The Pioneer Man as we call him today, is technically not a Muffler Man but one of the many other giant figures made by International Fiberglass. The mold for these statues was entirely different from the Muffler Man variations that we commonly see. The statues were developed in 1968 for the Wagon Ho! restaurant chain. Early on, the owners of the chain decided they wanted to visually catch people’s attention and turned to companies like Orion and International Fiberglass to make this possible. Don Williams owner of Orion, was a designer of air supported and inflatable fabric coverings, and he designed and built the huge covered wagon canopies thatcovered the restaurant. International Fiberglass was hired to design and fabricate the giant teamster, that would sit on the edge of the building in front of the canopy and drive the imaginary ox or horse team. These seated statues are 15 feet tall and Wagon Ho! called them “Wagon Masters”. The Pioneer’s hand positions suggest that the statue held reins or a whip, but he never did. The company opened its first location in Birmingham, AL in 1968 and moved its headquarters to St. Petersburg, FL later that year. There were plans to build 51 restaurants by mid-1969 and another 200 units by the end of 1970. Wagon Ho! even sold franchising rights to someone in Canada. However, the company soon ran into financial trouble, and had folded by 1970.
There were only about five locations built in Florida, the one in Birmingham, and a few others in the Vancouver, BC area. The location in Birmingham retained the covered wagon building and statue and operated for a few years as a Kelley’s Hamburgers and later as Dilly’s Deli. However, none of the buildings still exist in a recognizable form. Only six of the statues are known to have survived. The Birmingham statue was recently purchased by Bell Plastics in Hayward, CA. Other original statues can be found in Florida, Missouri, Alabama and BC.
At some point, standing versions of these statues began appearing in North Carolina. At Debra Jane Seltzer’s website RoadsideArchitecture.com, she concludes that Unique Fiberglass Figures either copied the seated statues or acquired a mold and added a different, standing lower torso. These standing versions were made and sold to businesses on the east coast, primarily North Carolina, Florida and Tennessee in the 70s.
One business that obtained one of these standing versions, was a restaurant in the Outer Banks. At some point the giant was sold to Forbes Carpet Golf in Nags Head, NC and was photographed in 1985 by the famous John Margolies. We don’t know much about the business but like many others in the area in closed down in the late 90s, due to a drop in tourism to the area. Fast forward twenty years and meet Damon McGee. He and his two sons discovered American Giants and our YouTube episodes around 2013. Damon had fond memories of roadside giants as a child, and wanted his kids to share his enthusiasm for the roadside attractions. One day while driving along a street in their neighborhood, they noticed 2 giant feet sticking out from under a house!
Anyone who has a passion for these giants knows that the ultimate adventure, is not too just visit one, but find one that has been lost for years! Excited that they may have just discovered a Muffler Man they talked of little else for the next few days, and about the possibility of owning it one day. Every day they would drive home from school that way just to see if someone was in the yard they could talk to, no one ever was. Finally one dark and stormy night Damon decided to get a closer look and after parking down the street, ran over to the giant and ducked under the house for a few selfies with giant, who he discovered was a pirate and not a standard Muffler Man.
It was time for some research and Damon quickly found Debra Jane Seltzer’s website, that shed some light on the rare breed of giants. He learned about Wagon Ho, and that someone in North Carolina had modified the giants and had made standing versions. He also read about one that had been at a restaurant in the Outer Banks, and realized he had just found that long-lost giant! He also contacted us here at American Giants about his find. We congratulated him on his discovery, and provided some more background information about these standing versions and pictures. Now that he knew what was under that house, he wanted the giant all the more!
Damon was a bit nervous about knocking on the door of the place, and so his friend Matt volunteered to do it. That resulted in the land lords phone number, and after a phone call it was discovered that he was willing to sell the pirate! The landlord mentioned he purchased the giant from Forbes Carpet Golf, and said that he also had a sword for him. A few days later Damon returned with a 16 foot flatbed trailer and 6 men to help lift the giant. They loaded him up, and drove him a few blocks to his new home. He had been repainted since the picture from 1985 and needed a bath after being stored for so many years. Damon and his boys were thrilled about owning their very own giant, especially one with so much local history. The boys named him Patchy because he needed so many patches and body work as well as a paint job.
Over the next few weeks, Damon and his boys repaired cracks and holes, and painted the pirate. They decided to leave the pants the way they were, because Matt really liked the way they looked. Once the repairs were complete, Damon arranged a Pirate rising party and had some friends over to help. It wasn’t easy getting a 20-foot pirate standing in the air, and he thought for sure somebody was going to get crushed by a falling pirate. They mixed up 600 pounds of concrete and shoveled it into the ground around the spikes under the giant’s feet.
John’s pictures from the 80s provided some history about the giant, in the fact that he had a gun and sword. Because the land lord never came through with his promise to deliver the sword, Damon made one for the pirate, and they are thinking about maybe getting him a gun. He and the boys still can’t believe they own their own giant and love him to death. This story is exactly why we have this website and share our adventures, findings and history with all of you. So more of you can find and enjoy these giants from the 60s. We may not be able to look for the tombs of the pharaohs in Egypt, but we all have a chance to find a long-lost Muffler Man!
Special thanks to Damon McGee for contacting us and sharing his story and pictures. Also thanks to Debra Jane Seltzer, her website and dedicated updates on these giants. Also Terry Nelson for providing original advertising pictures from International Fiberglass of the Wagon Ho team masters.