How To Put Your Town on the Map
Amanda Ripley: What’s one attraction you think everyone should see at least once in their life?
Erika Nelson: Oh, hands down. The world’s largest ball of twine. I mean, that is a cultural icon.
Speaker 3: Yeah, And you have to listen to the song over and over and over again while you’re driving there to annoy your children.
Amanda Ripley: That’s part of it.
Speaker 3: You said, Dad, we want to see the biggest part of twine in Minnesota.
Amanda Ripley: They make the biggest. Klein in Minnesota. You’re listening to How to. I’m Amanda Ripley. Very next. That was Weird Al Yankovic singing about one of our country’s most famous roadside attractions. Now, why are we playing this song? Well, the other day, a listener called in to the How to Hotline with an unusual request. How can Our Town? He wanted to know. Build a truly awesome roadside attraction, one that delights and inspires, one that rivals the largest ball of twine in America. Our listener’s from a little town in Delaware called Smyrna, a place you’ve probably never heard of, which is part of the problem.
Speaker 3: Smyrna is a small town. We are about 13,000 people, a very agriculturally focused area of our state, but it still has this wonderful little small town charm.
Amanda Ripley: That’s Mike. He wears many hats and Smyrna in addition to running a fleet of taco trucks. He owns a craft distillery in an old renovated movie house. He’s a member of the town council and he sits on the county tourism board. So probably fair to say that Smyrna depends on Mike. As much as Mike depends on Smyrna, which is why it pains him so much that so few people spend their time and their money in his cute little town.
Speaker 3: We have the unfortunate or fortunate, depending on your perspective, sometimes spot of being in the middle of our state. We have beaches that people travel to in massive numbers throughout the summertime. Unless you need gas, you’re not likely to get off the highways. You know, back when the major toll roads before those were built, you had to travel through a lot of these little towns and my town being one of them. But now you can just bypass us if you want to.
Amanda Ripley: But earlier this year, Mike got an idea.
Speaker 3: So this summer, I wanted to do about a two week road trip with my kids and we were going to go up through New England. I had done trips like this with my father when I was a kid, and we would often stop at things on the side of the road. Somebody who built a spaceship. Paul Bunyan and Babe, the big blue ox, the dinosaurs out in the desert. They wanted to break up the trip and have a little bit of fun. We visited, I think, probably about ten or 12 of these along the way during our trip. But what I also saw was that my wonderful little state of Delaware was empty on the map. I absolutely love my state and I love my county and my town. And I got to thinking, well, why not? Like, why hasn’t somebody gone out and built something like this here?
Amanda Ripley: Why not indeed? Why not build something engaging, enticing, simply Smyrna to lure the beachgoers off the interstate to help make figure this out. We found literally the perfect person.
Erika Nelson: My name is Erika Nelson and I am the owner and operator of a roadside sideshow expo that houses the world’s largest collection of the world’s smallest versions of the world’s largest things, which are replicas of roadside attractions from across the U.S. that billed themselves as some sort of superlative like the biggest, the largest smallest, the longest, the deepest. And just love to talk about them.
Amanda Ripley: Eric has spent years traveling to see hundreds of roadside attractions, and she’s built a bunch of large scale art installations herself. Now she helps towns like Smyrna who want to build their own roadside attractions. Yes, that is a real job. So on today’s show, we’re going to discover the magic behind the world’s best roadside attractions. And we’ll teach Mike how to capture that wonder and maybe even a few tourist dollars. And don’t worry, we will get back to the world’s largest collection of the world’s smallest versions of the world’s largest things. But to tide you over for now, please enjoy the museum’s delightful theme song.
Speaker 3: Drama travelling down the road and oh, what do I see by the john here?
Amanda Ripley: According to figures from Mary, I’m not listening and I’m not crazy.
Speaker 3: But the down talking Gowans talking to me. I understood how you see the world’s largest collection now the world Falls version of a World War. Two things have a role.
Amanda Ripley: Title track to.
