Never the twine shall meetWorld's Largest Balls of Twine, Cawker City, KS and Darwin, MN

World's Largest Ball of Twine sketches by Chandler O'Leary

The Tailor and I have been having the same argument for years now. It’s really one of those fundamental debates in life, revolving around the universe’s most pressing question:

Which Giant Twine Ball is better?

World's Largest Ball of Twine sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Now I’m going to tell you up front: Kansas is the Tailor’s home state. So I think it’s bias talking when he tells you (and anyone who’ll listen) that the World’s Largest Twine Ball in Cawker City reigns supreme.

World's Largest Ball of Twine sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Okay, okay, I’ll grant that it’s the actual World’s Largest. It’s over 40 feet in diameter, and made up of nearly 8 million feet of twine. Impressive, yes. But here’s the thing: this monster was a community effort. Every year they hold a “Twine-a-thon” and add more string to the beast. I don’t know why, but much as I applaud the community spirit, somehow that feels like cheating to me.

World's Largest Ball of Twine (by One Man) sketch by Chandler O'Leary

By comparison, the 12-foot Twine Ball in Darwin, Minnesota seems kinda puny, I know. But at 17,400 pounds, it’s no lightweight. And more importantly, this one was made entirely by one man: Mr. Francis A. Johnson, who wrapped twine four hours a day, every day, for 29 years.

When was the last time you devoted your life to creating a roadside masterpiece? Not even Pee Wee Herman’s rubber-band ball has that kind of single-mindedness, my friends. And—and! Frank’s creation is the subject of a Weird Al song—which, as far as I’m concerned, is the final word on the subject.

World's Largest Ball of Twine (by One Man) sketch by Chandler O'Leary

I think we need to settle this once and for all. That’s right, it’s time for a Twine Ball Smackdown. Maybe a twine tug o’ war would be the most appropriate venue to solve this, but I only have pencils and pixels at my disposal here. So in the spirit of democracy, I’m putting this up for a vote.

Here’s where you come in: leave a comment stating your favorite Twine Ball—or if social media is your thing, you can vote by Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or Pinterest. And help spread the word! We want a mandate on this thing, folks—let’s get out the vote, and give either Mr. Johnson or the good folks of Cawker City a decisive victory.

Cast your vote in by Wednesday, October 8, and I’ll declare a winner on the Facebook page on Thursday. Hurry—twine’s a-wasting!

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Kings of the roadMuffler Men, various points around United States

Muffler Man sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Well, if I’m going to spend all this time talking about roadside attractions, I would be remiss if I didn’t include the legendary Muffler Men—guardians of gas stations, presidents of photo ops. If you’ve ever taken a road trip, you’ve probably seen at least one of these guys along the way.

These behemoths started appearing in the early 1960s (the very first one was on Route 66), to promote the brand new International Fiberglass Company in California. For whatever reason, they usually ended up in front of gas stations, holding giant mufflers—hence the nickname.

Muffler Man sketch by Chandler O'Leary

By 1970 there were thousands of them around the country, but the 1973 oil crisis forced the decline and eventual demise of International Fiberglass. These days the muffler men are an endangered species, down to just a few hundred stalwart lads (and a handful of ladies, too!).

Saloon Cowboy (Muffler Man) sketch by Chandler O'Leary

For me, finding them has turned into something of a quest—and not just because I’m a completist (though, of course I am). You see, the most fun thing about these guys is that they’re not identical—there are many, many variations on the original design (and a few knock-offs, to boot).

Paul Bunyan Muffler Man sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Probably the most common variation is the Paul Bunyan—they’re certainly the most recognizable, even when their axes get stolen.

Paul Bunyan Muffler Man sketch by Chandler O'Leary

And when they’re spiffed up to their original glory, they’re unmistakeable. (This one is a mobile muffler man! When he surprised me at the local Daffodil Parade a few years ago, it felt like Christmas had come early.)

Carpet Viking sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Though I’ll never pass up any iteration of Paul Bunyan, I’m most excited about the rare, extreme variants, the roadside sideshow—the Uniroyal Gals, the Happy Halfwits, the Carpet Vikings.

Harvey the Rabbit (Muffler Man) sketch by Chandler O'Leary

And best of all are the mutant modifications that have happened to some of these guys (you should have heard me squeal when I found this one!). Some have been altered so much as to be rendered almost unrecognizable. But you can’t fool me—once a muffler man, always a muffler man.

So tell me: have you found any muffler men in your travels? Do you have one in your neighborhood? I’m always on the look-out for a good one, so if you have any recommendations, I’m all (rabbit) ears.

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Whole-kernel cornicesThe Corn Palace, Mitchell, SD

Corn Palace sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Now, there are roadside attractions, and there are roadside attractions. Much as I love a good giant fiberglass animal, the Corn Palace belongs in the elite upper crust of roadside gems.

For one thing, the hand-pieced corn mosaic on the façade changes every year. That is a labor of love, people. For another, the folks who built the place were incredibly gutsy—in 1904, the town of Mitchell launched a campaign to replace Pierre as the capital of South Dakota. Can you just imagine the Corn Palace as the capitol building? I mean, no disrespect to Pierre or anything, but somehow a crop-adorned government building just seems fitting. (Not even my beloved Minnesota State Fair could come up with something that perfect.) Oh, if only I ran the world.

Hey, maybe it’s not too late to get the question on the ballot in November…

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You know the drillThe Golden Driller, Tulsa, OK

Golden Driller sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Well, I suppose if you’re going to have roadside attractions, you might as well devote some of them to the road trip idea itself. And if you’re going to do that … well, I guess it follows that somewhere there’d be a monument to petroleum, nectar of the road trip gods.

