Nearly five years ago, Joel Baker, inspired by his own childhood memories and their current flawed state, began to track down the fiberglass statues made by International Fiberglass – the California-based boat building company responsible for building America’s roadside giants in the 1960s and 1970s. What began as a hobby with three of his friends has developed into an after-work mission to repair and rebuild a part of America’s history.
The first giant statue can be traced back to the late 19th century when James V. Lafferty built a six-story-high elephant named Lucy in 1881 on a piece of undeveloped land in Atlantic City. He hoped it would attract visitors to stop and possibly purchase some property; Lucy is still visible today.
In 1921, a 64-foot-tall orange wooden bottle was built in Auburn, Alabama to advertise Nehi soft drinks, and included a gas station, grocery store, and living quarters. Dubbed ‘the world’s largest bottle,’ this was the first prime example of giant statues making their way to the roadside. The figure burned down in 1936, but the area is still referred to as ‘The Bottle.’
After WWII, the car industry flourished, with many Americans purchasing a vehicle of their own; and with a new interstate highway system, navigation and travel across the US skyrocketed. Businesses in the small towns across the nation were forced to compete for the attention of travelers on the road.
In 1964, International Fiberglass made its first giant figure, Paul Bunyan – a large lumberjack placed outside an Arizona restaurant. Over the next decade, it made hundreds more, including the Native American popular at Pontiac dealerships, the Phillips 66 cowboy, Uniroyal Gals (usually in a bikini, shirt, and heels), and Muffler Men, commonly found outside car repair workshops. Despite their stereotyped undertones and political incorrectness, these roadside giants represent the road culture, values, and mass production of the 1960s.
By 1972, the statues lost their appeal, tainted with a sense of embarrassment by the locals; cars became more efficient, stops were less frequent, and businesses along the road were forced to close, leaving the roadside giants to abandonment.
The times have begun to change, however. As other nostalgic elements of the roadside disappear, like old school diners and gas stations, Americans have moved to a position of cherishing these landmarks once again, appreciating their odd uniqueness that cling to parts of a childhood past. Travelers can be seen once again stopping for a photo op; a Muffler Man was even purchased last year by a vintage car repair shop in Tennessee.
Baker reminds us that ‘there’s a pull to these giants… that’s why they were made, to attract attention. And it worked.’
Want to find a giant figure near you? Discover over 180 roadside giants today: map of roadside giants.