Amanda Ripley: Erica, can you tell us a little bit about what drew you to roadside attractions in the first place?
Erika Nelson: Growing up, we lived in a small town, rural Missouri, but in the summers we would travel to wherever Dad was stationed. He was in the Air Force. So before being able to Google things, when it was just maps and research, I thought my mom was so amazingly brilliant. How did you know that there was this giant rift in the continent and you could go look at it? So that amazement that came with finding something outside of your experience to me was just magical. And the more that I grew up and started driving myself around, I realized other people didn’t navigate that way. They didn’t navigate by senses of wonder. So I kept wanting to find that again.
Amanda Ripley: I love that idea of navigating by wonder. And that’s.
Erika Nelson: I think, what attraction builders want to build too. It could be thought of as a commercial venture, but at the heart of it, at the core of it, the thing that makes people stop is that acknowledgement of an authentic feeling that is so hard to pin down.
Amanda Ripley: Yeah, it’s almost like in a way, in modern life, we need these little surprises and quirks and delights more than ever. We live in a globalized world where, you know, you lose that sense of place and the personality of a place. Is this like an American thing? Or do all countries have roadside attractions at this level?
Erika Nelson: I think it’s a young country thing. So Canada and Australia both have a large amount of big things and they celebrate them. And I think part of that too is the road trip culture that we have is also so new. We don’t have the historical spots to go to that place with buildings from the 1400s or two hundreds. So we sort of create these monuments as a community experience in a younger country that has not the amount of history that that the rest of the world does.
Amanda Ripley: Right. Right. Of a medieval cathedral. Right. So maybe, you know, you can have like a giant nickel. Yeah.
Erika Nelson: I think it’s also ego based. I mean, Americans are giant, flamboyant, loud people. So we build giant, flamboyant, loud things.
Amanda Ripley: Even before the Statue of Liberty arrived in America, there were roadside attractions. The oldest one still standing is Lucy, a six story high wooden elephant on the Jersey Shore. Lucy was built in 1881. And even back then, she was seen as a whimsical way to bring tourists into town. Then the popularity of roadside attractions really soared with the rise of the automobile and the interstate highway system. Think of dinosaur gardens in Michigan or the Corn Palace in South Dakota, and of course, the Clown motel and the Nevada desert. I mean, there are thousands of these things, most of which you’ve never heard of, which is why we’re trying to figure out what separates the mildly interesting attraction from the truly spectacular.
Speaker 3: Part of my question is really not just how do you build the world’s largest garden gnome, but how do you also make it something that people want to stop and see?
Amanda Ripley: Right. How do you make it a thing? Right. Not just a weird, eccentric oddity.
Erika Nelson: Not just an object, but an event. Yeah. You know, from the parking lot onwards that this is going to provide some photo ops, provide some food that you wouldn’t normally otherwise get, like fudge and that memory. So what goes beyond the object into memory.
Amanda Ripley: The attractions that go beyond object into memory usually have a deep sense of place, Erica says. We just couldn’t really imagine them existing anywhere else but where they are.
Erika Nelson: Well, and you’re also placed really well in being in a smaller rural community because it does mean you have more flexibility. There’s often fewer regulations, and if you ignite that spark within enough of the movers and shakers in a small town, it is so much more likely to happen with that mutual support system that’s built into these communities.
Speaker 3: I think that very much resonates with the conversations that I’ve had. You know, that idea of what is the most Smyrna thing you can do or something like that from my business, my distillery, when we were getting ready to start, we said, What is the most a Delaware product we could make? And we actually make a scrapple flavored vodka because it is the most Delaware thing we could think.
Amanda Ripley: Awesome.
Erika Nelson: That sounds simultaneously wonderful and awesome.
Speaker 3: And so I get that authenticity. I think that that is something that really speaks to making it fit in the community. The tricky thing on my mind is that I’ve seen lots of things die at. Great ideas die because of death by committee. Right. You bring so many people in to try to find something that you’d never get to define it, and eventually folks just sort of walk away.
Amanda Ripley: Hmm.
