Big Mike's Rock and Gift Shop.

Big Mike's: Mystery House, Rocks, and Big Mo

Field review by the editors.

Cave City, Kentucky

Since this field report was originally written, Vicky Fontana has passed away and the attraction reopened under new management in May 2015.

Worm hole.
Test victim Dave stares into a stoner wormhole.

Hollywood tells us that reality lies at the end of a wormhole, twisting existence into a 5-D pretzel that runs off a cosmic blackboard into a parallel quasiverse. Or something. It all seems so complicated -- and then you discover a place like Big Mike's Rock Shop, and it makes a little more sense.

Despite its name, Big Mike's is much more than rocks. It's a wonky nexus of classic Roadside motifs that hurls you back to the Stoner Age of the 1970s, then ejects you into a gift shop with a giant fossilized skull.

No CGI needed; this is real, on the old highway to Mammoth Cave National Park. Two different roads lead to the cave from the interstate, but the billboards tell you to take the one past Big Mike's. Michael A. "Big Mike" Fontana Jr. moved his attraction here from a smaller place in Cave City in 1989. He reasoned -- correctly -- that people who spent money on caves would also spend money on rocks.

Big Mike died in 1999, but his attraction's name and signage have given him relative immortality, as if he had lived on the edge of a black hole instead of Kentucky.

Vicky Fontana runs the place now. She tells us that the Rock Shop used to be a steakhouse; the current sales counter was once the serving line. The restaurant owners apparently noticed something weird about the property -- perhaps spilled steak sauce ran uphill -- and attached a mystery house to the building. That was around 1972. They called it "Vertigo."

Solar system room.
Parallel black light universe solar system. Illuminated Starship Enterprise in background.

"It was a way to get kids to come to the restaurant," recalled Vicky. "My kids loved it. They'd always say, 'Let's eat there!'"

As luck would have it, we arrived at the Mystery House simultaneously with Dave, Janet, Kirk, John, and Bryan. They were in Cave City teaching a workshop on bat ecology. After decompressing with a pitcher of margaritas, they had driven to Big Mike's on a whim, and now found themselves as our Mystery House test victims.

Serious shrinkage room.
Serious shrinkage in the perception distorto chamber.

To get us into an appropriately altered state, our tour guide invited us to stare at 1960s op art in the Mystery House entrance hallway. "Can you see the three faces? Can you see the dots that aren't there?" she asked. "I think I see Frank Zappa," said Kirk. "It's not working for me," said John. "Maybe you need another margarita," said Janet.

The Mystery House quickly reveals its vintage, and appears to be unchanged since it opened over 40 years ago. Our guide asked for a volunteer to stare at a whirly vortex poster to experience the sensation of walking into a tunnel. Dave stared and announced, "It's like going into hyperspace!" This triggered howls of protest from the rest of the group: "Dave's hogging the tunnel!"

Part of the Houses's mysterious powers, we quickly learned, was its ability to reduce all of its visitors to giggly 12-year-olds. "Look how white your teeth are!" "My fingernails are glowing. Am I dead?" "Check me out; I have the world's worst dandruff." "Eeew!"

40-foot-long Big Mo.

Next on the tour was a room that seemed to be in outer space with a view of the solar system. This was judged too discombobulating by certain group members ("Stop clinging to the rail like a little girl!") and we moved on to a series of classic gravity-gone-haywire demonstrations: water flowed uphill, a golf ball refused to roll to the person trying to catch it, a room seemed to shrink or enlarge a person depending on where they stood. An offer to walk a straight line was met with failure, and Janet fired up her iPhone digital level to prove that the house was indeed on an even keel, "or at least as level as it gets in Kentucky."

Mosasaurus skull.
World record skull of Big Mo.

The tour ended with our guide offering us a choice of three doors, only one of which led to an escape. Bryan, a savvy caver, surmised that the correct door was the one with the light shining through the cracks from behind it. It opened into the gift shop, where everyone immediately rushed to see Big Mo, "T-Rex of the Sea," a five-foot-long Mosasaur skull ("World's Largest") unearthed in Kansas in 1994.

Vicky couldn't remember how or when the skull found its way into Big Mike's, but she commissioned a local artist named Jerry Bidefeld to build a life-size 40-foot-long Big Mo next to the parking lot.

The rest of Big Mike's is packed with what you'd expect: geodes, crystals, amethysts, tourmaline, as well as arrowheads, knives, and lots of t-shirts. Vicky has silk-screened many of her custom shirts onto fluorescent-dyed cotton, guaranteeing that your next visit to the Mystery House will be even more trippy. She herself refuses to go in it.

"I'm too old," she said. "It makes me dizzy."

Update: Vicky Fontana passed away in January 2015.

Big Mike's: Mystery House, Rocks, and Big Mo

Big Mike's Rock and Gift Shop

Address:
566 Old Mammoth Cave Rd, Cave City, KY
Directions:
Big Mikes Rock and Gift Shop. I-65 exit 53. Drive east on Hwy 255 for seven miles. You'll see Big Mike's on the right.
Phone:
270-773-5144
Admission:
Mystery House $2
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Guntown MountainGuntown Mountain, Cave City, KY - 3 mi.
Dinosaur WorldDinosaur World, Cave City, KY - 3 mi.
Ruins of Bell's TavernRuins of Bell's Tavern, Park City, KY - 4 mi.
In the region:
Large Bull, Franklin, KY - 45 mi.

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