NEW YORK (Money Magazine) -
About six years ago, as a friend and I were on a cross-country drive, we stopped in New Salem, N.D., where we visited the town's singular claim to fame: Salem Sue, a 38-foot statue billed as the World's Largest Holstein Cow. After gaping at the colossus, cracking a few udder jokes and taking the obligatory photos, we happily went on our way.
America has hundreds of these roadside behemoths. Many of them honor livestock, like Salem Sue, or agriculture, like the World's Largest Strawberry (in Strawberry Point, Iowa, aptly enough), although other styles abound as well. Roadside giants are occasionally found in other countries too, but they're primarily an American phenomenon, which isn't surprising: Size tends to hold a certain fascination in the American mind, whether we're talking about the Empire State Building or the World's Largest Ear of Corn. Indeed, our national ethos could well be summed up as "Bigger is better -- and biggest is best."
Roadside giants have an obvious kitsch factor, but most of them are also genuine expressions of civic pride and heritage (including Salem Sue, which is in the heart of North Dakota's dairy country). Think of them as rural America's architectural response to skyscrapers: If New York City and Chicago can compete to have the tallest building, why can't Brunswick, Mo. have the World's Largest Pecan?
|Longaberger Company headquarters
Sociocultural analysis aside, roadside giants are also fun for kids of all ages and make for unbeatable snapshots. And while many of them sit in the middle of nowhere, some of the best --including several that deviate from the agriculture template -- are conveniently located near cities, making for easy visits during family vacations or business trips.
Let's start with the World's Largest Basket (1500 E. Main St., Newark, Ohio; www.longaberger.com), half an hour east of Columbus. This is one of the most ingenious and playful roadside giants because it's not just a sculpture but a building. The seven-story structure is actually the headquarters of the Longaberger Basket Co. -- a firm whose flair for self --promotion is clearly matched by a healthy sense of humor. Erected in 1997, the building looks uncannily like Longaberger's signature product, complete with two 75-ton "handles" on top. Building tours are available daily, making this one of the most interactive of all the roadside giants.
Minnesota is particularly fertile roadside-colossus territory, thanks in part to its many Paul Bunyan statues. My favorite North Star State giant, however, is in Eveleth, an hour north of Duluth. The tiny town has produced numerous pro hockey players, many no doubt inspired by the World's Largest Hockey Stick (Grant Ave. and Monroe St.; www.wlra.us/wl/wlhstick.htm), a five-ton, 110-foot doozy that's poised to smack an equally outsize puck. Eveleth also features the excellent U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame (801 Hat Trick Ave.; www.ushockeyhall.com), although none of the exhibits can quite compete with the big stick.
An interesting regional trope is the way giant statuary begins sporting Christian themes as you head farther south, punctuating the landscape like massive buckles on the Bible belt. You don't have to be a fundamentalist yourself to find these monuments fascinating, none more so than the giant praying hands at the entrance to Oral Roberts University (7777 S. Lewis Ave., Tulsa; www.thom.org/gallery/mememe/hands). Standing 60 feet tall and cast in bronze, the hands are rendered in excruciating detail -- veins, wrinkles and all -- which I find oddly compelling. Simpler, but arguably grander, is the Largest Cross in the Western Hemisphere (Exit 113 on I-40, Groom, Texas; www.amarillo.com/vr/grooomscross.html), which towers over the stark terrain about 40 miles east of Amarillo. At 190 feet high and 75 tons, it's so big that seeing it in person practically qualifies as, well, a religious experience, whatever your theistic leanings.
But secular symbols can inspire passionate devotion too. There are at least seven sites, for example, vying for the coveted title of -- drumroll, please -- the World's Largest Chair. Yes, really. So which one is best? Anniston, Ala., about 50 miles east of Birmingham, has cleverly distinguished itself from the pack by erecting the World's Largest Office Chair (625 Noble St.; www.wlra.us/wl/wlofficechair.htm). But my vote goes to the Duncan Phyfe-style chair in Thomasville, N.C. (Main St. at Rte. 109; www.thomasvilletourism.com/attractions/bigchair.htm), outside Greensboro. Built in 1951 to honor the local furniture industry, it's true to the civic spirit of the best giant statuary. Alas, you're not allowed to sit in it, although exceptions have been made for luminaries such as Lyndon Johnson, who actually campaigned from the chair in 1960.
The seating trend is puzzling, but let's just be glad it hasn't manifested itself in the form of giant toilets. Nobody's built one of those -- yet.
Paul Lukas has visited about three dozen roadside giants and counting.