Moving Giants
- The State vs. The Minister’s Tree House: Earthly Codes