Recently, my wife Diane and I were driving dawn U.S. 150 and passed through the town of Greenville. I was looking for the usual landmarks and was disappointed to discover that Greenville is missing both its gorilla and Fred Flintstone car.
When we first moved to the area, we occasionally ate at a restaurant across from the Greenville Mini-Mart. Both this small convenience store and the restaurant have been closed for a long time. This store sold groceries, sandwiches and coffee, and sported a large yellow smiley face sign. Its main attraction, however, was a life-size gorilla figurine in a display case mounted above the entrance. According to Indiana University’s Traditional Arts website, the gorilla had formerly been kept in the coffee shop section of the store. The site quoted a Greenville woodworker named Alan Mason, who claimed that the gorilla’s name had been Oswald. The cage where the gorilla was kept now has the door hanging open, as if Oswald finally broke out and made his escape.
Not very far away is another building that was known as The Greenville Station. I remember when it was a store that sold antiques. For years there was a trailer parked in front which held a replica of the car that Fred Flintstone drove in the classic cartoon series. A sign placed over the car read, “The Flintstones YAB-A-DA-AB-DOO, May God bless you.” You can still see a photo of the car on the French Wikipedia page for Greenville. The car is now gone, too, as if Oswald stole it to make his getaway.
As a creature of habit I will miss seeing these object as we drive through Greenville taking our boat to the lake. They were among a number of things I mentally check off whenever we make this trip — like the place where a biker ran a barbeque stand and leather shop along the highway, the vacant lot where the Amish used to sell baskets and quilts, and the sign advertising Stoll’s Lakeview Restaurant, with its depiction of a large fried chicken leg.
Human beings have an evolutionary tendency to be natural sight-seers. We are constantly scanning the environment for things of possible interest. We are looking for resources, opportunities and potential dangers, all of which serve to increase our chances at survival.
One major purpose of sight-seeing is for us to capture novel sights to add to our repertoire of experiences, so that we may share them with others. We do this to impress people, make ourselves more interesting, and to increase our status or prestige. In addition, these novelties amuse and entertain us, and in some cases even help us expand our horizons.
According to researchers at the University of Bergen in Norway, tourist role theory holds that most tourists are either novelty or familiarity seekers. They are looking for either new experiences or ones that evoke comfortable feelings of recognition. The basic appeal of roadside attractions lies in our desire to see something unique and surprising, like a caged gorilla, or something familiar and nostalgic, like Fred Flintstone’s car.
This instinctive desire for the novel and the familiar are frequently combined in mundane objects that are also superlative in some way— like the world’s largest ball of twine or glob of paint. Most people are fascinated with superlatives of all kinds and can’t wait to laugh about it with friends. People are on the constant look-out for things that claim to be the largest, longest, highest, or anything else that makes them especially notable.
Indiana boasts a number of roadside superlatives, including the world’s largest peach replica just outside of Vincennes, a gigantic Adirondack lawn chair in Monticello, a 3,000 pound concrete egg in Mentone, the World’s Largest Sycamore stump in Kokomo, a 2,980 pound cast iron tire jack in Bloomfield, and The World’s Largest toilet in Columbus. Of course, right here in Kentuckiana we have our own 120-foot-tall Louisville Slugger baseball bat (world’s largest) and the famous Colgate Clock (world’s second-largest).
When I was growing up in Southern Illinois, we often took road trips to nearby Collinsville to see the world’s largest catsup bottle, which was a water tower shaped like a bottle of Brook’s Catsup. This attraction was even mentioned in the 2010 movie, Twilight: Eclipse, as a place that Bella should visit. In Hebron, Illinois, the local water tower was painted to resemble a huge basketball, in honor of the high school basketball team which won the 1952 State Championship.
A catsup bottle and basketball water tower are examples of what is called novelty architecture. These include any unusual structures built specifically to attract attention by advertising or promoting some product. Large size and uniqueness make them iconic landmarks and even destinations. Many such structures were built specifically as roadside attractions when automobile tourist travel increased dramatically in the 1930s. Among the most recognized of these structures were The original Brown Derby Restaurant in Los Angeles, Randy’s Donuts in Inglewood, California, and The World’s Largest Muskie in Hayward, Wisconsin.
When visiting relatives in Texas, Diane and I saw the World’s Largest Fly Fishing Pole in Port Isabel and the 55 foot tall “Big Tex” cowboy figure at the Texas State Fair in Dallas. “Big Tex” waves and says “Howdy” to the crowd and makes periodic announcements. “Big Tex” is so emblematic of Texas that it was featured twice on FOX’s animated series King of the Hill.
Perhaps less impressive, but just as iconic, is the neon parrot sign for Polly’s Freeze in Edwardsville, Indiana. Resembling the parrot from Poll Parrot Shoe advertisements, the Polly’s Freeze Parrot sign has been a local fixture on Indiana 62 since 1952. The colorful sign, and the ice-cream venue, are even referred to in the Congressional record of July 14, 2014.
Although they may appear whimsical and even silly at first, such structures and works of folk art provide both a sense of identity and a richness to the fabric of our communities.
By the way, about eight miles from Shoals, U.S 150 is closed until October. The suggested detour is poorly marked, extremely narrow, and really frightening if you’re towing a pontoon boat. You’re better off going through Mitchell. You can even go an extra 20 minutes out of your way and see the limestone Joe Palooka statute in the little town of Oolitic, another treasure of which we are proud.