With almost 200 original Muffler Man still standing across America, Canada and even a few in other countries, one can wonder how many were made new in the 60s and 70s. I think one thing that fascinates us about these giants is their history. They have a connection with the past, and they all hide stories that are hard to discover. I’m on a never ending quest to find out their stories and when I do, they never disappoint. The challenge is, most of the original owners of these giants have past away, and the history and stories with them. This makes it challenging, but not impossible to connect the dots on where these giants have been, and the secrets they are hiding.
Recently I have been going state by state on instagram, detailing each Muffler Man as we go and briefing us all on their individual history. In doing this I have answered questions I have had for years, by uncovering details that connected current locations with far away stories. One such mystery has been the Muffler Man of Dodge City, KS.
In 2013 the American Giants team traveled to Dodge City to see Dennis Hoppers Muffler Men. Dennis was born and raised in Dodge city and later in life he ran some traveling art shows. He was inspired by two Muffler Men and decided to pull a mold from one of the giants in LA and create near identical copies to the La Salsa Man and a vintage Muffler Man standing at a mobil gas station featured in Life Magazine. These giants toured California and the world before Dennis died and they were put in storage. Years later his firm donated the giants to his home town of Dodge City and so we showed up to see them and get some interviews for American Giants Episodes nine and ten.
While in town we discovered that Dodge City had it’s own Muffler Man, but no one seemed to know where it had ended up. I was told by some, that it was in storage, while others claimed he had been hauled off to the landfill. We were put in touch with a man named Larry who’s Uncle Dale Bushell had first owned the giant. Larry was just a teenager in the mid 60s but remembered the Muffler Man, how could you not? He agreed to meet with us at the Carnegie Art Center and show us some old pictures.
Uncle Dale was a Phillips 66 jobber. A jobber was the guy who made sure all the local gas stations in his district were running and had fuel and product for the customers. Dale happened to own the four Phillips 66 stations in Dodge City in the 60s and would often drive down to Texas to pick up tank loads of fuel and keep his stations filled. He also serviced a few stations in the surrounding towns of Ford and Bucklin, known as satellite stations.
In 1966 Dale heard about the new Cowboy Giants used for promotions and to advertise new locations and he decided he needed one for his stations. Dale and his wife hopped in their pickup and drove the 1,279 miles to Venice California to pick one up. They arrived and picked up one of the cowboys, complete with a trailer and 6 shooter at his side, and hauled the giant back to Dodge City. Dale used the giant at all 4 of his stations in Dodge City and even hauled the giant to Ford and Bucklin a few times. Only a few pictures survive of the cowboy during this time and show the giant standing at the east side Phillips 66 station in Dodge City, where the Taylor Market is located today. Dodge City winds toppled the giant at one point and broke off one of his hands.
In June 1971 when the Giant Cowboy program came to it’s end, Dale donated the 20ft giant to Boot Hill, the local old town tourist attraction. George Henrichs, executive director of the Front Street exhibition, was all to happy to accept the gift. In addition to fixing the broken hand, George also had long sleeves made for the cowboy since no real cowboy goes around in short sleeves. He also saw to it that he got a new sheriff vest painted on and a 20ft rifle was ordered for the cowboy. At first it was made of wood but proved to be very heavy so a fiberglass one was made instead. The rifle didn’t arrive till March of 1972 and it took Allen Green and Denney Herman to lift the huge Model 66 Winchester into the giants hands, before the tourist rush in May. By June of 72 he was known as Big Matt and was in the prime of his life with hundreds of visitors enjoying his size, new paint job and rifle.
Happy times for Matt were short lived when on October 30 he was discovered missing. Harry Rice, a worker at Boot Hill, found him laying across the railroad tracks a short distance away. His back was broken along with his cowboy hat and rifle. A little investigation showed that he had been pulled over with a ski rope tied to a car. Rice was perturbed when he found Matt all busted up, “We got the statue as a gift” he told the paper, “We worked all winter on him. It’s a sad deal when we can’t have something up that people enjoy, because others had to tear it down.”
Matt wasn’t the only Muffler Man in America suffering because of teenagers out to have a good time. I’ve heard of at least 20 other Muffler Men during the 70s and 80s being pulled over and hauled off by vandals. Just a few years ago one of the Indian Muffler Men in Irving, NY was pulled down by local teens trying to prove something. Matt was able to lick his wounds, and thankfully Boot Hill was able to repair all the damage and get him standing again for the next tourist season in 1973.
In April of 1975 Matt lost his head in a windstorm and that left him standing headless as the staff scrambled to get him presentable again for the tourist season. Sadly the head was pretty damaged after falling off Matts shoulders and rolling some distance away so the giant was taken down and put in storage. In 1982 Boot Hill did some spring cleaning and decided it was time for Matt to go, so he was hauled off to the auction lot. Don Trigg of Arizona won the auction and hauled Big Matt all the way down to Yuma.
He decided Matt’s head was to far gone so he made a new head for the Muffler Man that could swivel and had a motor so the head could turn. We don’t know if Don fiberglassed over the top of the original head or simply made a new one but the replacement head looked nothing like the original. At the time the motor and turning head seemed like a great idea but after the giant was set up, this feature was never actually used. Don set the giant up at Westward Village RV Park and eventually sold the business in 1998 with the now old and tattered Matt, still standing there.
The new owners decided the giant could stay, and in 2006 his sad looking head got a makeover. It still left much to be desired, but was an improvement over the last one. He still stands in Yuma today and somehow has kept a firm grip on that giant rifle, although he has lost his pistol and gun belt somewhere along the way. Today he goes by the name of Big Wes and very few people know his story.
Many of these roadside giants have stories like Matt’s, they just need to be dug up and shared. Maybe one day Matt will get a real Muffler Man head again, maybe one day he may be able to go back home to Dodge City and Boot Hill, maybe his story is not over….maybe.
In 2018 at Burning Man, a head was spotted that I believe to be the missing head from Matt. It was purchased at an estate sale in San Diego about 170 miles from Yuma. Although I don’t have hard proof, it is a very possible match. The head is now part of our American Giants collection.
Special thanks to Larry Leonard and his extended family for provided history and family photos of Big Matt in 1966. Also thanks to Wayne Stadler for letting us use his picture of the Muffler man where he stands today. Also a big thank you to Roadside America for the info found on their site and linking the Yuma Muffler Man to Dodge City.
One of the old issues of Philnews I have has a picture of this one.
Is there any Muffler Men available today? I need one for a museum. Thanks. TM