The Farnham Colossi
Unger, West Virginia
Everyone is part pack rat. We all tuck away a collection of something, somewhere, usually proportionate to our available space and disposable income.
But what if you lived where there was lots of room and no rules? And what if you knew that the Web gave you the power to feed your obsession -- to turn your fanciful daydream into an obtainable reality?
You'd be in a pretty happy place.
You'd be in the same neighborhood as George and Pam Farnham.
George was a Washington, DC lawyer who decided to pack up and move to the hills of West Virginia in the early 1980s. Pam came from New York a few years later. A satellite dish in their back yard allows them to run a collectibles business online. That's how they became familiar with e-Bay and roadsideamerica.com, two sites that would soon shape their future.
George is a serious pack rat. Piles of old magazines are stacked in the house; thousands more fill the garage. George proudly showcases his collections of nudie gas station calendars -- all painted by the same woman -- and naughty hot sauce bottles. (Pam rolls her eyes.) George also had a dream. "I like big things," he says. "I told my wife, years ago, what I really wanted more than anything else was a huge, fiberglass dinosaur. I want to put one down at the pond."
Pam wasn't as excited about the dinosaur. But she did share George's love of big things; in her case, Muffler Men. So she began searching e-Bay under "fiberglass" and "Muffler Man," just for fun. And one day she actually found one. It stood atop a Midas muffler shop in Whittier, CA -- or, rather, it did until the shop went out of business. Now it was stored in a garage and the owner wanted to get rid of it, fast and cheap. Pam swooped in and, just like that, she and George were the proud owners of a 25-foot-tall fiberglass man.
Now, lest you think that this sounds like fun and want a Muffler Man of your own, consider: Where would you put it? This is where serendipity came into play for George and Pam. George didn't move to rural West Virginia so that he could have a Muffler Man in his yard, but it turns out that he picked the perfect spot to do just that. "You live in West Virginia and you have no zoning -- nobody can say anything!" George giggles with glee. "So we can get away with it and nobody cares."
Well, not exactly. According to the Farnhams, their neighbors are unanimous in their approval of the crowned colossus that now overlooks their two-lane blacktop. "I had a 14-year-old girl stop by the other day who said, 'Every time I pass by it brings a smile to my face'," says George. "People will sit at the bottom of the driveway for ten minutes, never get out of the car. Other people will get out and talk to us. 'Oh it just means so much to us to drive by and see him.'" Pam adds, "The UPS girls said, 'Why didn't you tell us that you live in the house with the Muffler Man? We know where that is!'"
George and Pam paid three times as much to ship the Muffler Man to their home as they did to buy him. It took a lot of hard work to drag him out of the truck and anchor him in a ton of concrete. They wrapped twinkly Christmas lights around the Man and his muffler, and were pleased with their purchase -- for a while. But they are collectors. So it wasn't long before they began thinking that one giant statue just wasn't enough. After all, they'd gotten lucky on e-Bay once....
The Farnhams had searched for Muffler Men in the past. They'd found a Happy Halfwit for sale in Allentown, Pennsylvania. But the price was too high. They learned in 2003 that the Hot Dog-Holding Muffler Man in Cicero, Illinois, was for sale. They made an offer, and the daughter of the owner wanted to sell it to them -- but the son did not. "He was convinced that it was worth a million dollars and that they should take it down, put it in storage, and they'd be millionaires some day," George said. With no compromise in sight, the daughter donated the Muffler Man to the Illinois Route 66 Association, which moved it to a pizza parlor in another town along Route 66.
George and Pam didn't give up. They kept looking. In 2005 they came across Brian, a "beach dude" statue even taller than their Muffler Man, for sale in Cincinnati. According to George, its owner was selling Brian so that he could get the cash to buy a Muffler Man. Brian was so big that he had to be moved to the Farnham's property on two flatbed trucks, one that carried only his legs. "Someone said to me, "I saw those legs going through town -- and I knew where they were heading,'" said Pam.
By now the Farnhams were hooked. The beach dude was still in pieces in their yard when they made their third purchase, a Big John "bag boy" supermarket giant that was being auctioned by a defunct grocery store in Benton, Illinois. And why stop at three? The Farnham's are on the lookout for a vintage Uniroyal Gal to add to their mighty menagerie [they finally found one in 2008].
George and Pam aren't buying to resell at a profit. These new titans, like the Muffler Man, will be anchored in tons of concrete on their property. "They're not going anywhere," George says, his face a continuous, blissful smile. When asked to name this new form of collecting, George said, simply, "lawn ornaments."
Maybe George and Pam Farnham are the vanguard of a new, "back to the land" movement for roadside colossi. If businesses are too shortsighted to value a 20-foot-tall man with a crown, or a hot dog, or multiple sacks of groceries, perhaps their sanctuaries will be our back yards, a collective "safe house" where Muffler Men and their kin can stand until Dame Fortune -- commercial division -- smiles on them again.
Maybe. But it's more likely that Muffler Man collecting is just a new version of the gardens at Versailles -- 21st century e-commerce hillbilly American style.
2011: Farnham added a Hamburger Man -- a rotund chef hoisting a large cheeseburger overhead (but it's not a Big Boy).