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

In Praise of Tinted Copycat Statues

Unconditional Surrender, San Diego, CA - 2009

J. Seward Johnson passed away on March 10 of cancer. He was 89. His father was a Johnson & Johnson millionaire, and Seward himself made millions from a long career as a public sculptor, churning out artwork that average Americans loved and almost all art critics loved to hate.

Seward’s first roadside-worthy sculpture, The Awakening, featured a buried human giant clawing his way out of the ground — but it was an stylistic outlier. Seward really began infiltrating the public space when he started making full-color life-size bronzes of everyday people standing around, doing everyday things, which he would place on downtown sidewalks. The figures were so boring and realistic (except for their gold-tinted skin) that passers-by sometimes thought they were real people. The most conceptual of these early pieces, “Return Visit,” features Abe Lincoln talking to 1950s crooner Perry Como. Seward sold that one to Gettysburg.

Giant Tooth, Grounds for Sculpture, Trenton, NJ - 2010

Seward had made one oversized sculpture of an everyday thing — a giant tooth — and it proved so eye-catching that Seward began creating giant 3-D statue-versions of famous photos and paintings, which continue to be leased to cities and attractions for a year at a time, or permanently if they have the cash. There’s “Unconditional Surrender,” replicating the iconic sailor-nurse smooch at the end of World War II, and “Forever Marilyn,” mimicking Marilyn Monroe’s well-known pose in her billowing dress over a subway grate. Seward made a giant version of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” and Renoir’s “A Dance at Bougival.” He even made a 31-foot-tall version of his own oddball Abe-Lincoln-Perry-Como statue, and cities happily pay to display it as a patriotic tribute.

Abe Lincoln and Perry Como, Gettysburg, PA - 2016

Seward used some of his millions to create Grounds for Sculpture, a 42-acre park that displayed his artworks between their city-stops (and exhibited the sculptures of other artists as well). It was equipped with a foundry where Seward could pump out more sculptures for culture-starved Americans, who would rather see a giant Lincoln than abstract or high-concept public art. According to his various obituaries, Seward was busy making copycat sculptures right until the end.

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The Elephant Is The Room

Interior with Edwardian decor.

Lucy, a six-story-tall elephant-shaped building on the Jersey Shore, has long been advertised as “the only elephant you can go into and come out of alive.” She will soon be the only elephant that you can go into, take a nap, and emerge undigested the next morning.

According to Save Lucy Committee Executive Director Richard Helfant, overnight stays for two people will be available on March 5, through Airbnb, for three days only: March 17, 18, and 19. Lucy’s innards will be decorated Edwardian-style, from the sheets to the rugs, to replicate how they looked in 1902 when a family from England used Lucy as a summer home.

Although Lucy offers a view of the beach through her eyeball-windows, there is no running water inside the elephant — just like in 1902 — so overnighters will have to walk outside to a bathroom trailer with a shower, toilet, and a sink.

Lucy the Elephant.

Because Lucy is 138 years old, the price per couple will be $138. Helfant has hinted that if this first experiment goes well, Lucy may again welcome overnight sleepovers — although that’s unlikely to happen during the summer crush of sunburned Lucy fans.

Day visitors during March 17-19 will be able to see the retro-interior between its overnight guests. Then Lucy’s innards will return to their usual tourist-friendly, non-digestible configuration.

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It’ll Tickle Yore Innards!

Mountain Dew ad cartoon characters.

Little remains of the original soft drink Mountain Dew except for its name, its garish red and green label colors, and the fact that it has enough sugar and caffeine to choke a mule.

It was concocted in 1946, in Knoxville, Tennessee, by two brothers who didn’t want to sell it or drink it straight. They used it as their own personal mixer for their whiskey. When it first hit the market in 1951 it was sold in little 7 ounce bottles, not enough to quench a 12 ounce thirst, but enough to mix with a shot or two of bourbon.

Mountain Dew in those days did not sell well, and tasted something like 7-Up. The flavor that Dew drinkers know today was invented in 1960 and first put into Mountain Dew bottles in either Marion, Virginia, or Lumberton, North Carolina (Both towns claim credit). The South loved the new taste so much that Mountain Dew was bought by Pepsi, which took the drink nationwide with a five-year-long hillbilly marketing blitz. Today the neon green beverage is the third most popular soda brand in the world.

Sign: It’ll Tickle Yore Innards!

Modern “Game Fuel” Dew drinkers have little awareness of the beverage’s corny origins, which is why Knoxville’s Museum of East Tennessee History is hosting a surprisingly sprawling exhibit that chronicles Mountain Dew’s history.

