Why American Roadside Attractions Will Never Die
by Jeffrey Sward
 
Roadside Attractions before the Interstate
 

The era before the creation of the interstate highway system, roughly 1920-1955, is often characterized as the golden age of American roadside attractions.  During the pre-interstate-highway era, cross-country automobile travel was primarily on two-lane highways with periodic traffic signals and cross-traffic.  The archetypal two-lane highway offered ample visibility to roadside businesses.  One very successful strategy to encourage the motorist to stop and spend money was to create the most garish and unique visual presence possible as seen from the moving vehicle.  Both mimetic architecture and creative repetitive billboards flourished.  The theory and practice was that the more unique the appearance, the greater the chance for business.

 
June 29, 1956: A Date Which Lives in Infamy
 

On June 29, 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act.  President Eisenhower was a champion of the interstate highway system in no small part for the promise of facilitating the mobility of the armed forces during a national emergency.  A few years later, due to efforts by Lady Bird Johnson among others, highway beautification laws dramatically reduced the presence of highway billboards. 

Interstate highways differed from the previous two-lane highways in many ways.  New aspects included controlled access, no stop lights, isolation from business districts, higher speed limits, and fewer billboards.  The interstate highways discouraged motorists from stopping.  Interstate highways tended to be built in similar but not identical locations to the two-lane highways which they superseded.  Businesses visible from the two-lane highway often were not visible from the new interstate highway. 

As the interstate highway system expanded, businesses which were optimized for two-lane traffic patterns failed in droves.  A more homogenized and boring interstate highway landscape emerged.  Innovative and unique roadside businesses and attractions were replaced by the consistent mediocrity of national chains.  The era of the franchise was born, led by giants such as McDonald's and Howard Johnson.  Predictability was key to attracting the new interstate customer.  Consequently, garish visual effects and mimetic architecture declined. 

Scholarly studies of the two-lane-to-interstate phenomenon abound.  William C. Gartner has detailed the impact on rural tourism.1  Phil Patton delineates in great detail the rise of homogenized mediocre franchises at the expense entrepreneurial originality.  In a peculiar twist, Patton subsequently systematically denies the existence many rural highway characteristics when discussing Route 66.2

 
American Roadside Attractions Will Never Die
 
Despite the massive disruption of travel and business patterns caused by the interstate highway system replacing two-lane highway, it is manifest that American roadside attractions will never die.  The main reasons American roadside attractions will never die are basic human drives and rugged individualism.
 

Reason 1: Basic Human Drives

 

Countless case studies show that fundamental aspects of human group behavior cannot be suppressed.

One aspect of human behavior which cannot be suppressed is sexuality.  Societal attempts at suppression of sexuality results in an underground sex subculture.  For example, Victorian era societal sexual suppression resulted in vast underground networks of both prostitution and pornography.  The characteristics of sexuality through history are well documented by Reay Tannahill.3  An interesting study of sexual suppression causing an increase in prostitution has been written by Judith R. Walkowitz.4

Societal attempts at suppression of economic activity results in black markets.  Two examples of suppression-driven black markets are the general goods black markets created by Communism, and the liquor black market created by prohibition in the United States during 1920-1933.  The classic study by R.A. Radford illustrates that even in the closed society of a prisoner of war camp without conventional currency, the human economic drive prevails.5 

Creativity is now recognized as another fundamental human drive which cannot be suppressed.  Davor Dzatlto has recently documented the full range of the inevitability of human creativity.6 

The objective of roadside attractions is to cause the driver to stop, and hence relinquish some cash.  The ubiquitous entrepreneurial and creative drives are essential for the production of roadside attractions.
 
Reason 2: Rugged Individualism: (Only) One Person Makes a Difference
 

The phenomenon of American rugged individualism was introduced in a famous speech7 and subsequent book8 by noted historian Frederick Jackson Turner.  Americans are a rugged, self-made race of people, forged in adversity through the pioneering experience, purified into a breed unique on earth. 

American rugged individuals will always exist, and will continue to create according to their personal imaginations.  Many of these rugged individuals will direct their expressiveness into roadside attractions.  Individual creations are co~mpletely unrelated to contemporary fads in highway design and construction. 

All it takes in one rugged in`dividual with a vision to create a roadside attraction.  Creators of roadside attraction can be categorized into entrepreneurs, artisans, and collectors.9   The following are prime examples in each category.
 
