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Highway Americana: Collecting Roadside Attractions on Postcards

by Bonnie Wilpon (10/22/12).

This postcard shows the Teapot Dome Service Station in Zillah, Wash., which was built in 1922 by Jack Ainsworth, to serve as a constant reminder to his fellow citizens of the Teapot Dome Scandal.

One of the best reasons to travel America’s highways and byways is to see things we can’t see anywhere else. Sometimes we’re driving long distances to visit relatives; sometimes for work, and, when we’re lucky, we’re on vacation, motoring to an enjoyable destination.

The term “roadside Americana” refers to things we see along the way when we travel. Some of its sub-categories include motels and service stations. Here though, we focus on unusual buildings and giant objects that catch our attention when we spot them on the side of the road. More specifically, we turn our attention to modern postcards that show these wondrous and sometimes hilarious objects.

All of these modern postcards show wonderful things we can drive to and see today. Prices at postcard shows normally range from $1.50 to $5, though I’ve seen some of these particular cards on Internet sites and auctions recently ranging from $2.95 to $15.

Sometimes, during a long, boring drive, after countless trees, shopping centers and housing developments, we come across something so amazing, so eye-catching, and so unbelievable that we just have to stop, get out of the car and look. We might spend a few minutes staring and smiling; we might read a sign explaining what this crazy thing is doing here; we might even snap a photo or two.

And we might just buy a postcard, to share the fun with our friends and loved ones back home.
After all, how could anyone resist saying, “Wish you were here?” when we come across sights (and sites) like these:

The Teapot Dome Service Station in Zillah, Wash. was built in 1922 by Jack Ainsworth, who constructed it to serve as a constant reminder to his fellow citizens of the Teapot Dome Scandal.

If you remember your high school history, you’ll recall that Albert Fall, Secretary of the Interior under President Warren G. Harding, went to prison for leasing Navy petroleum reserves at Teapot Dome, Wy., and two other locations to private oil companies at low rates without competitive bids. Before Watergate, this was American’s most notorious political scandal.

The Teapot was a full-service service station for a long time. In July of 2012, it was relocated to downtown Zillah, and is now a visitor center. Zillah is proud to say that the Teapot Dome Service Station is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

A postcard of the Binoculars Building, an actual office building on Main Street in Venice, Calif.

The Binoculars Building is an actual office building on Main Street in Venice, Calif., four blocks from the Pacific Ocean. Built in 1991, it was designed by Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry as the West Coast corporate headquarters of the Chiat/Day advertising agency. Chiat/Day later moved out of the building and in 2011 Google leased part of it.

This three-story, 75,000-square-foot office space sits on top of three levels of underground parking. The car entrance to the garage (as well as a pedestrian entrance) is through the lenses of the binoculars. The middle of the binoculars forms a very long skylight, extending down from the third floor to the first. The eyepieces at the top serve as the skylights for two small conference rooms. It’s quite an ecological design; the columns are made of copper which creates a sun screen.

A postcard from Mammy’s Cupboard Restaurant on Highway 61 just south of Natchez, Miss.

Mammy’s Cupboard Restaurant, on Highway 61 just south of Natchez, Miss., is open for your dining pleasure. This luncheonette (with delicious homemade pies) and gift shop is built inside a 28-foot tall African-American woman’s skirt, through which you enter. Mammy’s skirt is made of bricks, and horseshoes form her earrings. She smiles as she holds her serving tray.

I bought this postcard when I was driving through the area several years ago. My car sort of came to a stop of its own accord, since I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I had to actually go into the restaurant to be sure my eyes hadn’t deceived me! I found that the locals come in often, for the great food and quick service.

The original restaurant opened in 1940, and has been repaired over the years, but its name and design remain the same. Mammy’s Cupboard was founded by a Natchez tour guide, and was loosely modeled after the Mammy character in 1939’s Gone With the Wind.”

During the 1960s Civil Right Movement, her skin was repainted a lighter shade. Some liken her to Aunt Jemima or Mrs. Butterworth, while the authors of “Frommer’s USA” say that if you want to visit the restaurant, “you need to check your political correctness at the door.”

A postcard showing the largest Smokey the Bear in the country. It is 26 feet tall and graces International Falls, Minn.

This 26-foot-tall Smokey the Bear is the largest in the country. It graces International Falls, Minn., and was built in 1953 as a project of the Koochiching County’s Keep Minnesota Green Committee.

Smokey the Bear was created by the National Forest Service in 1944, as the national symbol for fire prevention, to keep careless campers from destroying America’s lumber supply. Generations of children can quote his one and only line… “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.”

Made of fiberglass over a steel frame, the huge Smokey is the work of sculptor Gordon Shumaker. He captured Smokey’s noble sincerity with a raised right hand signaling “Stop”—a gesture copied by the cute cub on the left. “Smokey Says ‘Prevent Forest Fires’” is inscribed on the statue’s base.

A live Smokey the bear was crowned in 1950. A black bear cub, who was burned in a New Mexico forest fire, was rescued and became the main attraction at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. He received so much fan mail he had his own Zip Code. In 1962, he was introduced to a lovely bear named Goldie, with the hope of a family of little Smokeys; but they never had any cubs. Smokey died in 1976, and, in a stroke of irony, his body was cremated.

A postcard from Cadillac Ranch, along Route 66 in Amarillo, Texas. You can see this public art installation from Interstate 40.