Golden Driller sketch by Chandler O'Leary

And at 76 feet tall, Tulsa’s Golden Driller is guaranteed not to let you forget what fueled your little pilgrimage. (Am I the only person who can be made to feel guilty by a roadside attraction?)

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Short and stoutTacoma, WA and Zillah, WA

Bob's Java Jive sketch by Chandler O'Leary

I am pleased to tell you that Washington is the proud owner of not one, but two teapot-shaped buildings. (Well, one is a teapot and the other is a coffee pot, but since the designs—and even the colors—are nearly identical, I think that’s close enough.)

The first might just be, as advertised, world-famous. Tacoma’s very own coffee pot was once a well-known landmark along old Highway 99, until the Interstate was built and businesses along the old thoroughfare faded into obscurity (a story as old as the Interstate itself). The place is no longer a restaurant, but is still in operation—now a dive bar with a different name and a cult following. Now that the coffee pot shape is a non-sequitur, it seems like everyone in my town loves the place all the more.

Teapot Dome Gas Station sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Lesser known, slightly older, and much farther off the beaten path is the Teapot Dome Service Station. This beauty sits on the eastern side of the Cascades, though it has been relocated a few times around the area. It now sits, newly restored (though now with cheesy fake gas pumps), in the tiny orchard town of Zillah, WA. It’s much smaller than the Java Jive, and has more of a ho-made flair to it, but what really interests me is that it was a political statement.

In 1922 Zillah resident Jack Ainsworth constructed the building in response to the Teapot Dome oil scandal (bribes, conflicts of interest, no-competition bids for military contracts, corrupt land leasing, the works!), which was in the news at that time. I love that Ainsworth made such a witty statement about the oil industry by building a gas station.

And his patrons? Well, they would have stopped at the teapot for a tankful, probably asked in jest for a cupful—and in return received an earful.

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Big BessieWorld's Largest Holstein Cow, New Salem, ND

World's Largest Holstein Cow sketch by Chandler O'Leary

You might remember Salem Sue—she was the first sketch I ever posted on this blog. I have a deep fondness for just about any roadside attraction, but I might just love Sue best of all.

World's Largest Holstein Cow sketch by Chandler O'Leary

It’s not just that she’s freakishly realistic (just out of frame of this sketch: the big scary veins on her udder), and at 38 x 50 feet, absolutely huge. There’s also something about her location, perched on a butte, with an endless plain stretching below her in every direction. It’s impossible to be that big and not have some serious presence.

World's Largest Holstein Cow sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Probably what I love best of all, though, is that Salem Sue looks great from every angle—from far below, close-to, underfoot, and even from above. The residents of New Salem seem to know this, and have made it easy to get up there and reach her.

World's Largest Holstein Cow sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Good thing I had plenty of pages left in my sketchbook.

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LandsharkOcean Shores, WA

Sharky's Souvenir Shop sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Normally this would be the part where I tell you all about the souvenir shop with the giant shark’s head I found on the Washington coast—but I think I’ll just let the pictures do their job. Instead, I wanted to let you know that Sharky here has joined 29 more of his roadside brethren on some good old-fashioned gallery walls—in my new solo exhibit that has just opened! If you’re local, here are the details:

Drawn the Road Again: Roadside Attractions sketched by Chandler O’Leary
On display through October 25, 2014
Handforth Gallery, Tacoma Public Library
1102 Tacoma Ave. South, Tacoma, WA
Reception: Thursday, October 16, 4 to 5:30 pm

Sharky's Souvenir Shop sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Since I know many of you are not local, and won’t see the show in person, I thought I’d turn this blog over to the theme of roadside attractions, from now until the end of the exhibit. You’ll see a lot of what’s in the exhibit—plus a few extra goodies that are only online. I’ve been saving some of my favorite sketches for the occasion—I hope you’ll like them, too.

Sharky's Souvenir Shop sketch by Chandler O'Leary

So grab some popcorn, and get ready for some serious concrete n’ fiberglass. Tacoma folks, hope to see you in the flesh—just look out for sharks!

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Disappearing act(Former) Hostess Cake factory, Seattle, WA

Former Hostess Cake factory sketch by Chandler O'Leary

All cities grow, shrink or evolve over time—but as Seattle is in the midst of yet another building boom, the place is changing so rapidly that I can’t keep up. Landmarks and local mom-and-pops disappear in a puff of smoke—while presto-change-o, mammoth condos and office blocks pop up, seemingly overnight. Painted plywood fences mask building sites the way a magician’s red velvet cloth covers the lady sawn in half. Whole arterial exchanges get picked up and moved elsewhere, my shortcuts and well-worn paths shuffled like a deck of cards. Not only can I not begin to record all the changes in my sketchbooks—sometimes I have to erase huge swaths of my mental map and completely redraw them.

The sweeping changes are disorienting, but small tweaks are everywhere, too. The big plans misdirect our attention while the little things shift by sleight of hand, well beneath our notice. This prestidigitation happens so often that I wonder sometimes if I’m the only one still peering closely, trying to discover the magician’s trick. If I’m the only one whose heartstrings are tugged with every posting of a land use permit.

So revisiting the Hostess Cake Factory, which I sketched last year, seemed like the perfect symbol of how I feel about all this. The structure is an empty, faceless shell now, awaiting a makeover, or a tear-down, or something else entirely. The only remaining identifying features are the building’s rounded corners and its location on the map.

Saddest of all, the red hearts the building wore on its sleeve are gone—which feels suspiciously like a metaphor for the whole neighborhood. Maybe the magician will surprise us and make those hearts reappear at the history museum down the street. Until that day, I’ll keep their memory safe in my sketchbook.

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