Jeff Kunkle and his wife Kelly Burg are no strangers to the open road. But it’s not the highways, camping, or even the food that the Oregon couple enjoy most about their dusty road trips: It’s when they venture off the interstate highways, which now overshadow the old-fashioned local routes from the early 20th century, to search for something more unconventional.
As the founders of Vintage Roadside, an online company that reconnects people with the recent past through t-shirt designs and photos, Kunkle and Burg have dedicated their careers to revisiting hidden, often forgotten relics — including the aging signs and giant sculptures once proudly displayed roadside as attractions for restaurants, diners, and tourist traps. Their business is at the forefront of a revival for the roadside attraction, helping these former staples make a comeback.
The idea behind roadside attractions is as American as the Ford pickup. By the early 1900s, the automobile began to grow in popularity. By the 1920s, numbered highways were being built across the United States. In response to the subsequent increase in long-distance travel, businesses saw opportunities to profit, opening gas stations, motels, and restaurants along the routes to serve travelers. To advertise these places, some businesses — inspired by pre-20th century tourist traps like sculptures of the “world’s largest” this-or-another — built larger-than-life signs and fiberglass sculptures, known as roadside attractions, to grab drivers’ attention. Sometimes the restaurants themselves were built to look like bottles, containers, or food items. Some of the roadside gimmicks became destinations in and of themselves.
The attractions came in all types, shapes, and sizes. But some designs have become iconic. There are the 12-foot-tall Big Boy statues, for instance, chubby brunette kids in red and white checkered overalls holding a cheeseburger from the California-based Big Boy restaurant (originally called Bob’s Pantry). Then there were the Tastee-Freez twins, Tee and Eff, two yellow globs with dollops of ice cream for hair, popularized in the ’50s by Chicago-based Tastee-Freez ice cream parlors. The A&W mascot family from the ’60s consisted of an 8-foot-6-inch tall Papa Burger, and the smaller Mama Burger, Teen Burger, and Baby Burger.
Perhaps most popular are the 20-foot-tall Paul Bunyan-esque Muffler Men, named for the fact that many hold car mufflers in their humongous hands (though some can also be found carrying anything from a giant hot dog to an ice cream cone). The first Bunyanesque Muffler Man was built around 1962, for a restaurant called PB Cafe along Route 66 in Flagstaff, Arizona. “We were selling a few figures here and there,” said Steve Dashew, former president of International Fiberglass, the creator of the Bunyan statues, during a 2015 interview with RoadsideAmerica.com, an organization dedicated to connecting road trip enthusiasts with fun roadside attractions. Dashew said it was one enthusiastic statue owner who helped fuel sales. In a trade magazine interview, that statue-owner “indicated his sales had doubled after installing his Paul Bunyan,” Dashew said. “That was the start of the ‘invasion.’”
“For me, it really just represents a cool piece of history,” Kunkle says of the attractions. “Think about it: At some point, somebody with a car repair shop or something ordered this thing brand new, and put it out in front of their shop to draw attention. That was really what these guys were all for, attention-getters.”
But the days of state highway road trips were numbered. The trend reached its peak in the ’50s and ’60s, before the Interstate Highway System was completed in 1992 (the project was initiated in 1956). That slowed interest in the state highways and numbered routes. Many of the roadside businesses closed and left behind remnants of their roadside fanfare. “You would see all of these abandoned gas stations or motels that were bypassed by the main highway and couldn’t make it,” Kunkle says of re-discovering those sites today. “That’s where we always found ourselves drawn, to these old alignments of the highway.”
Kunkle and Burg found themselves stopping by local historical societies to get more information about their discoveries. It was during one of these visits 11 years ago, while on a road trip through Central New York, that the pair decided to dedicate more time to uncovering the stories buried along state highways. When they returned home that year, they both quit their jobs and started Vintage Roadside. Each shirt customers purchase comes with a history of the roadside sculpture, building, or sign depicted in the design. The pair researches and writes each bio using online resources, newspaper archives, and help from historical societies.
While roadside signs seem to be disappearing, Kunkle says there is a growing interest in the objects. Darren Schauf, the president of FAST Corporation, one of the leaders in fiberglass sculptures, agrees. In the 1950s, FAST’s business focused primarily on making roadside fixtures, but requests for those have decreased over the years; now, the company, based in Sparta, Wisconsin, gets most of its requests from water parks and artists.
Among those still commissioning roadside sculptures — FAST still counts fiberglass “roadside” statues as 20 percent of its business — many are baby boomers with businesses (or disposable incomes) who are nostalgic for family road trips. “This is the largest segment of our population right now,” Schauf says. “They remember these things as children and how interesting they were, and how they would plan their trips around them.”
