American Giants Episode #9

After taking more then a year off from making the American Giants Episodes, we are happy to finally release Episode #9. The last two episodes in Season 1 will cover our trip out to Dodge City, Kansas and the Dennis Hopper Muffler Men. After an invitation from Summer Bates who is now the custodian of the giants, we piled into Bo’s Honda Fit and drove the 700 miles to Dodge City. This episode covers some of the background history behind the Muffler Men and how our trip materialized and our journey out there. The episode end just as we arrive and episode #10 will continue with more details of the Dennis Hopper Muffler Men and future plans for them.

Newly Discovered Texaco Big Friend

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photo 2-6One of the most fascinating chapters in the Muffler Man story is the Texaco Big Friend. These statues were manufactured exclusively for the Texaco Oil Company. International Fiberglass made hundreds of these statues before Texaco ended the contract and had the mold destroyed. Nearly all of these statues were also destroyed. Sometime in late 1965 or early 1966, Screen Shot 2015-01-20 at 9.50.11 PMSteve Dashew, the owner of International Fiberglass, began negotiations with Texaco about the creation of a giant fiberglass Texaco service station attendant. At the time, Texaco wanted to promote its “Big Friend Service” which included a windshield cleaning, checking the oil, radiator, and battery and, most importantly, the courtesy of its Screen Shot 2015-01-20 at 9.51.07 PMemployees. Texaco’s advertising campaign included television commercials and banners depicting its friendly service station attendant dressed in a dark green uniform with a white shirt, tie and hat. In the commercial, Texaco’s service station attendant was nearly 40 feet tall. The fiberglass statues were to be set up at service stations across the country to tie-in with the television campaign.

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Texaco Big Friends lined up behind a Pushcart Tony statue

Texaco contracted with International Fiberglass to make 300 of the twenty two foot tall statues, with an option to order 2,700 more. Steve Dashew hired sculptor Sasha Schnittman to create the statue. Schnittman put a great deal of effort and detail into the design. Texaco got a late start in deploying the statues. All 300 of them were lined up and tied together in International Fiberglass back lot in Venice, CA before Texaco began picking them up. It’s not known how many of those statues actually left the factory before Texaco changed its mind about them. IMG_4754International Fiberglass sold a trailer and platform with each Big Friend statue to make it easy for area representatives to move and display them at different service stations. The statues sold for $5,000 each ($36,500 in today’s money). They began appearing at Texaco stations in September 1966. Screen Shot 2014-09-29 at 12.10.11 AMOn September 29 of that year, Texaco service station owner, Peter Gregory of Victorville, CA, received his Big Friend statue. He planned to set up the statue the next day. However, during the night, vandals removed the statue’s four and a half foot tall head and its left hand. The story was covered in the local newspaper. The photo in the article shows the trailer that came with the statue. Peter was able to recover the head and hand. But, just four months later, the statue was toppled by high winds. Peter was unsure if the statue could be repaired and set up again. Screen Shot 2015-01-20 at 10.12.04 PMPeter was not the only Texaco service station owner to have difficulty with these statues. Many owners were concerned about the statues falling over in bad weather or windy conditions. The area service reps also didn’t like moving the statues around. By early 1967, Texaco realized the risk outweighed the benefit of these statues. The company ordered station owners to stop using the Big Friends and have them destroyed. Within a few short months, the giants had entirely disappeared. IMG_2850At that time, the statues had just been installed in California, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Iowa, Nevada, Arkansas and Florida. Only a few of the statues escaped the mass-destruction. The Big Friend in Portland, OR was damaged just before Texaco’s decision. It had been repaired at a fiberglass shop but was never picked up by the owner. This statue is now on display in Aloha, OR and is best-known for its giant rabbit head. The other known survivors include the Lumberjack in St. Marie, ID and the Robin Hood in Pahrump, NV. There is also a Big Friend head in a private collection in Chicago.
TBF4There is also a well-preserved statue in Arkansas which I was delighted to get to see in December. This Big Friend was turned over to Bud Ross of Clarksville, AR by his brother who owned the Texaco station where the statue was displayed. Bud kept the statue next to his pond at the back of his property for many years. Around 1990, he installed the statue at his used car lot in town. By 1997, the car lot had closed and the statue was gone. It was assumed this statue was just another Big Friend casualty.
TBF2However, with a tip from a visitor to my blog, I was thrilled to discover that the statue still exists and was able to track down its owner. Rob Harris, a petroliana collector in Arkansas, purchased the Big Friend years ago. Recently, he had the statue restored to its original colors. Rob plans to replicate the Texaco star logos on the statue’s hat, chest and arm in the near future. The statue is located on private property and stands between two vintage Texaco station signs.
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Standing next to this rare piece of roadside history was the high point for me of the three years I’ve spent documenting Muffler Man statues. It still amazes me that of the 300 Big Friends produced, only four survive. Perhaps there’s still another one out there somewhere. Special thanks to Rob Harris for letting me photograph his Texaco Big Friend. Also thanks to Harvey Marine and the Pahrump Valley Museum for letting me have access to their Texaco Big Friends. I also want to thank Terry Nelson for letting me use his historical photographs of the Texaco Big Friends in the 1960s. And as always, a big thank you to Debra Jane Seltzer for her help in editing. 