Erika Nelson: Well, it could also be a trial period. Like what would happen if every year somebody else said, this is the most Smyrna thing I can think of, and you try it that year at a festival. What if it ends up being like a downtown sculpture competition? But the most Smyrna sculpture that you can do in front of your business or your storefront, that’s up for a year. It’d be so much more interesting than the fiberglass plunk art that happens in so many towns that have a committee decide the fiberglass thing and everybody just gets to paint it. And if that happened for 5 to 10 years, which sounds like a long time on this side of it, but when you look back backwards, five years isn’t much. Ten years isn’t much. But there’d be a way to sort of crowdsource the wonder and see which ones really fly.
Amanda Ripley: If our first rule is to be authentic to your place, then crowdsourcing a point of town. Pride is our next suggestion. Not only is it a community building exercise to help people get on board, it’s also a really good way to test drive ideas.
Speaker 3: I like that. I totally agree with the not wanting to be the homogenous sort of punk art, as you referred to it of, you know? Yeah, you just everybody paints a cow or something. One of the other things that I considered when thinking about this is it seems like there’s a little bit of controversy might be a good thing about a roadside attraction versus trying to find something that everyone agrees with.
Erika Nelson: And nobody’s ever going to agree. But this could be a way to start civil conversation again. So it could do the same amount of community building as that final thing could be.
Amanda Ripley: What are some of the biggest mistakes people or towns make when trying to do this?
Erika Nelson: I think sometimes people don’t go big enough. I can. Nederland, Colorado they have a festival called Frozen Dead Guy Days because a man cryogenically froze himself and somebody in Nederland thought, Hey, this is really bizarre and unique. So let’s have a festival called Frozen Dead Guy Days. And so now they do it annually. But if it had just been a whisper of an idea, if there hadn’t been somebody who goes, yes, this is amazing and bizarre and we should celebrate it in a big way, then it just kind of peters out.
Amanda Ripley: Hmm. Okay. So we’ve got two rules, at least so far. One is be authentic to your place and the next sounds like it’s, you know, go big or go home. Yeah. And commit.
Erika Nelson: Yeah. And there are going to always be the naysayers. And I think we’re so afraid of being rejected by our own town or rejected by somebody saying, Oh, well, that’s silly or That’s ridiculous. Those are always going to be out there. So if you decide upfront that I don’t care, I know this is awesome and you go for it, you can embrace all the people who aren’t going to like it upfront and go, Hey, you know what is isn’t your cup of tea? You don’t want a Scrabble flavored vodka. I get you. This isn’t for you. This is for all the other people out there who are wanting to try it.
Amanda Ripley: Yeah, I feel like mine can make. You can do this, right? I mean, I’m sure there are people who didn’t think Scrabble vodka was a good idea. You did it anyway. Yeah.
Speaker 3: Yeah, In fact, I think it was. All of us didn’t think it was a good idea. And it was the world around us who told us differently. So the opportunity to be wrong and happy about it is. It was a nice thing to have, but I really like the idea of that. Go big or go home sort of approach to it, because the as some of the things that we have that I’ve seen along the way and like the things that we stopped at, they were interesting ideas, but it just seemed like it could be so much more. But it seems like being open to those ideas is really important. Imagining that it could be way bigger than what it is, and you sort of swing for the fences right off the bat.
Erika Nelson: Yeah. And if you eliminate the well, that’s not going to work. Because if you just take that out of the equation and even within yourself, force the brainstorming to be positive of what would be the craziest end to this idea and seeing where you fall within that.
Amanda Ripley: If there were no constraints and money were not an object and you could not fail.
Erika Nelson: What would it be?
Amanda Ripley: Does anything come to mind?
Speaker 3: So one of the oddest things our community has a long history of trapping and Smyrna is or was known as a place where people would go to get muskrats and eating. Muskrat is an old tradition around here, not something that I’ve partaken of. But there used to be restaurants in our town that served it kind of remember. It is something that you had to do rather than something that you wanted to do.
