World's Largest Jack-in-the-Box.
World's Largest Jack-in-the-Box.

Wild Bill's Nostalgia Center (Closed)

Field review by the editors.

Middletown, Connecticut

After this Field Review was written, "Wild Bill" Ziegler passed away unexpectedly from a heart attack on April 11, 2017.

"High ceilings are the key to success when you've got a lot of junk," says Bill Ziegler. He should know. A brief inventory of the items hanging from his ceiling includes an ox yoke, a 15-foot-long snake skin, "Mini-Me" inside a biohazard suit, and a rib from a 65-ton whale. "A guy had all these whale parts in his barn," Bill recalled. "He filled my truck up and said, 'Give me x amount of dollars.' And I said, 'Okay.'"

Wild Bill's heroes and villains.

"Wild Bill," as he likes to be called, is the hippie senior citizen who operates Wild Bill's Nostalgia Center. It's his own personal slice of heaven and a surprising sight in the often staid scenery of Connecticut. Inside, the place is geared for scavenging: stacks of used paperbacks, towering racks of vinyl LPs, shelves jammed with board games and puzzles promoting everything from American Bandstand to The Bionic Woman. There's alcohol-free wine fermented by the Grateful Dead ("I'm down to less than a hundred cases," said Bill), and a box of Michael Jackson-style beaded gloves ("I've had a couple hundred of these since 1984," said Bill), and a life-size man made of bear traps.

"Sometimes when kids come in they freak out, because the place is kind of scary," Bill said. "But the parents talk them down."

We noticed a rusty old milk bucket from Yasgur's Farm, the site of Woodstock. Bill had it tagged at $450. "I found it in the woods in Bethel," he recalled. "I put a price on it so it wouldn't sell."

Wild Bill.
Wild Bill.

At one time Wild Bill ran his business from a store in the downtown shopping district of Middletown. He didn't like it. Bill doesn't like stores (other than his own) and he doesn't like crowds. "I wanted it so that you'd have to drive to get here, or take a bus," he said. So he saved his money and bought a sprawling 1940s nightclub on the outskirts of town, which in its heyday was popular with The Mob. Old-timers cautioned Bill not to jackhammer the concrete floors unless he wanted to uncover some unpleasant surprises.

According to Bill, a lot of folks in town believe that his place is some kind of druggie den that sells bongs and roach clips (it stocks neither). That's probably because Bill has decorated the outside of his building to suit his personal taste -- which is apparently suspended in half-century old pop culture amber. The walls are covered with larger-than-life paintings of vintage icons -- Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, The Creature From The Black Lagoon. There are also serious hippie-era milestones, such a Martin Luther King Jr shouting a speech, the Kent State massacre, Nixon ruling vs. John Lennon imagining (all amusing decorations in typical cartoon mural shorthand, but Wild Bill's is really a celebration of the manic rise of pop culture collectibles!).

The Psychic Vines. Ringo can relax.
Psychic Vines. Ringo can relax.

On the roof is a tie-dyed VW Beetle, and above that is a giant, motorized, bobbing head of Wild Bill as Uncle Sam -- a reproduction of a doll that Bill sells inside. He said that he petitioned Guinness for the title of the World's Largest Bobbing Head Doll, but was rejected because the head isn't a doll. "They agreed that it's the biggest bobbing head," Bill said, satisfied, "but they didn't have a category for that."

Also on the building's exterior is what Bill calls "The Miracle of the Psychic Vines," which so fascinates him that he's put it on a postcard. The vines have, over the years, ominously covered the faces of various Beatles painted on the wall: first John (died 1980), then George (died 2001). "Ringo was playing [nearby], and the vines started growing toward his head," Bill recalled. They then changed direction and are now headed toward Paul McCartney. "Paul should be worried," said Bill.

Man made from bear traps.
Man made from bear traps.

The World's Largest Jack-in-the-Box, like the World's Largest Bobbing Head, is a way for Bill to flout convention while drawing attention to his business. It's a giant, motorized clown head that slowly rises and falls from the top of an old stone silo on Bill's property. There's no "box" and no crank and no shocking eruption of a head on a spring. It would be an unforgivable corruption of the term "jack-in-the-box" if Bill hadn't made it so irresistibly big. "People always want to know how I got a permit for it," Bill said. "Do you need a permit for a World's Largest Jack-in-the-Box? I don't think so."

Wild Bill's contentedly cluttered universe seems like a fiduciary excuse for his bulk buying frenzy. He has 40 acres of property -- plenty of room to expand -- and 30 tractor-trailers parked on it, filled with booty that he doesn't have the room to display (One trailer, according to Bill, is filled with nothing but Star Wars model kits). Bill recalls his large purchases fondly; 500 framed 3-D paintings of Jesus walking on water; 8,000 old sports jackets, with their original price tags; 70,000 Vietnam War protest posters; 800,000 old pennies packed in World War II ammunition boxes.

"On TV they sell them for $28 a pound," he said of the pennies. And how much will Bill sell them for? "I'm not trying to sell them," he said. "I just have them."

Wild Bill's Nostalgia Center

I-91 exit 22-S onto Hwy 9. Drive south one mile to exit 19. Turn east onto Hwy 372, then make an immediate left onto Hwy 3/Shunpike Rd. Drive south one mile, bearing left at the stoplight. Wild Bill's will be on the right, just past the gas station.

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