There was a time when “big and interesting” literally meant physically big and interesting — not big in concept, technology, or innovation, Schauf says. “Back in the ’50s and ’60s, the country was really growing and the impossible was possible in the U.S.,” he says. A giant man holding a hot dog, or a larger-than-life dinosaur alluded to the “sky’s the limit” attitude of the time’s prevailing ideal of the American Dream. “It’s something that seems difficult and impossible to do, and at the same time, it stands out from the rest of the environment around it.” Schauf’s company also maintains a field with 50 years’ worth of moldings from the sculptures the company has built, and the site is popular with tourists.
Kunkle also keeps a collection in his backyard and home, a private one. That’s where he boasts in his 20-foot Muffler Man statue and his refurbished Tastee-Freez Eff statue, which Kunkle says is one of only two existing Tastee-Freez boy twins. It’s also where he and his wife keep their Papa Burger, Mama Burger, Teen Burger, and Baby Burger statues.
Many of Vintage Roadside’s customers have never seen in person the attractions in the photos or t-shirts they buy. But there is something about reconnecting with the past, especially a local past, that seems to resonate with them, Kunkle says. Schauf has also noticed a growing curiosity from millennials fascinated by retro. “I think there’s some generations that weren’t so nostalgic, didn’t have such an appreciation, but I think the newer generations are enjoying life a little more,” he says. “They have an appreciation for that nostalgic past.”
While roadside fixtures aren’t as prevalent as they used to be, they haven’t completely disappeared, and probably won’t in the near future, says Kenneth Smith, the senior editor for RoadsideAmerica.com. Smith and some of his team wrote the book on the American roadside attraction, literally, and help seekers discover the parts of the culture still thriving.
“Food and attractions go way back to the origin of roadside attractions. There’s always been places that have tried to pull in travelers with little bits of extra business, as it were,” Smith says. “That still goes on today, but obviously it’s becoming a bit more sophisticated.”
He points out examples like Delgadillo’s Snow Cap Drive-in out in Seligman, Arizona. The small diner is marked by a tacky rainbow of painted exteriors, a multi-colored old-fashioned car parked in its lot, and a giant sign that says “BURGERS” with an arrow pointing to the business, among other decorative shenanigans. Of course it helps that the restaurant sits right along the famed Route 66, one of the preserved, numbered highways from the early 20th century. The store has been there for more than 60 years.
Many of the modern places are aware of their kitschiness and seem to be having fun with it. In Hatch, New Mexico, antiques collector Teako Nunn is the proprietor of a restaurant called Sparky’s. The restaurant, opened in 2008, serves its green chile burgers, barbecue, and coffee with a side of roadside memories. The A&W burger family adorn the roof, while Ronald McDonald and the KFC Colonel guard the door. A robot, Yogi Bear, and Robin Hood greet customers with burgers from across the street. All are a part of Nunn’s personal collection, which started in 2006, when Nunn bought a Muffler Man for his RV dealership. When Nunn and his family opened Sparky’s two years later, they used the building to showcase their growing collection.
“Until we started Sparky’s, I never got to share with other people; I never got to display stuff,” Nunn says of his collection. “With Sparky’s, it’s like this giant canvas.”
Hatch is a small bypass town that sits on a route between Albuquerque and Tucson, Arizona. Nunn believes his attractions are the main reason for the recent boom in tourism in Hatch, also known as the green chile pepper capital of the world. “It’s gone from a bypass where people avoided stopping here to where they’re putting it on their itinerary,” Nunn says. “If we didn’t do all the antiques and statues and music, I really don’t think we would have grown.”
People notice the 20-foot tall Uncle Sam or giant pig outside the restaurant and stop to take photos before stopping inside to try a green chile cheeseburger. And despite some legal pushback from the city and state about his attractions, Nunn says he has plans to add more to his location and other restaurants his family may open in the future.
That’s where the road has taken these kitschy attractions, to an re-imagined place of fun. The giant people, animals, and snacks, once designed to be novel, are novel all over again — in a new way, for the modern generation. In a way, technology and younger people have helped save the roadside attraction. Thank the Internet, which offers unlimited resources for easily uncovering the past, Kunkle says.
“Fifteen years ago, you had no idea what was out there unless you accidentally drove by it,” Kunkle says. “You can be somebody that just once a year on a road trip stops and eats at a cool old restaurant or a drive-in or a diner. That’s great, because you’ve actually engaged in historic preservation without even really thinking about it.”
Vince Dixon is Eater’s data visualization reporter.
Editor: Erin DeJesus