Elegant in its combustible simplicity, the Kaskaskia Dragon is a tourist attraction as pure as a princess in a fairy tale. You pull off the highway, drop a dragon coin into a slot labeled "Insert Token Dragon Breathes Fire," then Phoooosh! The 35-foot-long metal monster shoots flame from its sooty snout with a propane roar while its light bulb eyes glow red.
One dollar buys you ten seconds. Want more? Drop in another dragon coin.
Kaskaskia isn't a realm of Middle Earth; it's the name of the hardware store down the block that built the dragon over a slow winter in 1995. "We made a toy to play with," said owner Walt Barenfanger. "We had no thoughts where the thing was going."
Working with a very tolerant local propane expert, Kaskaskia created a flame-spitting metal beast with a 16-foot-tall neck. It had built-in hydraulics so that it could duck under power lines, because it was originally designed to ride in a local Halloween Parade. Not until 2001 did Walt have the idea to anchor it out by the highway.
And that's when its popularity began to pose problems. People wanted to see it belch fire.
"It's not a dinosaur, it's a dragon. Dragons breathe fire," said Walt, who understood its appeal. But then Walt would have to leave the store, drive to the dragon, and press a hidden button to turn on the flames. "If I was going to run a hardware business rather than run out there all day, I had to think of something."
The answer revealed itself to Walt at a car wash: a self-service coin box. People, he reasoned, could operate the dragon themselves, paying for its upkeep. Rather than accept cash, Walt designed special dragon coins.
The dragon made its final metamorphosis from parade float to tourist attraction in 2008, when Walt approached the liquor store across the street from the beast to stock the coins. The owners were grateful; they'd been besieged by people who assumed that they were the keepers of the dragon's breath.
The liquor store also offered the advantage of being open late into the evenings. "A lot of people like to come after dark," said Walt, "when it's more dramatic to watch a dragon shoot fire."
Walt opened the coin box and showed us its recent bounty of dragon tokens. A 20 pound propane tank, he said, usually has enough fuel to power the dragon for a month -- and that's when the evolutionary design finally breaks down. "Someone will usually come in the store and holler, 'The dragon's not shooting fire!'" said Walt. "We haven't really figured out a better system than that."