Some decades-old statues are still around, fueling our Route 66 nostalgia

2009-02-05T00:00:00Z Some decades-old statues are still around, fueling our Route 66 nostalgiaCARRIE STEINWEG
Times Correspondent
nwitimes.com
February 05, 2009 12:00 am  • 

If you took a road trip during the 1960s or 1970s, you probably encountered a few of the enormous fiberglass statues, referred to by fans and followers as Muffler Men or M-Men.

The giants earned the name, because they often were situated in front of muffler and tire shops to draw customers.

Some of them also sat outside restaurants and roadside attractions luring weary travelers in for a bite to eat or a game of miniature golf.

My fascination with the statues began about eight years ago when I sat in on an historical society presentation by John Weiss, an expert on the Illinois section of Route 66, which began in Chicago and extended to California.

He pointed out what he called the "four giants" that resided along the original Route 66 from Chicago to St. Louis.

Although the statues are similar in shape, each seems to have its own personality. The owners have given them nicknames and modified their wardrobe, sometimes placing various accessories in their hands.

The origins

Decades after they were created, many of them still exist, often a few times removed from their original owners. Many were made by a California company called International Fiberglass starting in the early 1960s. Some of the ones you see were all produced from the same "Paul Bunyan" mold with both hands extending out in front of them, one palm up, one down, holding an item such as a muffler or a tire.

Other Muffler Men expand on the original mold, like the one that sits outside the Launching Pad Drive-in restaurant in Wilmington, Ill. That statue, known as the Gemini Giant, has greeted customers since 1965 clad in a space helmet and holding a spaceship in his hands. He's been quite a conversation piece for residents of the Will County town of about 5,000 and its visitors.

The bulk of the Muffler Men that still exist were born in Venice, Calif. Prewitt Fiberglass made the first figure, a Paul Bunyan created for PB Cafe on Route 66 in Flagstaff, Ariz., in or around 1962.

In 1963, Steve Dashew, who was in the boating business, bought Prewitt Fiberglass and renamed it International Fiberglass. He continued filling occasional orders for the statues, one of which was placed in front of an American Oil gas station in Las Vegas.

After the statue appeared in a national trade magazine, orders came pouring in from the oil and rubber companies: The "Big Friend" was produced for Texaco. A cowboy was made for Phillips Petroleum. A bikini-clad Miss Uniroyal was introduced. The company also made the green fiberglass dinosaurs for the old Sinclair gas stations.

Dashew continued making the statues until he sold the business in the mid- 1970s. As far as he knows, the molds last were used in 1976 and destroyed later that year.

Dashew said he knew of two other companies, one in San Diego (that fulfilled individual orders for statues) and another in Wisconsin (that made fiberglass cows), but he wasn't aware of any other companies doing large orders for corporations as he was doing.

One of those Wisconsin-made cows can be seen securely fastened to the roof of Mr. Gyros and Ice Cream on Torrence Avenue in Lansing. The cow was at the site when the business was Al's Diner, and it sat at the edge of the parking lot, where it suffered damage from vandals and eventually was moved to the roof.

Dashew estimates he made about 10 or 12 different versions of the statues, including an Indian and a spaceman. His company also made a "half-wit" with the Paul Bunyan body and a head that resembled the Alfred E. Neuman character from MAD magazine.

The make-overs

Some Muffler Men have been "re-dressed" over the years. Others have been spruced up. Often the giants have been vandalized -- or taken on joy rides when teens occasionally managed to remove the giant statues from their "homes."

In Evergreen Park, Ill., a Muffler Man sits on the roof of Guardian Auto Rebuilders. Paul Gousset, the manger and son of the owner, said their statue, which doesn't have a name ("We call him the Paul Bunyan-like statue," Gousset said), has been removed by weekend revelers on several occasions.

"They'd pull him down and take him to another location," Gousset said.

"By the following Tuesday, the police would usually call and tell us they found him."

The statue, dressed in blue pants, a red shirt with the Guardian logo and a gold beanie on his head, used to hold a hammer in his hands.

