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Expo outdoor mural shows the Bemidji, Minnesota, Bunyan and Babe being zapped into miniature form.
Expo outdoor mural shows the Bemidji, Minnesota, Bunyan and Babe being zapped into miniature form.

Roadside Sideshow Expo

Field review by the editors.

Lucas, Kansas

Erika Nelson started her self-made collection of tiny roadside attraction tributes -- now on permanent display at her Roadside Sideshow Expo -- as she completed her Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Kansas. "I used roadside attractions as a release valve," she said. "Any time there was a three-day weekend I'd hop in the truck and drive as far away as I could." The second Roadside America book (1992), according to Erika, was an invaluable guide in those pre-digital days.

Erika Nelson poses with an earlier version of herself.
Erika Nelson poses with an earlier version of herself.

There was, however, a problem: the giant roadside wonders that she visited often lacked art-worthy souvenirs. "There were t-shirts and postcards but there wasn't that little tiny version that captured the thing," Erika said. One day she had a happy stop at Otto the world's largest Otter and thought to herself, Man, I just really want a way to keep this feeling. "So I got a little ceramic dachshund and sawed it in half and added some more to it and that's how that first one was made."

St. Urho and his grasshopper-skewering pitchfork.
St. Urho and his grasshopper-skewering pitchfork.

Unaware, Erika had taken her first step out of academia and into the Roadside Vortex.

"When I had made two or three," Erika recalled, "I remembered what John Preble at the Abita Mystery House once told me: It takes three to make a collection, and three collections make a museum. That's when the idea really jelled: that this could be its own superlative." And so The World's Largest Collection of World's Smallest Versions of World's Largest Things was born.

Erika reinvented herself as an art-nomad and "vernacular architecture" ambassador, traveling American highways in a mobile museum of tiny tributes whose number increased with each giant thing that she visited (In 2003 she intercepted us as we researched twine-winding in Cawker City, Kansas, and showed us her first bus-turned-museum, already jammed with dozens of her diminutive 3D replicas).

Erika on the road in 2003: with her Carhenge model and traveling museum.
Erika on the road in 2003: with her Carhenge model and traveling museum.

Tiny versions of the giant donuts of California.
Tiny versions of the giant donuts of California.

"I made a tiny version of the statue of St. Urho [who chased the grasshoppers out of Finland] and I used a real cricket on his pitchfork," she said, as an example of her early work. "There was a guy visiting and he had his daughter in his lap and the daughter ate the cricket." Dad was horrified, but Erika was delighted, she said, because the artwork had produced a memory, just like the big attractions that she loved. Erika also learned an important lesson. "Now I display it without the cricket."

A brick-and-mortar home for the collection seemed a fiscally impossible dream until a dirt-cheap downtown building became available in quirky Lucas, Kansas, home of the Grassroots Art Center and the Garden of Eden. The building has no heat; "That's why we're only open April through October," said Erika. "But it's been a really good fit. I can't imagine this being anywhere else."

Open mouth of a Happy Halfwit serves as an Expo showcase.
Open mouth of a Happy Halfwit serves as an Expo showcase.

Using her skills in ceramics, textiles, assemblage, painting, and installation, Erika transformed the former storefront into the Sideshow Expo, packed with zany displays inspired by the State Fair midway and the roadside snake farms and wax museums of yore. "You gotta punch it up," Erika said. "We're loud, annoying Americans who travel a lot and do things quickly, so you gotta yell a little bit to get somebody to stop."

Themed exhibits have titles such as Fabulous Foodstuffs, Water Tower Wonders, and Big Balls. There's a "miniature miniature golf" display, and tiny versions of the giant attractions in Texas are displayed inside the smallest suitcase that Erika could find "just to be a jerk" (She was born in Texas). A "What's Large Where" map, ten feet across, pinpoints roadside superlatives in the Lower 48 and identifies which among them are currently enshrined in the Expo (Erika said that she doesn't make a tiny version until she's seen the big one in person).

Pilot seat of Erika's pre-digital land yacht.
Pilot seat of Erika's pre-digital land yacht.

Otto the dachshund-otter is here, along with miniatures of Carhenge, the Drive-Thru Donut, the World's Largest Replica Cheese, and about 200 others. Coin-op vending machines dispense Erika-designed souvenirs that help raise cash to pay the electric bill. A ten-foot-high display of a Happy Halfwit head features mementos of Erika on the road inside its open, toothy mouth.

Several of the "world's smallest" tributes in the Expo have gone through multiple iterations, either because Erika felt that they were not quite small enough or because the originals did not survive her vagabond highway years. "I have a display case of the more spectacular failures," she said. "They explode."

Erika's tiny replicas, she said, defy the approach typically taken by academics and miniaturists, who place too much emphasis on proper scale and "the little fidgety bits" and not on "the spirit of the original piece." Photos of the original attractions are displayed next to the miniatures, she said, so that fusspots can critique her crafting ability.

Erika is dwarfed by her World's Largest Collection of World's Smallest Versions of World's Largest Things.
Erika is dwarfed by her World's Largest Collection of World's Smallest Versions of World's Largest Things.

"When academics bring roadside culture into a thesis they kill that scrabbly nature," she said. "That's where the joy lives for me. That's the magic!"

The extra space afforded by the Expo has allowed Erika to gently widen her focus, which now includes displays about the Muffler Men, an "inappropriation" teepee of stereotypes, a petrified ham, and a genuine former-attraction T. rex dinosaur that likely dates to the 1950s. "They're not the world's largest," she said of these various attraction-types, "but you can't deny that they're iconic."

Based on her travels, and the generally enthusiastic response that she's received at Roadside Sideshow Expo, Erika sees a revival in appreciation for America's gargantuan wonders. She told us that those of her generation -- teenagers during the Reagan years "when everything was supposed to be normal" -- are now in positions of power, and that some of them are rebelling by creating new, big roadside attractions and reviving the concept of "large and amazing" as something desirable.

"I think that there are more and more people who care, and who really do get it," Erika said. "It's not just me, alone, building crazy things."

Roadside Sideshow Expo

Address:
214 S. Main St., Lucas, KS
Directions:
The formerly mobile museum has settled into a permanent exhibit space in tiny downtown Lucas. On the east side of Main St., just south of 2nd St.
Hours:
Daily April thru Oct. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Phone:
785-760-0826
Admission:
Donations appreciated.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Grassroots Art CenterGrassroots Art Center, Lucas, KS - < 1 mi.
Bowl Plaza: America's Most Artistic Giant ToiletBowl Plaza: America's Most Artistic Giant Toilet, Lucas, KS - < 1 mi.
Mini-Mount-Rushmore of Florence DeebleMini-Mount-Rushmore of Florence Deeble, Lucas, KS - < 1 mi.
In the region:
Massacred Railroad Workers Cemetery, Victoria, KS - 36 mi.

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