Road trip news, rants, and ruminations by the Editors of

Illinois Popeye Pummels The Competition

For an 80-year-old cartoon character, Popeye has some sea legs. At least three towns promote his immortality with statues, but Chester, Illinois, clearly has wind in its sails.

Crystal City, Texas, “Spinach Capital of the World,” was the first to erect a Popeye statue in 1937. It deserves credit for that — but it hasn’t done anything since. Alma, Arkansas, headquarters of Popeye Brand Spinach, put up a home-made statue some years ago and briefly took the lead in 2007 when it erected an impressive Popeye fountain.

Popeye statue.
Popeye, Chester, IL.
But those efforts shrivel like a wilting spinach leaf in comparison to the long-term project underway in Chester, which was the birthplace of Popeye creator Elzie Seegar. Chester has had a bronze statue of Popeye since 1977, but now it’s erecting full-size statues of all of Popeye’s characters — made of eternal granite, not fiberglass community art atrocities or inflatable frauds — and placing them around the town. Wimpy joined Popeye in 2006; Olive Oyl, Swee’pea, and Eugene the Jeep in 2007; Bluto in 2008. This year’s statue, unveiled September 12 at Chester’s annual Popeye Picnic, honors Castor Oyl and Bernice the Whiffle Hen.

Like a TV series that airs for too long, Popeye introduced new characters to keep it interesting (Popeye was himself a new character in the comic strip Thimble Theater, which he quickly overshadowed — like Happy Days and the Fonz). Chester intends to enshrine an impressive roster of 21 Popeye characters in a series of 16 statues, the last to be erected by 2020.

That may seem like a long time, but it’ll be worth it when future civilizations identify Chester as our Mt. Olympus, and Poopdeck Pappy and Alice the Goon as our gods.

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Makeover For Portland Paul

Bunyan in Portland, OR.A towering statue in Portland, Oregon, of Paul Bunyan — terror of the Beaver State’s many trees — has just received a $12,000 paint job, according to The Oregonian. Portland Paul joins a similarly-scaled tree-chomper in Bangor, Maine, as the second giant Bunyan to be restored this year. Both Bunyans were built in 1959, in an uncoordinated bicoastal burst of civic pride (Bangor was celebrating its 125th birthday, Portland its 100th).

The makeover was the second for Oregon’s Tall Paul. The Oregonian article suggests that his 1986 restoration was slapdash, although photos of both earlier versions seen here reveal that a lot was changed at that time.

The chairwoman of the neighborhood association that oversaw the work told The Oregonian, “I got to go up on the [painting] lift, and it appeared that one of his left front teeth had been shot out.” We saw no evidence of vandalism on a recent pilgrimage to Paul, but we did notice that his neighbors include George’s Dancing Bare Exotic Lounge across the street. Respect your Ax-Man, Oregon!

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Morro Castle: I Was A Death Ship, Too!

Morro Castle Memorial.
The Morro Castle Memorial, Asbury Park, NJ
Most people know the sad story of the Titanic. A few have even visited its Kate Winslet-inspired memorial in Washington, DC.

But the Atlantic had other Ships of Hell as well — such as the Morro Castle. This doomed ocean liner’s infamous pedigree is now etched into polished black granite, at the spot where its burned-out hulk drifted ashore in Asbury Park, New Jersey, on September 8, 1934. As the memorial asserts, it was “one of the greatest maritime disasters in American history.”

The Morro Castle was only a couple of miles off shore when it was caught in a storm, its captain died of a heart attack, and then a big fire broke out. 137 passengers and crew perished.

Morro Castle Memorial art.
Artist's depiction of burning ocean liner.
“The still-burning Morro Castle beached itself in Asbury Park,” reads the text on the memorial, “and became a major tourist attraction” –  something that the deep-sixed Titanic never accomplished. In fact, the Morro Castle shares its closest calamity kinship with the Hindenburg: fire, death, 1930s, big floating thing, New Jersey.

The Morro Castle Memorial occupies prime real estate just south of Asbury Park’s Convention Hall, next to the boardwalk and the Greek Orthodox “Man of Love” statue. It was unveiled on the 75th anniversary of the ship’s unscheduled arrival. A local historical society member told the Asbury Park Press, “We just felt it was time to acknowledge the disaster.”

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Hitler’s Pennsylvania Cabin

When Adolf Hitler’s yacht was busted up for scrap in the early 1950s, souvenirs wound up all over Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey.

Hitler's toilet.Greg Kohfeldt, who owns the most famous piece of all, Hitler’s toilet, told us that, “A lot of stuff made it into people’s homes. Little things. Portholes, chairs, signs — it’s all over this part of New Jersey. Florence, Bordentown, Fieldsboro….”