Erika Nelson: Yeah, but you’ve got Muskrat Love right there.
Speaker 3: Like muskrat.
Amanda Ripley: Yeah.
Speaker 3: With songs already written, I guess. Yeah.
Amanda Ripley: Yeah, that’s.
Erika Nelson: Oh, there’s so many fun things you could do with that. I mean, what if there is a Muskrat Parade? What if it takes the community coming together to build the parts and pieces and see how this muskrat comes together? Oh, there’s so many great things.
Speaker 3: That’s true. It does give that opportunity to connect the past to the present, I think. And it doesn’t mean that everyone has to go out and eat muskrats. The other idea. Many years ago there was a thing called the Run Amuck festival here in Smyrna and run amuck was pig races, and they would hold pig races in the downtown, but they made it a little bit of a cultural like a day out in the community, and they would actually have a lot of like the politicians dress up in basically women’s clothes. And these were typically men at the time, obviously typically women’s clothes, but also wear like pig noses and pigtails. And that they also had to have a race as well, along with the racing pigs. And so people remember that and talk about that as like, you know, the most fun thing you did in the summertime in Smyrna was you go downtown for run amuck.
Amanda Ripley: Okay, so besides the muskrat and the run amuck, there’s one more option, one that’s already kind of a weird inside joke in Smyrna.
Speaker 3: Somebody came up with this joke on Facebook where they called the Duck Creek Ferry.
Amanda Ripley: This is a boat that allegedly runs in the shallow creek in town. And the most important thing to know about the Duck Creek Fairy, it doesn’t actually exist.
Speaker 3: I have a T-shirt that says That Creek’s fairy staff that somebody was selling on Facebook. Somebody put a sign out for 4th of July. It’s like, you know, 4th of July ferry rides with an arrow. And it just points into down a road where there’s nothing. And it is been quite entertaining in that folks, you know, will respond to a totally legitimate and honest question asked. And like the community group with the Duck Creek Ferry.
Amanda Ripley: Okay, Like.
Speaker 3: Like somebody is looking for, you know, a restaurant recommendation or a dentist and somebody follows up with like, oh, yeah, no, I get my teeth done on the Duck Creek Ferry. You know, like, you know, the true origins of it. I’m not 100% sure, but I’ve met some of the people who have really embraced it. And then I’ve come across people who it absolutely infuriates.
Amanda Ripley: Which is that crackle that you’re talking about. Right. Like a little conflict might be. Okay. So we’ve got a few zany ideas, but the Smyrna have to build the world’s largest muskrat for people to care. How much does a world record actually matter? We’ll find out right after the break.
Amanda Ripley: If you rely on how to to help you with your zany ideas. The best way to support this show is by joining Slate Plus Slate’s membership program. Members never hear another ad on our podcast or any other Slate podcast. How great is that? You also get free and total access to Slate’s website. So I hope you’ll join if you can. To sign up now, go to Slate.com slash how to plus again that Slate.com slash how to plus. Thanks.
Amanda Ripley: We’re back with our listener Mike and our roadside attraction aficionado, Erika Nelson. Now, you might be wondering, how did Erica ever begin creating the world’s largest collection of the world’s smallest versions of the world’s largest things? Well, for Erica, it all began in grad school when she started taking little road trips to wacky places just to find an escape.
Erika Nelson: At a certain point, I was at a decision making juncture where I could either sign a tenure track teaching position, which is what I was supposed to be building for. Or I could sell everything I own and move into a bus full time. So I did the second one instead of the first.
Amanda Ripley: Oh, my gosh. Good for you. That’s awesome.
Erika Nelson: And because I I’ve always figured you can always sign another piece of paper. But how often can you follow the dream that when you’re older, it might be harder to travel? Or. Yeah, you might know more and realize that’s a really bad set of decisions.
Amanda Ripley: So, you know. Do you mind? Yeah. So for two years straight, she lived in her converted bus and traveled to as many roadside attractions as possible. Eventually, she landed in Lucas, Kansas, a tiny town of 400 people where art is at the heart of the town.
