Calvert City, Kentucky
Ironic? Dorky? That's Hillbilly Garden. The irony is that its greatness was unplanned; the dorkiness is inescapable -- with exhibits such as "Technologically Impaired" (three empty beer bottles in an old computer monitor) and "Jack and the Beanstalk" (an automobile jack nailed to a green-painted tree).
Keith Holt had lived in Los Angeles for 20 years when he came back to Kentucky to settle on his grandparents' land. He arrived with two truckloads of toys and a dream. According to Keith, inspired by Roadside America (the miniature village attraction) and corrupted by The New Roadside America (our second book), he wanted to build a big, old-fashioned, indoor Toyland attraction, featuring an elaborate railroad of model trains. Outside, he envisioned a rideable miniature railroad as well as fairyland statues salvaged from defunct amusement parks.
Then Keith found himself fighting for his property in court. His new neighbors didn't like his big ideas. His backers backed out. "That's when it changed," said Keith. "It became a junk art environment. And that's when it became fun, trying to figure out what to do with all this stuff."
What Keith did was to recycle whatever he could find -- mostly cast-offs and landfill rejects -- into tributes to his favorite roadside attractions, heavily seasoned with pun-happy humor. "I was raised on Hee Haw," said Keith. The hillbilly in Hillbilly Garden, he said, is himself.
Drivers passing on US 68 see a sequence of signs nailed to trees (Keith's nod to the classic Burma Shave signs). "No Ideas. Obey," announces one. "No Imagination. Follow," says another. The serious tone is offset by goofy faces made from old window fans and toilet seats nailed to other trees, Mr. Potato Head-style. A small building -- the former gas station run by Keith's grandparents -- is covered with hand-painted enticements to stop. "Sorry We're Open," says one, Keith's tribute to a similar sign he saw at Delgadillo's Snow Cap Drive-In, and a gentle prod at his unhappy neighbors.
The building, which Keith calls a museum, is packed floor-to-ceiling with artifacts from his family, souvenirs from America's gaudiest attractions, and mementoes from his days as a jack-of-all-trades West Coast entertainer. One noteworthy item among many: a publicity photo of Keith as a Romulan from an episode of Star Trek Next Generation.
Then it's out the door and into the Garden proper. "We always try to give a tour because I don't have anything marked," said Keith. "Normally my kids give it, because I talk too much." Keith is one of those visionaries who insist that you see everything, and his delight increases with each awful joke. "The King is Born" is a bust of Elvis surrounded by plastic lawn Nativity figures. "Holy Roller Church" is made from an old pew and bowling pins. You can probably guess how the junk is used in "Re-tire-ment Home" and "Valley of Lost Soles."
"Once I make it, I commit," said Keith with a grin. "It stays there even if people don't like it."
Keith's neighbors might recognize his lawnmower Cadillac Ranch, but they probably don't understand his tributes to Salvation Mountain, or Tinkertown, or shoe trees. Toward the back are giant roadside zoo cages with hand-painted signs such as "Bear," "Gator Pit," and "Don't Feed Fingers to Tiger," which drew nervous calls to the police that Keith was keeping wild animals on the property. In fact, the only inhabitant of the cages was the Holt family dog, "Bear," another pun.
Out by the goat pen, Keith built a replica of Kaintuck Territory, a nearby Wild West town that he loved in his youth. Portraits of celebrities, historical figures, and clowns line the fences: Buffalo Bill, Frankenstein's monster, Mr. T. The clowns are another example of recycling. "If it didn't look like who it was supposed to in two hours," said Keith, "it was changed into a clown."
The tour ends at Toyland, a severely scaled-back version of Keith's original dream. Even here his spontaneous Plan B has improved his original Plan A. Keith has crammed over 3,000 toys and six working model trains into a shed the size of a walk-in closet. We could barely hear Keith above the whoosh and rattle of the trains and the tooting of happy carnival music. It's a pop culture pandemonium of the Osbournes, robots, Star Wars, Pee Wee Herman, Kiss, David Hasselhoff, the Energizer Bunny, and action figures from every animated movie and TV series from the past 25 years. Keith says that it's only 20 percent of his collection.
Keith works hard to keep Hillbilly Garden tidy -- his half-buried lawnmowers are all groundskeeping casualties -- and the Holts are friendly and generous. Hillbilly Garden survives on donations. "When I traveled, I was starving," said Keith, which is why he charges no admission. "I wanted this to be a place where you can walk around and have a good time, no matter how broke you are." Hillbilly Garden is a fun, memorable roadside attraction; the least we can do is to groan at Keith's jokes and help him pay to keep the trains running.