Greg referred us to Dick Glass, a 25-year Navy vet and local historian who recalled some of the relics’ final landing spots. According to Dick, one of the portholes is now in a private museum in Gettysburg; a big oak table — the ship’s map desk — is still at the American Legion hall in Florence; and Dick and his dad used screws from the yacht to build their own boat. “They were good brass and bronze screws.”

Dick’s most intriguing story dates to 2004 — or maybe earlier, he couldn’t be sure. Dick got a call from a man in Pennsylvania who had salvaged an entire cabin from the yacht. “It had been cut off of the ship. It was in this guy’s back yard,” Dick recalled. “It had portholes in it and everything. He was German. He was living in it!”

Dick said that the man offered the cabin to him, “but how would I get it here and where would I put it?” He lost track of the cabin after that, but ventured that it “may still be kicking around somewhere” as an odd counterpoint to more noble back yard live-in souvenirs. We’ll certainly keep an eye out for it.

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Roadside News: Sept. 3, 2009

Burt Reynolds Museum.
Smokey and the Bandit display, Burt Reynolds and Friends Museum.
Burt Reynolds Museum: Drumbeats of doom are sounding in Jupiter, Florida, where an upscale mall is slated to be built on the property now occupied by the Burt Reynolds and Friends Museum. “Demolition… could be in a year,” reports the Palm Beach Post — but we’ve heard this gloomy news before, and Burt’s place always seems to survive another year. “The museum needs to be more than acting classes, photos of Burt Reynolds with Loni Anderson, and canoes used in filming Deliverance.” No it doesn’t!

Heal me, Red Boiling Springs! The evocatively-named town of Red Boiling Springs, Tennessee, wants to reopen its red boiling springs as a tourist attraction, according to local station WZTV (The springs were shut down by the state because the water was untreated). “The bubbling, sulfur-filled mineral water once drew thousands who swore by it’s power to cure everything from arthritis to kidney stones.” Sounds like Tennessee’s version of Montana’s radon health mines to us — maybe the red boiling water could be zapped with radon?

Mall Averse to Bison Stampede: Entrepreneur Garry Eiden has been forced to close his tourist attraction in Marbleton, Wyoming, which was a pen packed with seven live bison at a shopping mall. According to the Sublette Examiner, the possibility of a buffalo stampede made the attraction a “dangerous recipe for disaster,” but Eiden was unconvinced. “It’s just like your dog. Why do you like your dog? Because people can pet it and enjoy it – that’s the way I was with the bison.”

Stoogeum Owner Needs Loud Conk on Head: Gary Lassin, who owns and operates the Stoogeum in Lower Gwynedd, Pennsylvania, has admitted that he’s baffled by the broad popularity of his Three Stooges museum. “I did not foresee this as a tourist destination, but that’s what has happened,” he told the Montgomery News. Lassin reportedly is mulling over the idea of moving the museum to Philadelphia — into the house in which hometown hero (and Stooge) Larry Fine was born.

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Ft. Worth: Last Supper Wax Back

For a dozen years a life-size wax version of The Last Supper has languished in a Texas closet, the heads of Jesus and his disciples stored in boxes. Delays kept it there despite promises of its return in 2005 and 2007 and 2008.

Now it’s finally back, the centerpiece of Ft. Worth’s new Christian Arts Museum, which opened in August 2009.

Last Supper Exhibit before 1997We last saw this Last Supper some time before 1997, when its then-sponsoring group ran into money trouble and packed it away.

The Supper was built under the supervision of mother-daughter wax artists Katherine and Katherine Marie Stubergh. In 1955, Ft. Worth oil tycoon Bill Fleming saw an earlier Wax Supper that the Stuberghs had built — which is still on display in Santa Cruz, California — and paid them to build a duplicate as a “gift to all Christians.” He displayed it for years at a Ft. Worth shopping mall. According to Ed Malone of the Ft Worth Christian Arts Commission, the Stuberghs built four addition Wax Suppers — maybe for four other tycoons? — but these have all since disappeared.

Daughter Katherine Marie, perhaps ready for a change of subject matter, opened up a Presidential wax attraction in South Dakota. But she and her mother both died years ago, so the Christian Arts Museum had to hire an artist from a wax museum in nearby Grand Prairie (but not this wax museum in Grand Prairie) to perform touch-ups on the figures

“They held up real well,” Ed told us. “Maybe one or two hairs were missing.”

The modern trend in wax museums is to allow visitors to mingle with their wax heroes. Ed, however, said that Jesus and the gang will be safely roped-off from adoring fans, and allowed to enjoy their divine dinner in peace.

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