Entrepreneurs
 

Entrepreneurs channel their individual efforts into concept, planning, and supervision.

R.J. "Bob" Lee created an archetypal road food gimmick with the creation of the free 72 oz. steak dinner, provided it could be eaten in its entirety in one hour.  On Route 66 in Amarillo, Texas, the Big Texan Steak Ranch Restaurant is a roadside classic. 

Here it is, the Jack Rabbit Trading Post, in Joseph City, Arizona, is certainly, the world's most famous Stop-N-Go market.  Jim Taylor turned one iconic sign and one fiberglass rabbit into roadside lore.

For his unique restaurant, Bill Waugh was not content with only the remarkable three story indoor cliff divers.  He also added flame jugglers, caverns, caves, a puppet theater, and various entertainers.  The result is an unforgettable experience at Casa Bonita Mexican restaurant in Denver, Colorado. 

Correctly gauging roadside appeal during the Great Depression, Ted Hustead created an empire from free ice water.  Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota, became the world's most famous drug store.
 
Artisans
 

Artisans channel their individual efforts into concept and personal construction.

Beginning at age 67, Claude Bell personally built two concrete dinosaurs at Cabazon, California, over a period of 24 years.  One is a 150 ton brontosaurus and the other is a 100 ton tyrannosaurus rex.

Between 1907 and 1928, visionary artist Samuel Perry Dinsmoor personally constructed 150 outdoor concrete statues and a limestone home in Lucas, Kansas.  Dinsmoor was age 64 when the project started.  The entire collection of statues is named the Garden of Eden. 

During the 1940s, Frances Glessner Lee created eighteen incredibly detailed dioramas of death crime scenes meticulously constructed in 1:12 scale, using both scratch building techniques and stock doll house furniture.  Known as the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, the dioramas are now located on the third floor of the Maryland Medical Examiner's Office in Baltimore.  

Between 1923 and 1951, Edward Leedskalnin personally sculpted 1,100 tons of solid coral into furniture and buildings.  Located in Homestead, Florida, the attraction is known as Coral Castle.

 

Collectors
 

Collectors channel their individual efforts into the obsessive compulsive acquisition of personal collections. 

Bored with his hotel business, J.M. Davis of Claremore, Oklahoma, began to collect guns and beer steins.  A few decades later, the collection of 50,000 firearms and 1200 of beer steins is now the J.M. Davis Arms and Historical Museum. 

As his life work, James F. W. May collected and traded for tropical insects.  An extremely large collection of insects resulted, which toured the tent circuit during the Great Depression.  Eventually the collection settled in Colorado Springs, Colorado, as the May Natural History Museum.  

The king of collectors is Alex Jordan.  His collection of collections is displayed in the House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wisconsin.  The collections include automated music machines, Burma shave signs, dollhouses, mechanical banks, miniature scale-model circuses, museum-sized model ships, oriental art, paperweights, and suits of armor. 

The queen of collectors is Electra Havemeyer Webb.  Her collection of collections is displayed in the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont.  Collections include paintings, folk art, historic houses, decorative arts, quilts, decoys, carriages, tools, toys, dolls, dollhouses, Native American artifacts, miniature circus figures, and circus posters.
 
Conclusion
 

American Roadside Attractions will never die.  There are hundreds of roadside attractions extant today.  Get out there and enjoy them. 

 

 
Notes
 
1Gartner, William.  "A Perspective on Rural Tourism Development."  The Journal of Regional Analysis and Policy 35.1 (2005): 33-42.
2Patton, Phil. Open Road: A Celebration of the American Highway.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986
3Tannahill, Reay.  Sex in History.  New York: Stein and Day, 1980.
4Walkowitz, Judith R. Prostitution and Victorian Society.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.
5Radford, R. A. “The Economic Organization of a P.O.W. Camp.”  Economica 12 (1945): 189-201.
6Dzatlto, Davor.  The Role of the Artist in Self-Referent Art.  Berlin: 2007
7Turner, Frederick Jackson.  "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," address before the American Historical Association, Chicago, 1893.
8Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Frontier in American History. New York: Holt, 1921.
9A comprehensive categorized list of American rugged individuals who made a difference by creating roadside attractions is available at http://www.jeffreysward.com/editorials/riwmad.htm.
 

 
Click here to view American Rugged Individuals Who Made A Difference by Creating Roadside Attractions
 
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