Roadside Giants, by Brian and Sarah Butko
Everybody who's ever taken an American road trip has a memory -- and more probably a photograph -- of a roadside giant. Paul Bunyan, the Jolly Green Giant, an oversized hot dog - there's at least one in every state, and Canada has scores of them, too. What is less obvious and remarkably fascinating is the history and evolution of these highway icons. In Roadside Giants, Brian and Sarah Butko not only identify 24 varieties of oversized statuary and object-shaped buildings, they reveal their histories.
Each chapter focuses on an outstanding example of roadside gigantism. Beginning with Long Island's Big Duck, the authors not only tell the story of how an enterprising duck farmer called attention to his egg stand, but also how "duck" has become a term to describe a building that visually represents the wares it sells. This carefully researched background information is what sets Roadside Giants apart from other books on the same topic. Many books have excellent photographs, but this one has depth, too. The authors treat their subjects with a respect they rarely get, and the result is an engaging look into the evolution of America's car-centric culture.
The chapter about "muffler men" is a good example of the authors' attention to research. Not only have they included excellent photographs and background information about these big fiberglass dudes from all across the continent, they also dug up fascinating details about the factory that created them, why they look the way they do, how much they cost new, and how they came to be called "muffler men." I can't say I find these colossi exactly beautiful, but now that I know more about them, I have begun to foster a certain fondness.
Wigwam Villages are the subject of another chapter in Roadside Giants. While few of these roadside hostelries are still in operation, the authors have provided an excellent rundown of the wigwam motel phenomenon and the man responsible for the creation of most of them. As with all the buildings and statues still in existence, addresses, directions and Web sites are provided. The book also has an excellent general bibliography and a good list of Web sites with more information about roadside Americana.
Another great thing about Roadside Giants is that it covers new as well as old. It's easy to believe that nobody's building big statues and object-shaped buildings any more, but just turn to the chapter about the Longaberger basket company to find out differently. The company's "home office" in central Ohio is a 23-foot tall picnic basket that was completed in 1997.
From big donuts and hot dogs to decorated water towers, huge coffee pots, enormous elephants and life-sized dinosaurs, the Butkos have done a great job of capturing the glories of fiberglass and stucco in this book. It's a delightful read and -- just like a good road trip book should -- it makes you want to get out there and find your own "muffler man."