Trunkations

Road trip news, rants, and ruminations by the Editors of RoadsideAmerica.com


Happy Birthday Twine Ball Man

James Frank Kotera
James Frank Kotera

JFK – that’s James Frank Kotera, not John F. Kennedy – turned 70 on Groundhog Day, 2017. JFK is the creator and solitary roller of what may be the World’s Largest Ball of Twine. He’s been wrapping it for almost 38 years.

We called to wish JFK a happy birthday, and to ask how the twine ball was coming along. He said that he still adds to it every day, but not yet on his birthday because it was 12 degrees below zero outside (He and his outdoor twine ball are in northern Wisconsin). JFK asked if we were stopping by (he enjoys visitors), and we said we’d probably wait until it was a little warmer.

JFK told us that his twine ball currently weighs 22,425 pounds. We then checked with Linda Clover, caretaker of the “World’s Largest Ball of Twine” in Cawker City, Kansas, and learned that its current weight is 20,230 pounds. Both weights are best guesses since neither ball sits on a scale, but clearly this is a Golden Age of Giant Twine Balls with two active ten-ton behemoths vying for size supremacy.

JFK said that he had to run to get to his job at the town dump, but planned to add to his twine ball later in the afternoon. “When it warms up,” he said. “It keeps me young.”

JFK's mail box

Sections: Attraction News
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A Uniter, Not A Divider

Bigfoot and David Bakara.

In a time when Americans yearn for someone to bring them together, David Bakara knows who that someone is.

Bigfoot.

David and his wife opened the Expedition: Bigfoot! attraction in Georgia last year. He told us that becoming a Bigfoot researcher was his first step into a larger world of… well, other Bigfoot researchers. He also said that people interested in Bigfoot put aside the petty problems that typically divide us.

“For people who don’t believe I say, ‘I respect you,'” David told us, words notably absent from today’s impassioned rhetoric.

Bigfoot.

Could Bigfoot-as-public-servant heal the wounds of a divided nation? He clearly meets at least some of the criteria for office: Bigfoot is American-born and he’s certainly old enough. And the idea of a national leader as a crazy-haired inhuman creature no longer seems impossibly farfetched.

But Bigfoot doesn’t need to win an election to improve our lives. According to David, he’s already won our hearts.

“I went looking for Bigfoot, and instead I found myself,” David told us, describing his fellow Bigfoot believers as “neat friends” who are “down-to-earth” and who “drop all the complications.”

That sounds like the kind of Americans our forefathers hoped for when they kicked out the divide-and-conquer British.

“In the Bigfoot world, we all trust each other,” David said. “We find out we’re all decent people.”

Sections: Attraction News, Rants
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Hot Wax: Presidents For Sale

Hall of Presidents and First Ladies
Hall of Presidents and First Ladies

Does the price an American pays for a wax President reveal how Americans feel about the Presidents themselves?

Nah… but the recent Gettysburg auction of all the dummies from The Hall of Presidents and First Ladies was too good an opportunity for the media to pass up. Who are we to turn up our noses at such a ready-made story?

Randy Dickensheets, the auctioneer, forwarded us a list of the winning bids for all of the Presidents and First Ladies. The auction, he said, was packed with about 300 eager buyers, many of them attorneys and doctors looking to add a Mr. or Mrs. President as an office decoration. Also present were some distant presidential relatives, as well as the usual pop culture junkies and political packrats.

Priciest of all the wax Presidents were Abe Lincoln $9,350; Teddy Roosevelt $8,800; Ulysses S. Grant $6,820; George Washington $5,610; Andrew Jackson $5,610. Grant clearly benefited from being a Gettysburg favorite. Jackson’s strong showing was a surprise, placing him ahead of more modern presidential heartthrobs such as JFK and Ronald Reagan. Our personal favorite President dummy in the entire collection, Zombie Bill Clinton, fetched only $2,750.

Wax George Washington
Wax George Washington: $5,610.

The least-loved Presidents were Lyndon Johnson $1,870; John Adams $1,760; Franklin Pierce $1,430; James Madison $1,430; and poor James Monroe at $1,100. Randy told us that he began bidding for each President at $1,000, so Monroe only mustered one or two feeble fans.

First among the First Ladies was the obscure – and evidently rare – Jane Irwin Findlay, who served as White House hostess during the 32-day administration of William Henry Harrison. Rounding out the top five: Mary Todd Lincoln, Grace Coolidge, Hillary Clinton, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Randy told us that all of the dummies went to what he felt were “good homes,” except perhaps Hillary. “I thought the guy bid high ($742.50) because he really liked her,” Randy told us, but he later overheard that the winner planned to turn her into a toilet paper holder for his bathroom. “We’re a split country,” Randy said with a sigh.