Fall 2014 Muffler Man Report

photo 1IMG_9368While filming with Greg Holmes of Hutchinson Kansas, he mentioned to me that he had seen a Indian Muffler Man in Wickliffe, KY around 1985. He was on a road trip and had a distinct memory of the sighting, and seemed to recall that the Indian stood on the roof of a trading post. Recently I traveled to Wickliffe to see what I could dig up about the mystery Muffler Man. Very few have any IMG_1035recollections of the Indian that stood there 30 years ago, but I did find a handful of people that remember him. Their story’s varied slightly and some remember him standing out by the road and not on the roof. I was told that the Indian Hills Trading Post was owned in the 1980s by a man named Jean Laster and that he was now old and retired but lived nearby. Finding and talking to him sadly did not shed much light on my quest. He doesn’t remember many details from those days but he did tell me that he did not own the Indian but instead rented him from a man who made fiberglass animals. He did not remember where the man lived or what his name was.

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As many of you know, I have been restoring a Muffler Man from Mortons Gap Kentucky that was purchased at Pistold Petes Pawn shop in Oak Grove, KY in 1995. I have been trying to find out how the pawnshop got him, and also recently visited Oak Grove. The locals told me that a man named Robert Ladd owned the business and he had left town years before after closing it down. I was finally able to track his brother down and get some

Photo by Debra Jane Seltzer

Photo from RoadsideArchitecture.com

information. James Ladd remembered the Muffler Man that we are restoring and referred to him as the “broken one”. He told me that they sold the 14 ft lumberjacks in addition to giant elephants and even the full size Muffler Men Indians. He told me that a fiberglass sculptor in KY was their supplier back in those days and he wasn’t sure what the story was on the broken one we ended up with. I finally figured out that the fiberglass sculptors name is Paul White and that he made animals and figures in western Kentucky back in the80s and 90s. In fact, he made the chicken cars for Krekel’s Custard in Illinois. He also was the man who rented out the giant Indian to Jean Laster in the mid 1980s. Paul White would know the answers behind our Mortons Gap Muffler Man and how he got from St Louis to Oak Grove, KY. However at this point the trail has gone cold and I have no idea where he is or how to get in contact with him.

photo 4After leaving Wickliffe, I traveled to Metropolis, IL to check out the restoration the Big John Statue. In October 2014 the giant’s right arm separated above the elbow and 200 lb of arm and grocery bags came crashing down to the parking lot. All fiberglass giants like Muffler Men and Big Johns that were made in the 1960s are getting very old. The steel frames inside the statues are often subjected to moisture from rain and humidity.  After years of accumulating rust, these statues can be toppled by high winds. Sadly this was the case of the Metropolis Big John. I met up with Dave of Dave’s Powder Coating and Soda Blasting, who is restoring the giant. He told me that the giant was full of water and 50 years of bird’s nests. In fact he said the entire left arm was full of sticks, straw and mud from the birds. He and his team have taken the giant apart and are sanding him back down to the gel coat and will soon repaint him and fix his arm. It is always great when an owner decides to pay for restoration rather that toss out an old giant. Our hats are off to the owners of the Metropolis Big John store.

Special thanks to Dave’s Powder Coating and Soda Blasting for letting us visit their shop and also to Debra Jane Seltzer from RoadsideArchitecture.com for use of the chicken car photo shown above.

New Glenn Goode Documentary Project

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Check out our latest Kickstarter Project and a big thank you to all of you who pledged towards our last one!

Muffler Men have been part of the American landscape for more than 50 years now.  These giant fiberglass statues were first produced as advertising devices in 1962.  International Fiberglass produced thousands of these statues before closing its shop in Venice, California in the early 1970s.  Hundreds of these statues remain and each one of them has a unique history.  Many of the owners of these statues have a deep connection with them.

Glenn Goode of Gainesville, Texas has been collecting these statues and making his own versions of them since the early 1980s. He has five giant statues on display in front of his farm property.  His collection includes two Muffler Men, a Uniroyal Gal, and two Big John statues.  Glenn has also produced Muffler Men statues which stand in Sherman, Texas and Amarillo, Texas.  He also has an assortment of molds in his barn.

Glenn is now in his 70s and has lots of stories to share about these statues.  As anyone who has stopped to take photos of his statues will tell you, Glenn is quite the talker.  While he has appeared in a few newscasts and YouTube videos, no one has produced an in-depth documentary about him and his statues. We would like to take a trip to Gainesville to do just that.

The American Giants crew has been documenting Muffler Men statues since 2011.  Normally, we pay for the travel and production expenses associated with the blog and videos.  However, we’d like to ask for your help with this one.  We are introducing this Kickstarter campaign to help out with the cost of producing a documentary that will properly showcase Glenn and his statues.

