A roadside proposal
It began with two books: “Roadside America” and “Uncommon and Unheralded Museums.” Both documented off-the-beaten-path monuments of kitsch and collections born of passion. For me, the lover of road trips, they became a map of adventure. For my family, they became the source of shared sideway glances and head shakes of disbelief.
As a newlywed, my first pick nearly destroyed all future vacations. But really, who doesn’t want to see a leg afflicted with elephantitis preserved in a giant beaker full of formaldehyde? Or numerous photographs of Civil War bullet wounds? The Bethesda Medical Museum might not have been the best choice to introduce Bill to my quirky obsession with quirky obsessions, but it made all other venues seem pleasant in comparison.
From full blown professional and commercial enterprises to tiny hometown museums scuttled away in dusty backrooms of public buildings, these are my favorite landmarks to visit.
Are they often lowbrow?
Are they sometimes tacky?
Are they important to someone?
Definitely, and that is what makes them interesting.
Imagine a building the size of the old A&P filled with handcrafted miniatures of circuses, towns and logging operations. Simple push buttons would allow the audience to set vignettes in motion. Day would pass into night every hour, marked by a scratchy recording of Kate Smith singing “God Bless America.” Virtually unchanged since 1953, the actual Roadside America attraction was hokey, but it was charming, and it was evidence of one man’s passion. This mecca was a favorite stop in Shartlesville, Pennsylvania that, unfortunately after 85 years, closed its doors.
My family has been dragged to many of these shrines. Every vacation they know that a detour looms ahead, where the magic and the eyerolls will both begin. The World’s Smallest Diner (which disappointingly only serves hot dogs), the Barfing Boar (a fountain in my son’s college town), Dog Mountain (beautiful, but sad), and the Circus World Museum (a true Wisconsin gem) have all made the list. Graceland is so much better than I imagined, and the RCA dog in Albany is a landmark on our trips to Nana’s.
Closer to home we have the statue of Pep-o-mint Lifesavers in Gouverneur, the Lumberjack Memorial in Tupper Lake and America’s original theme park: Santa’s Workshop. But my favorite semi-local installations are the “Potty Gardens” of Potsdam. For years we watched them grow and multiply. Toilets festooned with artificial flowers made my kids giggle and made me curious. So, I began to follow the story.
The gardens belong to Hank Robar who in 2004 had a zoning dispute with the town. He felt he had been given a foul deal, and the toilet art seemed to be the perfect medium for his frustrated response. The town wasn’t pleased and tried repeatedly to have the land de-commoded. While I’m not privy to all the details, lawsuits involved the line between junk and art, in addition to the limits of personal rights vs. zoning. In April 2021 Robar won his federal court case: no longer an endangered species, toilet art is protected under the First Amendment.
During this time, a strange thing happened. While not universal, some people embraced the gardens — rerouting trips to see them, pausing for selfies and posing for graduation pictures. National papers picked up the story. Websites dedicated to oddities and whimsy listed them as an attraction. What had begun in anger had transformed into a bit of joy.
Which makes me think (always a dangerous thing) … We have Tessie the Recycled Sea Serpent, a beautiful whimsical carousel, a number of murals and the fabulous humongous Bug Crawl. We are an artsy place, but lately there seems to be a lot of angst. So what if everyone who experienced frustration expressed it in art rather than in social media diatribes, public rants, or mass-produced, commercially-motivated signs?
Ponder this: If we went for metaphors like Mr. Robar — we could have Poopdle sculptures, Games of Thrones displays and “honey buckets” of protest. The possibilities for Turning-The-Other-Cheek Art are numerous, probably inappropriate, and thereby, hilarious. If the offended artist went big, Goose-zilla could reign. If they went small, maybe a village of affordable gnome houses could nestle in a front yard. A bit more upscale exhibit could contain glass displays of transparency, mosaic trees and statues of potential employees.
Would this method solve problems?
Absolutely not, but it might insert a modicum of joy into some contentious issues. And imagine this: our town could be a modern roadside attraction!
Of course, this is a bit far-fetched and more than a little flippant. But if my ridiculous suggestion was ever embraced, Saranac Lake would truly be … Decidedly Different.