Erika Nelson: This is the longest I’ve lived anywhere. But I could purchase the house right next to a roadside attraction that was built between 1907 and 1932. And it’s this bizarre, amazing three story sculptural set of politics at the turn of the last century called the Garden of Eden.
Amanda Ripley: When someone like Erica says that something is bizarre and amazing, you got to listen. The Garden of Eden is a folk art funhouse with dozens of sculptures and even a glass covered coffin holding the artist and his wife. If you’re ever passing through Kansas on I-70, it’s definitely worth a pit stop. And this turned out to be the perfect neighbor for Erica’s own growing collection of oddities.
Erika Nelson: And as I saw more and more world’s largest, I started thinking, Oh, this be kind of funny if I just start making world’s smallest of the world’s largest and then suddenly you have a collection and then it just made sense to you. Compounded into the world’s largest collection of the world’s smallest versions of the world’s largest things.
Amanda Ripley: When you spoke to the Wall Street Journal a while ago, I believe you said no one expects anything out of Kansas. So that gives you a permission slip to do whatever the hell you want.
Erika Nelson: Yeah. And that is also the glory of these small towns, which I was kind of referring to earlier. Now you can fully work through an idea and then spring it on people and they’re like, How did that happen? Well, it took us five years and you just weren’t paying attention so well.
Amanda Ripley: Yeah, I mean, I guess, Mike, is it fair to say, like, people don’t expect a ton out of Delaware, so that gives you a permission slip to do whatever the hell you want. Is that right?
Speaker 3: Yeah, I think it actually is right. Being underestimated is kind of an opportunity.
Amanda Ripley: Erica, can you think of any example of another town like Smyrna that was sort of casting about for a roadside attraction idea and then hit upon a good one?
Erika Nelson: One of my favorite sets of stories is from Washington State, where there were a couple of world’s largest things that kind of came together. One community, Long Beach, is known for Gooey Ducks, which are some pretty awful looking sea creatures that taste good. So in their annual clam festival, it’s a type of clam. They created this giant frying pan for their gooey duck festival. But before the festival, they would have all of the clam queens, right, And the giant pan down the main street. So that to me is pretty amazing. But it gets even better.
Erika Nelson: When they went to a neighboring town that was famed for chickens and they decided to make a giant egg, which isn’t super spectacular on its own right. But at one point, the giant pan came to the town with the giant egg, and it was still an operating pan. So they got the egg queen from the egg town, jumped in the pan with slabs of bacon strapped to her feet and skated around the pans. Agrisa to make the world’s largest omelet in the world’s largest pan at the site of the world’s largest egg.
Amanda Ripley: Wow.
Erika Nelson: So all of these components by themselves are pretty neat, but it’s the story that compounds in the region that I think has the super potential to the gestalt of making the whole so much greater than its past because they’re crazy stories that you can’t make up, which wouldn’t have happened were just the egg or wouldn’t have happened with just the pan, but took that magic of bacon feeds to tie it all together.
Amanda Ripley: All this talk of the world’s largest omelet raises the big question Should towns try to set a Guinness World Record with their attraction?
Erika Nelson: That is something to consider as you’re building these for a Guinness certification. It has to be really specific. So if you’re building a giant cuckoo clock, it has to be built out of the same materials and function in the same way as a normal sized cuckoo clock, which for roadside attractions isn’t always practical. But there is a town, Cassie, Illinois, who has navigated this really well. They decided to be a small town with big things, so they didn’t land on one idea. They just create a series of large things and some of them are Guinness certified and some of them aren’t. But they still embrace both of them. So I don’t think that’s a driving force anymore.
Speaker 3: And I’m trying to think of how you would make the world’s largest muskrat out of muskrats. It doesn’t seem very humane.
Erika Nelson: Yeah, for that one, it would have to be a live trapped muskrat that is the largest. And that title that would be also very easy to lose.
Amanda Ripley: Mm hmm. I wonder, like, as a practical matter, is it hard to find the artisans, the craftsmen, the builders of these very large things? Not so much.