Since this is a small project, we are keeping the rewards simple.  At the moment, we are actively restoring the Mortons Gap Muffler Man statue.  This project was successfully funded through our previous Kickstarter campaign.  As soon as we return the statue to Kentucky, we can begin working on editing the Glenn Goode documentary.  With your help, we would like to get the video footage for it now.  I met Glenn a few years ago but it was only a brief visit.  I am eager to return and Glenn is anxious to speak with us.  Your support can help make that happen.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1335364893/the-glenn-goode-story?ref=discovery

Kickstarter Funded!

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The American Giants team takes down the Mortons Gap Muffler Man – Photo Luke Short

The statue at its current location in Illinois undergoing repairs

The statue at its current location in Illinois undergoing repairs

I just want to give a huge thank you to everyone who pitched in to help us reach our Kickstarter goal of $1,575 to restore the Mortons Gap Muffler Man.  I was thrilled to discover on Friday, that Kickstarter had made this the Project of the Day!  I would also like to thank Luke Short from The Messenger newspaper in Madisonville, KY who covered this project. His great article came Friday morning. Luke was there to document the removal of the statue and he’ll be back for the unveiling when the statue is reinstalled.

Michael applying fiberglass to repair the statue’s right foot

Michael applying fiberglass to repair the statue’s right foot

We have 15 days left to raise additional funds for this project.  Therefore, I am setting some new goals and raising the bar to $2,000. The fiberglass materials are costing more than we thought.  Before we even started this Kickstarter campaign, we had already spent $800 in travel and replacement parts (the statue’s head and arms).  With additional funding from you, we can soda blast the giant and also do more thorough fiberglass repairs and provide the statue with a better coat of paint.  In addition, I’d like to take a quick trip to Oak Grove, KY to find out more about the statue’s history at Pistol Pete’s Pawn Shop.  We might find some vintage photos of him and find out what became of his head and arms.  We will be sharing any information that we can dig up in our upcoming video documentary which will cover this project from start to finish.

IMG_6622Many thanks to those of you who have already pledged your support.  I hope we can reach this new goal with your help to give this statue a thorough restoration which will last for many years to come. You can visit the Kickstarter by clicking here.

The Mortons Gap Muffler Man Restoration Kickstarter Project

Mortons Gap MM new openJoel and MM oldIn April 2014, I launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to restore the Muffler Man in Mortons Gap Kentucky. Although there was a lot of enthusiasm, we fell short of the $4,500 goal. The greatest challenge has been to get the word out to those who are interested in being a part of restoring these icons of Americana. This time we are spending more time on publicity. We have also lowered our funding goal to $1,575. Our focus will be on installing the statue’s new head and arms. We will also repaint the statue. If we exceed our goal, we can use that money for more extensive fiberglass repairs. 

Screen Shot 2014-04-17 at 10.57.36 PMWe have already obtained the new head, arms and axe for the restoration. Although we paid for the new parts, we are hoping some or all of this will be reimbursed with this Kickstarter campaign. We also need financial help with transporting the statue to our workshop for assembly and painting. Some of the funds raised will also go towards producing a video documentary about this project. 

For the full story, please visit our Kickstarter page and also check out our new videos on the project. Thank you for your interest and support in restoring this unique piece of roadside history! 

#66 Lake George – Magic Forest Half Wit

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A Half Wit in Production at International Fiberglass

A Half Wit in Production at International Fiberglass – Terry Nelson

This Muffler Man at Magic Forest in Lake George, NY was originally installed in Danbury, CT.  When the Danbury Fair closed in 1981, Magic Forest bought this statue and a few others from the owners.  This statue has been modified a bit.  It has a painted beard and an Amish style hat.  These International Fiberglass statues were promoted as “Mortimer Snerds.”  However, they are more commonly called “Half Wits” since that’s the term RoadsideAmerica.com came up with before the history of these statues was unearthed.  It’s not known how many were produced but there are only about 15 left.  In addition to this one, there are four in New Jersey, three in Texas, one in Missouri, one in California and five in private collections.

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Half Wit at Mortimer Snerd Golf in Lake of the Ozark’s, MO – Terry Nelson

These statues have the same body as the other Muffler Men but a different style head.  These heads were apparently modeled after Alfred E. Neuman, the Mad Magazine character. Some of the Mortimer Snerd statues have the Paul Bunyan type pants tucked into the boots.  Others have the longer Cowboy pants.  The statue in Missouri has a Paul Bunyan body – but the raised right arm normally used for the Indian models. 

IMG_20120709_130236This Lake George statue is the only Half Wit left with what appears to be the original axe. Not far from him another Muffler Man axe can be seeing laying among the tree’s. Perhaps it came from the Pecos Bill statue. International Fiberglass offered many accessories for their statues.  The three Half Wits in Texas hold giant mufflers which appear to be original.  

Thanks to Debra Jane Zeltzer for editing and reviewing this article and to Magic Forest for allowing me to photograph and film their Muffler Man collection.