John Preble.
John Preble puts on his "dumb look" for the camera in front of the Bassigator.

Abita Mystery House

Field review by the editors.

Abita Springs, Louisiana

You've visited the Abita Mystery House before -- in your dreams.

Martians at Mardi Gras.
Martians at Mardi Gras.

It's everything that you imagined a quirky, Old-School-style roadside attraction would be. You enter through a vintage 1930s gas station. You get to push buttons for all kinds of kooky animated displays. Monstrous freaks are exhibited, including a "Bassigator" that's 22 feet long. There's a house covered in thousands of glass shards, a flying saucer crashed into an old Airstream trailer, and the only mine in Louisiana (It's a fake). The gift shop sells original folk art. Even the admission price -- three dollars -- is a throwback to the nostalgic tourist traps of yore.

Yet the Abita Mystery House is a modern-day creation, the vision of John Preble, a professional artist and academic. John was nearly 50 before fate sent him down this back road. "I'd always collected stuff and built stuff, but I didn't know what to do with it," said John. "I knew everything about the black turtleneck art world, but nothing about the folk art world."

God bless our Forefathers.

Then in 1995, on vacation, he accidentally came across Tinkertown, an attraction built by outsider artist Ross Ward. Its junk-decor aesthetic and hand-build animated displays were a revelation. "I couldn't believe it," said John. "I was totally born again."

John felt he had the skills and the junk needed to make his own Tinkertown-style attraction in Louisiana. He approached Ross, who over the next few years became a mentor and open spigot of facts and figures: visitor numbers, seasonal peaks and valleys, how much to spend to get how much in return. John paid attention and built his attraction accordingly. "My wife would say, 'John, don't you think we should have a business plan?' And I'd say, 'You heard what Ross said. He wouldn't lie.'"

John Preble.

Then one day John called Tinkertown to check some figures and accidentally spoke to one of Ross's assistants. She was stunned. She said that Ross didn't have a clue about the business side of his attraction. He hadn't for years.

"So this," said John with a sweep of his hand, "is all built on the advice of a madman."

It opened in 1998 under the name UCM Museum. John enjoyed the euphony of "Yew-See-Em-Mew-See-Em," but most visitors were confused. "I eventually realized that you shouldn't have a name you have to explain," said John. In 2005 he rechristened it the Abita Mystery House in honor of the Winchester Mystery House, another venerable attraction whose success he admired.

Saucer-trailer mishap.
Saucer-trailer mishap.

What's impressive about this post-Age-of-Irony place is its obvious desire to please. John's eye for the unusual, and his odd sense of humor, have created an attraction that's better than the places that inspired it. Maybe John is even more of a madman than Ross Ward....

Clutter is crammed onto every surface, including the ceilings and floors: license plates, a quarter-million bottle caps, and possibly the world's largest collection of paint-by-number canvases. "It's always important to put something new up every day," said John. "I don't break the chain." Christmas tree bulbs provide illumination. Hand-painted signs are everywhere, with messages such as, "Welcome to Mildew City," and, "Ladies Invited and Respected." We recommend getting a pocketful of quarters in the gift shop to feed John's many arcade contraptions; "Crisco the Dancing Clown" is widely regarded as the most creepy.

Elvis shrine.

John has tailored his attraction to the Deep South. Taxidermy bayou beasts are a recurring theme -- among them are an "Alliduck" and an "Ashtraygator" -- and there's a real footprint, found only a few miles away, of the Honey Island Swamp Monster. Push the button on the "New Orleans Jazz Funeral" and an angel and devil fight over a soul rising from an above-ground grave. In "Tragedy on Dog Pound Road" the button whirls a tornado through a trailer court, spinning the Xmas Tree/Fireworks stand.

John's most elaborate creation is "River Road," an animated diorama that stretches along one entire wall. Stops along the strip include a Cajun barbecue shack, a mini-golf built on the ruins of a plantation, and a brothel from which a preacher is either escaping or entering in his underwear. There's a southern mansion next to an oil refinery, a catfish barn and buffet, and a snake farm where the Swamp Monster is up in a tower, waving hello.

House of Shards.
House of Shards.

In the sky, on cotton clouds, bare-chested good ol' boys hoist tiny beer cans in BBQ Heaven, while gun-toting Confederates with angel wings "fought in the Civil War so that we can play Goofy Golf in peace."

John said he was on one of his visits to Tinkertown when a woman walked in, and the only words out of her mouth were, "Oh my God!" He remembered that. "And one day," said John, "I was here and a woman walked in and she said the same thing: 'Oh my God!' I got the 'Oh my God' that Ross got! And that's when I felt I'd really done it right."

Abita Mystery House

Address:
22275 Hwy 36, Abita Springs, LA
Directions:
I-12 exit onto Hwy 59, then four miles north to town. At the traffic light (the only one in town), turn right (southeast) for one block. In the downtown historic district.
Hours:
Daily 10-5 (Call to verify)
Phone:
985-892-2624
Admission:
$3.00 if you are over 3 years old.
RA Rates:
The Best
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Abita Brewery Tours and BeerAbita Brewery Tours and Beer, Abita Springs, LA - 1 mi.
World's Largest Ronald Reagan StatueWorld's Largest Ronald Reagan Statue, Covington, LA - 4 mi.
Dr. Charles Smith African-American Heritage MuseumDr. Charles Smith African-American Heritage Museum, Hammond, LA - 25 mi.
In the region:
Home Of Madame LaLaurie: Torturer, Murderer, Socialite, New Orleans, LA - 36 mi.

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July 24, 2017

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