The timeline goes back to the day of moonshine stills and Prohibition, introduces cultural cousins such as Snuffy Smith and Barney Google, Hee Haw and The Beverly Hillbillies, and ends with Mountain Dew’s post-hillbilly marketing that associates the soda with everything from NASCAR to snowboarders. Rare vintage bottles are on display — there were over 900 different early varieties, making Mountain Dew popular with collectors — and there are lots of cartoony, bearded, barefoot hillbillies with flintlock rifles and floppy hats. There’s even an exhibit devoted to early Mountain Dew imitators such as White Light-ning and Hill Billy Joose. You can watch old TV commercials and listen to vintage radio spots with titles such as “Raidin’ Varmint” and “Airyoplane.”

Mountain Dew display.

Displays show how Mountain Dew abandoned its hillbilly roots in 1969, then flailed for decades with flop ad campaigns (“Taste the Sunshine,” “Get That Barefoot Felling”) before embracing its sugar-and-caffeine formula to become the fuel of choice for gamers, programmers, and insomniacs in general. There’s been a homecoming of sorts as well; one showcase displays limited-time retro-brews such as Mountain Dew Throwback that have resurrected the original 1940s image of a jug of cork-popping Dew shooting a hole in a hillbilly’s hat.

The exhibit runs through January 20, 2020.

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Nut Lady Sprouts Anew

Elizabeth Tashjian with yard sculpture and giant nut, 1985

Elizabeth Tashjian, curator of the world’s only Nut Museum, has been gone for 12 years. But like a burst of fresh growth in the Spring, interest in the late, self-titled “Nut Lady” has revived — thanks to a retrospective of her nut paintings, drawings, and sculptures at the Cummings Art Gallery at Connecticut College in New London.

According to the gallery press release, the retrospective “recreates the Nut Museum’s main exhibition gallery [which was the Nut Lady’s dining room] with all of its original furnishings, art, and displays.” It also features a video compilation of Elizabeth’s many appearances on national TV, serenading Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Jay Leno, and others with her self-penned songs, “Nuts Are Beautiful” and “March of the Nuts.”

We know, we know… a roadside attraction without its charismatic owner is like a tree without a nut. But this is still a rare opportunity, for those too young or too sane at the time, to experience the Nut Museum — or at least as near an approximation of it as is possible — before it was closed and bulldozed in 2002.

The retrospective is scheduled to run through December 6.

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Rocky Taconite Bobbles On

Line art of the Rocky Taconite statue.

Rocky Taconite, the bulbous metalloid ambassador of Silver Bay, Minnesota, was unveiled as a 12-foot-tall statue in 1964. A few years later a local woman, Marie Benson, decided that Rocky would make a good bobblehead. It was bold thinking, because the modern bobblehead industry was still decades in the future.

Mrs. Benson had no access to injection molding, scanners, or machine tools. Instead, she made a rough model of Rocky in her kitchen using various items that she found around the house, including alphabet macaroni to spell out “ROCKY TACONITE.” She made a mold of her model, then made casts of Rocky in plaster, glued in a spring, and hand-painted every one.

Not many Rocky bobbleheads were produced, but their homely charm left a lasting impression in Silver Bay.

Rocky Taconite bobblehead unwrapped.

Fast forward to the 21st century. Ruth Koepke, vice-president of the Bay Area Historical Society, was a fan of Rocky — she described him as “a strange little rock man” — and remembered the bobbleheads. She believed that they were worth reviving. A professional company did the work this time, and the bobblehead was made available by phone order.

Despite his makeover, Wobbly Rocky had lost none of his so-weird-he’s-cute appeal. He became a social media celebrity, appearing in photos taken as far away as Vietnam and Australia, carried by people who had never been to Minnesota, or the U.S., and certainly not Silver Bay.

Rocky Taconite Bobblehead.

Today, Rocky Taconite is far better known as a bobblehead than as a statue, which is a shame since he’s a really great statue. The modern bobbleheads can be purchased through the Bay Area Historical Society at 218-226-4534.

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Civil War Days, California-Style

Civil War Days - Confederate artillery.

Last month, while wandering the backroads, we spotted a cheery banner advertising: “Civil War Days.” Bit of a shock, because we were on the northern California coast. Was there a famous battle here?

Civil War Days, a full-blown multi-attack reenactment, is held one weekend every July in Duncan Mills — where battalions of Union and Confederate soldiers skirmish with swords, rifles, artillery. There are even cavalry charges. It claims to be one of the largest Civil War reenactments west of the Mississippi, and we don’t doubt it.