Other notable items from the auction included a “large amount” of old black and white postcards “including five different styles of Abraham Lincoln” ($385); and – clearly the steal of the day – the audio tapes that narrated the entire attraction for a mere $38.50.

“This is your heritage!” the announcer cries, now for an audience of one. “The story of the Presidents as they might have told it! The story of America!”

Wax Abraham Lincoln.
Wax Abraham Lincoln: $9,350

Sections: Attraction News, Closing
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The 7 Death Cars of Bonnie and Clyde

Alcatraz East Bonnie and Clyde Car
Alcatraz East Bonnie and Clyde Car

On our trip to the new Alcatraz East attraction in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, we met an old friend: the Bonnie and Clyde Death Car from the 1967 Faye Dunaway/Warren Beatty movie.

We first saw it at the Bonnie and Clyde Ambush Museum in Louisiana; next it moved to the National Museum of Crime and Punishment in Washington, DC; and in late 2016 it relocated to its current home.

Unlike the real Death Car, which is olive green, the movie Death Car was painted yellow to accentuate its bullet holes on film. The lighter color also helped because the bullets fired into the movie Death Car were smaller than those blasted into the real Death Car during the May 23, 1934 ambush, by lawmen who obviously wanted Bonnie and Clyde very dead.

Tragedy in US History Museum sign, 1987.
Tragedy in US History Museum sign, 1987

A Bonnie and Clyde Death Car is an iconic roadside relic, which explains why at least seven of them are currently on display in various American attractions: the real car, the movie car, and five fake cars (A sixth fake was destroyed when the Wax Museum of the Southwest burned in Grand Prairie, Texas). Others may be out there as well, hibernating in barns or private collections — and all that’s needed to manufacture a new one is a 1934 Ford, a big gun, and a lot of bullets.

Here’s our quick list of the seven tourist-accessible cars. Visit the one nearest you!

Real Death Car: Primm, Nevada After years of being loaned out to other attractions, the real Death Car has remained parked at its home, Whiskey Pete’s Casino, on the plush carpet next to the main cashier cage, since 2012.

Primm, Nevada.
Primm, Nevada

Movie Death Car: Pigeon Forge, Tennessee It’s now a charter member of the “Sinister Vehicles” gallery at Alcatraz East, America’s most comprehensive museum of crime.

Vintage Fake Death Car: Volo, Illinois This fake toured state fairs in the 1940s as the real Death Car. It was such a good fake that it was used as the template for the 1960s Movie Death Car. We first saw it in the 1990s at the Tragedy in U.S. History Museum in Florida, where it was still being billed as the real Death Car. It’s currently at the Volo Auto Museum, which acknowledges it as a fake.

Vintage Fake Death Car: Roscoe, Illinois We were told that this fake was parked next to the real Death Car while the fake was shot full of holes, to ensure the accuracy of the forgery. It’s now on display at Historic Auto Attractions, which acknowledges it as a fake.

Gibsland, Louisiana, 2007.
Gibsland, Louisiana, 2007
Fake Movie Death Car: Gibsland, Louisiana A new car replaced the real Movie Death Car at the Bonnie and Clyde Ambush Museum. We like it a lot: the bullet holes are bigger, and the car is displayed with bloody dummies of Bonnie and Clyde in its front seat.

Fake Movie Death Car: Las Vegas, Nevada This lemon yellow fake appears to be a recent creation by car customizer Michael Dezer, who displays it as the Movie Death Car in his Hollywood Cars Museum. It’s not what it claims to be, but it’s still worthy as a symbol of the long-lasting love affair between America and Bonnie and Clyde’s gun-blasted, bloody Death Car.

Fake Death Car: San Antonio, Texas In 2006 the Buckhorn Saloon and Museum added a Texas Ranger Museum to its attraction, with a replica Bonnie and Clyde Death Car as its centerpiece. According to marketing manager Karen Bippert, the museum assembled the car from parts purchased from catalogs and eBay, then had it painted to match the color of the original. Although its dozens of bullet holes look real, they were in fact painted on by an artist hired specifically for the job. [Thanks to tipster Gordon Melton for telling us about this car.]

Sections: Attraction News
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2017: Out of the Shadows

Superman statue
Superman statue, Metropolis, Illinois

In August 2017, a rare total eclipse of the sun will slash across America, briefly tossing select tourist attractions into disturbing daytime darkness. But the rest of the 2017 Roadsider calendar lights up like an emergency flashlight of promising milestones and celebrations.

First, about that eclipse: on August 21st, spoiler clouds notwithstanding, it passes directly over Carhenge (celebrating its 30th birthday in 2017). However, the prime Roadsider view — longest in duration, maximum effect, landmark amusement — is to the east, at the Metropolis, Illinois Superman statue (or nearby overflow parking alternate: Big John).

