Roadside Attractions

Perhaps it’s just because I’m now scouring Roadside America for tips on what to do in the 35 hours after the end of code4lib and my flight home, but I got a hoot out of this AP story about “Roadside Giants”:

A Pittsburgh-area couple find “Roadside Giants” historic, attractive, a boon to local economies… and silly.

Associated Press

PITTSBURGH – How can you find the Cadet Restaurant in Kittanning? The question is: How can you miss it, what with the 30-foot-tall cowboy standing out front on Route 422 wearing what looks to be a 10,000-gallon hat and holding a hamburger that looks like a quarter-tonner?

Customers “go by the cowboy,” says owner George Morda. “They like that.” Morda, who started the business northeast of Pittsburgh in 1952, met this big boy at the 1962 Chicago restaurant show and decided to buy him for $3,900.

As the fiberglass statue helped rope in diners, it acquired the nickname “Cowboy Sam” from Sam the police officer, who patrolled the popular drive-in lot the restaurant ran at the time.

Alas, one foggy morning in, Morda believes, 1978, the big man in white was felled by a Ford Bronco that was smashed into by a loaded coal truck coming from Indiana, Pa.

Sam’s broken body lay behind the restaurant, the subject of some pranks by local students who’d “borrow” his hat or his whole head.

But some Cadet customers eventually pieced Sam together again, and they finally stood him back up by crane in 2002. The traveling public, who still tend to stop and snap pictures and buy 50-cent postcards, couldn’t have been happier. Nor could Morda, who says, Sam “helped me out tremendously in my business,” increasing it by 20 percent or so. “That’s what he’s there for.”

Cowboy Sam is a big part, but just one big part, of a new book, Roadside Giants, published by Stackpole Books. The little $14.95 paperback is a labor of love by local history buff Brian Butko and his wife, Sarah.

Brian Butko, a lifelong West Mifflin resident, works as editor of the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania’s Western Pennsylvania History magazine. His previous book, which came out earlier this year, was Greetings From the Lincoln Highway: America’s First Coast-to-Coast Road, his second about that great route.

Sarah Butko is a data conversion operator for the U.S. Postal Service, a PTA president, and a Girl Scout leader. The couple have three children, who have gone on lots of road trips with them and even helped find a few elusive giants.

As Dad quips, “We now specialize in U-turns.” The Butkos covered a lot of highways and byways for this fits-in-the-glove-box guide, which spotlights two-dozen larger-than-life roadside attractions and lists dozens of others with directions for finding them. There are more comprehensive sources, but the couple wanted to make this vast subject interesting and accessible to a broader audience.

As they write in their introduction, “Looming over the Landscape,” giants are popular props in movies and TV commercials and have intense fringe fans, but, “It’s still often difficult for the public, let alone some historians and civic planners, to recognize such attractions as historic, attractive and a boon to their local economy.”

As they recount, giants grew out of America’s car culture in the 1920s, when entrepreneurs upped the ante from big signs to entire buildings that looked like the products they were selling, whether doughnuts or ice cream cones. Others erected massive statues, from dinosaurs to Amish people, to catch the eyes and dollars of tourists.

Brian Butko says one of his favorite finds is the hot-dog-in-a-bun-shaped Coney Island restaurant near Denver. “I don’t know why. It’s silly, but silly in a fun way. And it was neat that everyone there just took it for granted. We were probably the only oddballs racing around with a camera.”

Kittanning’s Cowboy Sam is of the genre called “Muffler Men,” as these human forms often held mufflers in their hands and stood in front of auto-related businesses. But the California company that crafted them (after starting with one ax-wielding Paul Bunyan) offered options such as the burger, and creative owners added their own custom touches over the decades.

A once-bearded Muffler Man also pictured in the book, standing at now-closed tire store on Route 119 in Greensburg east of Pittsburgh, is painted over to look like beardless Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox, complete with a face mask.

The Butkos (who also plan to do a bigger book on roadside attractions) conclude that while many giants have been lost, others are being preserved, and a few continue to be built, such as the wacky basket-shaped headquarters of the Longaberger basket company in Newark, Ohio (Sarah Butko’s favorite).

They allow that this isn’t necessarily fine art, but it’s clear they’re among those who like it.

“A roadside giant is likely the only reason you’ve ever heard of some small towns or businesses,” they write. “They continue to sell and entertain.”