“Made ya’ look” is what comes to mind at Cadillac Ranch, along Route 66 in Amarillo, Texas. You can see this public art installation from Interstate 40, and can even get up close and personal by walking through the pasture’s unlocked gate.

Local millionaire Stanley Marsh III is the patron of this group of head-in-the-sand cars, one of several of his art projects in the town. Created in 1974 by the art group Ant Farm, the grouping was made up of 10 Cadillacs, model years 1949-63, facing west in a line, to illustrate the evolution of the iconic tail fin.

Over the years, visitors have taken to writing graffiti on the cars and spray-painting them, which is actually encouraged. This has made the cars decorated in wild and imaginative ways and ever-changing in design. Sometimes the cars are deliberately repainted—once pink to celebrate Stanley’s wife, Wendy’s, birthday; another time all 10 Cadillacs were painted flat black to mark the passing of Ant Farm artist Doug Michels; in 2012 they were painted rainbow colors to commemorate Gay Pride Day.

In 2008, Cadillac Ranch appeared in the music video for “Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked” by Cage The Elephant. It was also featured on the TV show “Tori & Dean: Home Sweet Hollywood,” as part of the family’s road trip across the U.S. Cadillac Ranch is more popular than ever, and is a “must stop” for Route 66 travelers.

A postcard featuring Albert the Bull, the pride of Audubon, Iowa, who has been watching over the town since 1964.

The pride of Audubon, Iowa, Albert the Bull has been watching over the town with his baby blue eyes since 1964. The biggest bull in the world stands 30 feet tall and 33 feet long, with a 15-foot span between his horns. Albert weighs 45 tons, most of it concrete, and he can be seen from Highway 71 at the south edge of town.

Sponsored by the Audubon Jaycees, the $30,000 building expense was obtained through fund-raising activities and donations, with a big boost from the American Hereford Association. Abandoned windmills and other steel equipment were recycled and used as reinforcing material for the platform.

According to Albert, whose voice can be heard by pressing a button on the nearby kiosk, 20,000 people visit him every year, and “I was even a question on Jeopardy!” Audubon’s official Albert the Bull Fact Sheet notes that the original idea was for Albert to promote the beef industry as a vital factor to the economy of Iowa and the nation. In addition, the huge critter would be a much-needed tourist attraction for the area. Albert continues to do his job well.

This postcard shows hay bales decorated by various Kansas farmers, including a piggy-bank smiling at passers-by, a rooster, and a spider—complete with Little Miss Muffett of nursery rhyme fame.

Kansas is well known for its farmland—and its artistically-inclined farmers can have great fun creating hay bale masterpieces. You never know when you’ll see a hay-bale carousel or other oddity along the side of the road. Individuals, families and entire communities have started decorating the round bales in many clever ways.

A postcard of the World’s Largest Basket, on Main Street in Newark, Ohio, is also the corporate headquarters of the Longaberger Basket Company.

The World’s Largest Basket, on Main Street in Newark, Ohio, is also the seven-story, 180,000-square-foot corporate headquarters of the Longaberger Basket Company.

Company founder Dave Longaberger envisioned running his growing business from this replica of its medium market basket. One hundred and 60 times larger than the original hand-woven maple picnic packer, this unique building is 208 feet long and 142 feet wide, and weighs 150 tons. Employees moved into the building right before Christmas in 1997.

The idea for the family-owned business began with Dave’s father, J.W. Longaberger, who became an apprentice basket-maker in 1919. Since Dave’s death, the firm is owned by his daughters, Tami and Rachel. Longaberger sells baskets, pottery, home accessories and specialty foods through 45,000 independent consultants, through home parties and direct sales.

Each basket is signed and dated by the craftsperson who made it, and the company’s stamp is placed on the bottom. More than 500,000 tourists and fans, many of whom are members of the company’s collectors club, visit the basket each year.

A postcard featuring the Smiling Peanut , which is still a head-turner in Plains, Ga., more than 35 years after its creation.

More than 35 years after its creation, the Smiling Peanut is still a head-turner in Plains, Ga. The 13-foot-tall tribute to President Jimmy Carter was made by three Indiana residents—James Kiely, Dyle Kifer and Loretta Townsend—to welcome him to Evanston in 1976. After the Midwestern parade, the peanut was moved to Plains.

The hollow sculpture is made of a series of wooden hoops covered with chicken wire, polyurethane and aluminum foil, painted a peanut color. The “mysterious” hole in the Peanut’s back was made by the Secret Service in 1976, to make sure the lighthearted legume didn’t hold a bomb or any other dangers.

For years, the Peanut sat on the steps of the Plains train depot. Tourists after a souvenir ripped pieces out of it and covered it with graffiti. The owners of Davis E.Z. Shop didn’t think that was right, so they rescued the Peanut, filled its bottom with concrete and set it in front of their store along Highway 45 about a half-mile north of town.

The people of Plains keep the Peanut in good repair, and he’s even fully winterized. Most of the visitors to the town find their way to the smiling peanut for a photo, and a grin of their own.

Bonnie Wilpon, the author of “Postcard History of Sarasota and Bradenton, FL,” and “Postcard History of Hollywood, FL.” (published by Arcadia Books), is a Worthologist who specializes in postcards.

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2 Responses to “Highway Americana: Collecting Roadside Attractions on Postcards”

  1. Jon Sachs says:

    I went nuts over this collection of roadside “art” and have not recovered.

  2. Great Jon – if you’re not a postcard collector already, it sounds like you’re on your way! Happy trails – Bonnie

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