Civil War Days - Union flanking maneuver.

Though not a roadside attraction, we were curious how the Left Coast handles a 150-plus-year old conflict that happened somewhere else (and necessitates waving a few Confederate battle flags). It turned out to be a family-friendly event, no overt politics but plenty of history and meticulous military action, with a large assemblage of enthusiasts camping out for the weekend.

2019 was the 20th anniversary of Civil War Days. Reenactments elsewhere typically occur during cooler months, but the coastal climate and morning fog along the Russian River make for relatively comfortable melees. The landscape is dramatic — a Y-shaped valley, ringed by forest and nestling a grove of coastal redwoods, amid steep scenic hillsides. The property is a privately owned cow pasture, transformed annually by volunteers into a 19th century killing field.

Civil War Days - Confederate cannon.

Spectator bleachers line one side of the field; the rest is kept impeccably accurate to the 1860s. Amenities such as portable toilets are hidden behind burlap shrouds. Visitors can wander the fields and military camps during long intervals, but then clear out when the hostilities are about to start. All attendees have the schedule to assure they won’t miss out on something: a vintage baseball game, a mounted artillery demonstration….

There’s an extensive “Sutler” — civilians tagged along behind armies on the move, set up tents and sold their wares. The merchants provide all the accoutrements needed to live in the 19th century — or at least, through the weekend as a re-enactor — clothing, supplies, weapons, food, and souvenirs. Plenty of time to shop between battles, so we headed toward one of the military camps, and heard singing coming from the redwood grove — the Sunday morning worship service. Stepping into the dark, cool grove, we could see that some congregants were on horseback.

Reb irregular cavalry.

It was soon battle time. From the safety of the bleachers, we had a perfect view. It started with a few scouts and sharpshooters, a couple of mounted patrols, and quickly ramped up. Dozens of soldiers marched from tent camps, muzzle-loaded artillery wheeled into position. Suddenly, hundreds of troops charged, turned in unison, fired rifles and reloaded.

These weren’t set piece recreations of actual historic battles. Loosely sketched maneuvers and entry timetables evolve into the live chaos. The regiments were from California and elsewhere, named after real Civil War units (the 20th Maine Company G, known for their “charges with fixed bayonets” according to a factsheet, is based in Marin County, California).

Confederate troops.

It’s somewhat overwhelming to witness. Chaotic, loud (bring earplugs). There were mounted cavalry sword attacks, and hand to hand combat. At one point, we saw an entire clump of soldiers fall dead from a cannon blast at close range.

We swear, a guy with modern cameras was flushed out of the forest by cavalry and shot. His corpse was out in the brush for a long time.

A horse-drawn ambulance wagon appeared to cart off the wounded. Between battles, in the Union camp, we saw a surgeon’s tent, easy to identify by its pile of bloody amputated (plastic) limbs.

Abraham Lincoln and Alexander Stephens.

One returning Civil War Days highlight is the reassuring presence of Abraham Lincoln. Our 16th president saunters around the civilian camp and fields with a military entourage. He greets every passerby. He gives speeches. Lincoln presenter Robert Broski brings America’s Great Emancipator to life. He’s a tall, cordial Abe, quietly introspective at the right moments. After one lopsided battle, President Lincoln asked the band to play “Dixie” as consolation for the losing side.

There was another terrific interpreter playing Alexander Stephens. Most people don’t know who Stephens is, let alone what he looked like. Our Stephens endured about five seconds of blank stares before telling us “I’m Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy!” Well, duh. Stephens shared that he and Lincoln were good friends before the war.

Union troops fire their rifles in unison.

It turns out there was a role for California in the Civil War — it had become a state a decade earlier in 1850, had abolished slavery and remained loyal to the Union. California’s many southern sympathizers were locally ineffective during the war. In 2019, there was a noticeable imbalance between the Blue and Gray — at least 2/3rds of the re-enactors were in Union units. One civilian merchant told us this wasn’t always the case — that some years it was more balanced, and the South would actually win a few fights.

Ladies flee the field.

And while the audience in the bleachers is diverse, we’d love to see an African American unit or two on the field of battle. A few Union Army black units formed in the East after the movie “Glory,” and it’s an important aspect to explore (California has its share of Reb and reconsidered landmarks — an hour south of Civil War Days, a local school district was in the middle of renaming their 19th century “Dixie School”).

Women aren’t left out of all the fun — some participate as soldiers and cavalry officers, some as nurses and surgeons, camp merchants, or as distressed civilians who run across the battlefield screaming after the first hail of bullets.

Lincoln salutes the victors.

Civil War Days website

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