Currently, he holds nothing.

"After going through three hammers, we decided it was enough," Gousset said. While the statue usually was recovered after a disappearance, the hammers weren't recovered.

"It was big, but small enough to fit through a door, so they're probably in someone's basement," he said. The hammers were made by hand at the shop.

"He hasn't got knocked down since we stopped putting the hammers in his hands, so maybe that was the cure."

Being located at a body shop, the statue got star treatment on its last repainting. "We painted him like a car, with a two-stage job," Gousset said.

The Uniroyal Girls made by International Fiberglass were sold two different ways. One was wearing a bikini while other, more modest versions, had a removable outfit that went over the bikini.

One of those versions can be found at Peoria Plaza Tire in Peoria, Ill. Known as "Vanna Whitewall," she wears a bikini in the summer; in winter, her skirt and blouse are added.

In Elkhart, Ind., you'll find another Paul Bunyan that's been with the business, Palmer's Hardware, since it was in South Bend.

The statue, nicknamed "Scotty," is on his third outfit. His most recent make-over went from a green Scott's Fertilizer uniform when the business was a True Value Hardware store to the current ACE Hardware uniform. He now has blue pants and a red shirt with the ACE logo on it.

Owner Brad Jones said after the statue moved to its current location from a different store in Elkhart, three teens knocked it down at the knees. Jones found a local fiberglass company to repair the statue, and this time it was reinforced with cement columns going up the legs to prevent future injuries.

The following

If you search for Muffler Men online, you'll learn these big guys have a devoted following. Roadsideamerica.com offers a state-by-state listing and has a map you can click on to find one. Other Web sites invite nostalgic spotters to update listings with their own sightings and photos.

Recent sightings span the country: A Viking serves as a school mascot at Bangor High School in Bangor, Mich. A coal-black "Big John" holds an ax and watches over the local library in Helper, Utah. A mascot of the Abou Saad Shriners stands in Panama City, Panama. The locals refer to it as "Ronald Reagan."

And a hippie Paul Bunyan dressed in a tie-dyed heart shirt stands near Woodstock, N.Y. The list goes on. Some have photos to accompany the reports.

These fiberglass giants have found a place in the hearts of historic preservationists. Many of the Muffler Men once resided on Route 66, the famous "Mother Road," which provided a nonstop route from Chicago to Los Angeles starting in 1926.

When Bunyan's, a hot dog place on the original Route 66, in Cicero, Ill., closed, the statue, which holds a hot dog, was moved south to Atlanta, Ill., to make sure it remained on Route 66. A dedication ceremony was held with a large crowd in attendance to see "Tall Paul" in his new home.

A New Breed

In Wisconsin Dells, the family-owned Paul Bunyan's Restaurant recently added a statue reminiscent of the early Muffler Men. Located on the main drag, Wisconsin Dells Parkway, the eatery, in the same family since 1958, is open all day for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Mary Hickey, who runs the business with her husband and four of her six children, said she's been told there was a statue in front of the business long ago.

Four years ago, she sought a company that could custom-make a Paul Bunyan statue to reside outside their business.

"Paul," as he is called, soon arrived, dressed in typical lumberjack garb -- jeans, a red flannel shirt and suspenders -- standing about 14 feet tall, one hand on his hip, the other holding an ax. He's been a crowd-pleaser since day one, according to Hickey, and has been the subject of countless photos.

Boosting business

ACE Hardware owner Jones in Elkhart said their "Scotty" has been great for business. "It's like a landmark. That's how they distinguish our store is by Paul Bunyan," Jones said.

"I actually ran an ad last year, and I dressed as Paul Bunyan and stood next to him and there was a picture that said 'Guess who is the real Paul Bunyan?' and that was great. We got a lot of response from that ad."

Wisconsin Dells' Hickey said their "Paul" has drawn in customers and become a stop for tourists interested in the statue.

"Everyone who stops takes a picture with him," she said. She's even got a photo of one of the Green Bay Packers standing along side Mr. Bunyan.

"It has been a very good focal point for us," she said.

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