This year will see the 10th birthday of the Creation Museum, the 20th birthday of City Museum, and the 70th birthday of Weeki Wachee (with its ageless mermaids and eternal problem blowing out candles underwater). 2017 will mark 125 years since Lizzie Borden‘s parents were whacked, 80 years since the Hindenburg crashed, and 70 years since aliens abducted Roswell‘s civic pride. And all of these are celebrated with top-rated on-site attractions that revere tourists.

Palace of Depression
Palace of Depression, Vineland, NJ

The Palace of Depression is expected to wrap up its decades-long resurrection of George Daynor’s swamp junk edifice. Giant cowboy Tex Randall‘s restoration will be complete. Travelers can expect to see the return of the mammoth Marilyn Monroe statue in Palm Springs, and possibly the Cursed Pillar in Augusta, Georgia (even though it was destroyed only last month).

Elvis died 40 years before 2017, but you’d never know it from the lines of fans who still wait to see his house. A new Elvis: The Experience attraction will open across the street from Graceland this year, supposedly the ultimate Elvis museum, its galleries stocked with one-of-a-kind relics from all of the other Elvis museums that have gradually closed under TCB thumb of the Presley estate.

Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley

Other promising attractions scheduled to debut in 2017 include a 36-foot-tall stainless steel Superman statue in Cleveland; a Dr. Seuss Museum in Massachusetts; a memorial marking the spot where Salem hanged its witches; and something called “Gulliver’s Gate,” supposedly the world’s most elaborate indoor miniature world, currently being assembled in midtown New York City.

And, as with every new year, there will be yet unrevealed wonders, as was the case in 2016 with surprise standouts such as the Gettysburg Dime Museum, the Hugh Glass Bear Battle statue, and Expedition Bigfoot.

Finally, we look forward to the unveiling of the RoboCop statue in Detroit, as we have every year for the past six years. Kickstarters who funded this project in 2011 are probably kicking themselves by now – but the statue was sold with the promise that it would help spark Detroit’s renaissance. Our guess is that the eclipse marks 2017 as the chosen year.

Sections: Attraction News, Coming Soon
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Gatlinburg Tourist Attractions: Fire Resistant

Fire destruction.
Destruction from the Gatlinburg fire.

A firestorm destroyed parts of the tourist town of Gatlinburg on November 28, 2016. It resulted in over a dozen deaths, was devastating for homeowners… but did it destroy Gatlinburg’s array of roadside attractions? Many early reports were confusing and contradictory, so we decided to eyeball this Great Smoky Mountains mecca in person.

Cooters marquee: Gatlinburg Strong.
Cooter's marquee: Gatlinburg Strong.

We visited in late December, on a cold, rainy, midweek afternoon. We expected to find the town in post-inferno hibernation — and instead slammed hoodfirst into Gatlinburg in full midsummer form; traffic gridlocked, sidewalks packed with tourists, no place to park.

In fact, none of Gatlinburg’s classic roadside attractions seemed badly affected. The fire bypassed downtown entirely.

Various businesses had created “Gatlinburg Strong” and “Mountain Strong” signs to express their tenacity: one was on the marquee outside Cooter’s Dukes of Hazzard Mini-Museum, another hung from the top of the Space Needle.

Hillbilly Golf.
Hillbilly Golf

We were more concerned with attractions on Gatlinburg’s outskirts, where the fire was the most intense. Hillbilly Golf (initially reported destroyed) was closed, but it seemed more because of the rainy weather than fire damage. If anything was burned, it must have been high up the hillside among the golf holes.

Mysterious Mansion.
Mysterious Mansion

Business was brisk at the Mysterious Mansion, which had at first issued sad farewells on Facebook after hearing reports that the building had been destroyed. The only damage turned out to be a slightly scorched roof. We were told that on the night of the blaze the Mansion’s manager sprayed fire suppressant around the property, and that’s what kept the flames away.

A higher power was credited at the Museum of Salt and Pepper Shakers, where the fire gobbled up cottages only a few hundred feet away. “It’s like God put a dome of protection over us,” we were told, although the home of the attraction’s owners was completely incinerated.

Christ in the Smokies Wax Museum.
Christ in the Smokies Wax Museum

Similar credit was extended at the Christ in the Smokies Wax Museum, where the fire reduced the River House Motorlodge next door to a blackened ruin. “We were truly blessed,” we were told. The only damage in the museum was to its heavy draperies, which had to be cleaned to get out the smoke smell. Even the museum’s heat-sensitive wax dummies were unaffected. If Gatlinburg had one potentially flammable attraction whose escape best met the qualifications for a miracle, this one was it.

Sections: Attraction News, Roadside News
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