Erika Nelson: Anymore. So that is the glory of social media, is that there is a network of if it ends up being fiberglass, there is a team that very actively puts up and takes down fiberglass forms.
Speaker 3: We actually have a very large metal fabrication community around here. Why it exists in this area, I’m not sure, but there are a number of large metal fabricators and what that means is skilled artisans who are doing this metal fabrication work and they’re all right here. So I often go towards that side of, well, you know, like, could you make the biggest steel or whatever it is because the.
Amanda Ripley: World’s largest metal muskrat, obviously.
Speaker 3: Yeah, right.
Amanda Ripley: Is it right to say that these attractions really boomed in the sort of glory days of the automobile? And so that’s that’s kind of how we got here.
Erika Nelson: I think for a lot of them. But there’s also those lone eccentrics out there who see maybe the pride in their town flagging and want to do something to pull the community together. So there are ones that are being made. Today, the world’s largest Czechoslovakia’s hand-painted egg is just 14 miles south of me in Wilson, and that was an idea that came out of a Chamber of Commerce dinner that was talking about, Oh, we don’t have that community pride anymore. What would it take? And they had me as a guest speaker, and it was one of those sort of just, hey, what would happen if and.
Erika Nelson: Couple of years later, they put up a billboard before they put up the egg. So coming soon. World’s largest chicken egg. And then on the day of its arrival, a regional fibreglass manufacturer created it and delivered it to downtown and swung it over the intersection to have its its place where it would be painted. And it became this whole reminder to the town that, yes, this is cool. Yes, this is awesome.
Amanda Ripley: That’s great. And I’m looking at a picture of it. It’s quite attractive actually.
Erika Nelson: Yeah, it’s really well done.
Amanda Ripley: Yeah. And huge.
Erika Nelson: It really was. This community on the brink of Do we keep going or do we say, All right, that’s it. And they chose to keep going.
Amanda Ripley: It’s awesome. So, so it’s not like all roadside attractions happened 50 years ago or a hundred years ago that they’re they’re so vibrant. There’s new ones happening. And I think probably one coming soon to Smyrna, Delaware.
Speaker 3: You know, I think I’m more encouraged. I really like the little pieces of of sort of maybe a couple of the rules that you talked about, Erica, also really like some of the idea that you don’t have to chase like the Guinness piece and that idea of authenticity, those, I think, are things that really resonate very well with me because I, I like the idea of irreverence. And part of me was afraid that I was going to hear from you like, oh, yeah, you know, always take whatever it is. The whatever was the biggest industry in your town. And that’s the thing that’s going to work. And I’m glad that wasn’t the answer.
Erika Nelson: Because there are other towns that had that industry too. So it’s really diving down to the superlative. That might not be the biggest.
Amanda Ripley: Yeah, the superlative. That might not be the biggest. So there’s something that’s sort of the essence. Basically, you have to distill Smyrna, it sounds like.
Erika Nelson: And it sounds like Mike is perfectly primed to do that.
Amanda Ripley: Yes. Nobody else.
Speaker 3: They you go the right man for the job.
Amanda Ripley: Thank you to Mike for including us in this brainstorming project. We can’t wait to visit Smyrna and try the scrapple vodka. Perhaps in the shadow of the world’s largest metal muskrat. And a big thank you to Erika for all of her wonderful insights. We’ll link to her website. And we’re definitely putting Lucas, Kansas, on our next road trip itinerary.
Amanda Ripley: And what about the rest of you? What’s your favorite roadside attraction? Give us a call and let us know at 6464954001 or send us a note at how to at Slate.com. That’s also where you can always reach us when you need help with anything building, say, a bigger ball of twine or, I don’t know, inventing an alarming flavor of vodka, whatever it is. We’d love to hear from you. How TO’s executive producer is Derek John, Rosemary Belson and Kevin Bendis produced this episode. Mara Jacob is senior technical director. Charles Duhigg created the show. I’m Amanda Ripley. Thanks for listening.