If you’re interested in muffler men it’s very likely you have run across these guys known as “Big Johns”. They are the step brothers if you will of muffler men and although they are not related by “blood” they seem to be part of the extended family. Standing over 5 feet taller then muffler men they are some of the largest giants mass produced back in the golden age of the 1960’s roadside giant architecture era. Their roots are far from the streets of Venice California and they were made in Cape Girardeau, MO at the General Sign Co. Back in 1960 two men Bob Martin and Frank Bayley formed a partnership and started opening grocery stores in rural southern Illinois towns. After about 7 years they started placing giant statues at their store locations. General Sign Co. started turning out the Big Johns around 1967 and I am guessing 10-15 were ordered altogether. These guys are taller and much heavier then muffler men and each of them held 4 giant grocery backs in their arms. The original paint job included a checkered shirt with an apron painted on. The grocery bags were filled with large fiberglass grocery’s and in some locations name brand stickers even appeared on the outside of the bags. At the peak of Big John’s Grocery they had locations in much of southern Illinois as well as a few stores in Tennessee and Kentucky. There is a statue in Cape Coral, FL but I am not sure if that is because there was a grocery store there at one time or it was just purchased and moved there from Illinois. Today there are 9 left that I know of an 2 of them still stand at operating Big John Grocery stores in Southern Illinois. In the 70’s Bob Martin and Frank Bayley slowly moved out of the grocery store industry and started Hucks Gas stations and convenience stores that now cover much of Illinois. As the grocery stores started to close their doors the giant grocery clerks were sold at auctions and start appearing at other businesses. Some have stayed in the grocery store ocupation like the guy in Carmi, IL that stands in front of the Little Giant Grocery Store. In Lakeview, MS one stands on the state line at a seasonal fireworks stand while another guards a strip mall in Florida and was just recently repainted. They have also become popular with collectors and 4 of them can be found today in private collections. There is a Big John in St Louis, MO that is currently in two pieces. Also the former Benton, IL Big John is now part of the Farnham collection in Ungar, WV. And of course there are the two huge Big Johns that now live in Gainsville, TX and are part of Glen Goode’s giant family. Glen’s Big Johns came from the few grocery locations that were in Tennessee and he picked them up off their backs in an empty lot after the closing of their stores in the 80’s. His Big Johns no longer hold their grocery bags but he still has them in storage. I hope to one day learn more of the story behind these giant grocery clerks and find out exactly how many were made, perhaps there are more that still exist that we have not found yet. Although often confused with muffler men these guys are a breed all of their own and along with what is known as the Beach Guy they tower over their muffler man friends. Recently Roadside America did a story on me and mentioned “my rules” of what constitutes a muffler man sighting or not. I don’t count my Big John sightings as muffler man because they were made by a different company. However I do count Uniroyal Gals and the smaller bunyans because they were made by International Fiberglass. I bend the rules a bit for copies of muffler men if they are exact because although not made by I.F. they still look like muffler men, for example Mark Cline’s soda jerks all get a # on my list. Special thanks to Debra Jane Seltzer for the use of her picture of the Farnham collection in Ungar, WV that includes the former Benton, IL Big John.
I think one of the things that interest me most about muffler men is their history. The fact that they were made in the early 1960’s and set up by businesses and family that are now long gone and very hard to track. The mystery of it all, to wonder what stories they could tell if they could talk or what they would have seen if they could. So much has changed since the days when they were shipped brand new across the states to stand at mom and pop restaurants and gas stations like Phillips 66. They were made in a day when no one thought twice to have the phillips 66 cowboy hold a huge rifle and a gun on his hip to represent an oil giant. Today they are like looking at a petrified tree standing alone in what used to be a forest full of 1960’s roadside architecture. Tracing their tracks has from the start been interesting to me, to go back and find the spots where they once stood and look for former owners or townsfolk who might have walked by them a thousand times as a kid. In Milford, NB a cowboy M Man used to stand next to a huge covered wagon off the exit from I-70. As the years passed the man who had built the roadside attraction and business got older and the place fell into disrepair. Sometime in the late 90’s the muffler man was sold and moved and the huge covered wagon lost it’s wheels. America was changing, the roadside advertising strategies of the 50’s and 60’s were slowly starting to disapear and were being replaced with commercials and internet pop up adds. The cowboy was moved to Cody, WY where he stood in a lot next to burger and ice cream stand until the place was cleared to make way for the new super walmart. From there he was carted off to Billings, MT where he still stands today, one of two M Men in town. I remember this awesome picture Roadside America posted from their trip through Milford in 1992 with them standing next to the M Man and looking at the covered wagon building. The wagon and lamp are still there but just some big footprints mark where the cowboy was.
Although not a Muffler man, in Benton, IL a large yellow concrete slab still marks the spot where a Big John statue once stood outside the Big John grocery store. The Big John story deserves a blog post all of it’s own and I’ll post one sometime in the near future. Today the Big John who formerly stood on this round pedestal is a part of the Farnham collection of giants in Unger, WV www.roadsideamerica.com/story/10965
I also think of my #81 sighting (yes I have some catching up to do on this blog) in Shelton, WA when I visited with Lloyd Prouty and he told me of the bunyan that stood for years at Bingers Gas station on South First St next to the old bridge and how he walked by him everyday on his way to school. Every once in awhile an old black and white picture will surface of an M Man standing at a spot an old timer has pointed out and that will totally make my day.