Image: Worlds largest ball of twine in Cawker City, Kansas
Franck Fotos / Alamy  /  Alamy
Frank Stoeber started winding twine in his basement in 1953. Determined to outdo the mighty 12-foot-wide Johnson Twine Ball in Darwin, Minn., he labored tirelessly until his death in 1974, finishing one foot short of his goal. Since then, residents and tourists visiting Cawker City, Kan., have been adding to Stoeber's ball in the annual Twineathon held in August. It now weighs a hefty nine tons and measures 40 feet in diameter.
updated 8/6/2010 9:14:45 AM ET 2010-08-06T13:14:45

As you squint through the windscreen, the freeway emerges from a heat haze in the lonely heart of the Nevada desert. Amid miles of featureless landscape, a single cottonwood tree suddenly looms. But you do a double take: Instead of flowers, thousands of shoes bloom from the branches. This is no mirage: This is the Shoe Tree, one of America’s strangest roadside attractions.

Arresting roadside oddities have been around for more than a century, the catalyst for their creation the ever-decreasing attention span of the average motorist.

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Since the days of Henry Ford, cars and their occupants have hurtled by at increasing velocity. To sell their wares, many highway retailers created giant architectural follies to evoke the goods sold inside: teahouses were represented by giant teapots, hot dog stands resembled hot dogs, Muffler Men held mufflers … it all made a weird kind of sense.

But what do a ball of string, an avenue of birdhouses, or a cement troll have to sell? It turns out that some of the most unfathomable roadside attractions are also the most fascinating.

Click for slideshow: America's strangest roadside attractions

“The roadside is perfect for artists because there’s a built-in audience in the passing traffic,” says Steve Badanes, Seattle artist and sculptor of the Fremont Troll, an underpass ogre that has become a local landmark in the Emerald City. “Passengers are taken by surprise. They were not intending to come and look at art. There’s always something going on at the Fremont Troll … tourists taking photos, rappers making videos … it has a life of its own.”

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While not many people would be tempted to drive four hours to visit the second largest ball of twine — as Clark Griswold (a.k.a. Chevy Chase) did in the film "National Lampoon’s Vacation" — any long-distance driver can attest that after hours at the wheel, twine of any size becomes a strangely appealing diversion.

And hokey charm is certainly an appeal of roadside attractions.

In spite of its ugliness, for example, there’s something strangely sweet about the Big Blue Bug in Rhode Island. Other quirky pit stops, on the other hand, are all about size.

“We’re all attracted to the world’s biggest stuff…it’s a childlike fascination,” says Badanes. “I mean, who would drive across the country to see the world’s smallest anything?”

Copyright © 2012 American Express Publishing Corporation

Explainer: 12 car museums worth a detour

  • Image: Cadillac Ranch
    Melba Knowles
    Ten half-buried, graffiti-covered Cadillac cars make up Cadillac Ranch, an art installation that’s been on a highway near Amarillo, Texas, since 1974.

    America’s love affair with the horseless carriage may have more to do with style, speed, status and ingenuity than with actually getting from here to there. Or so you might conclude after seeing the Model Ts, Corvettes, concept models and other prized automobiles on display at car museums around the country. If you’re hitting the highway this summer, we found a dozen temples to transportation (such as the Cadillac Ranch near Amarillo, Texas, pictured) that are definitely worth a detour.

    — Harriet Baskas, contributor

  • National Corvette Museum: Bowling Green, Ky.

    Image: Corvette outside museum
    National Corvette Museum
    The National Corvette Museum opened in 1994 and includes automotive memorabilia, the Corvette Café and, of course, plenty of vintage and brand new Corvettes.

    The National Corvette Museum is just down the road from the General Motors plant that’s been assembling Corvettes since 1981. On display are more than 80 examples of this classic American sports car, including the only 1983 Corvette in existence, race cars, milestone cars (including the 500,000th, one millionth and 1.5 millionth Corvette cars made) and many one-of-a-kind concept vehicles that never reached production.

    Get a ticket: The National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Ky., is open daily and includes many interactive exhibits and a Corvette “nursery” where new Corvette owners can arrange delivery of their cars.

  • Owls Head Transportation Museum: Owls Head, Maine

    Image: 1908 Stanley Steamer Model K
    Owls Head Transportation Museum
    Speedy, but designed for everyday use, this 1908 Stanley Steamer Model K used the same engine as the "Wogglebug" Special Racer that reached 127.66 mph at Ormond Beach, Fla., in 1906.

    In addition to historic bicycles, motorcycles and aircraft, the Owls Heads Transportation Museum displays 50 antique automobiles dating from 1885 to the 1950s. The wide-ranging collection includes everything from a 1907 Cadillac Runabout and 1914 Rolls Royce limousine to a popcorn wagon from 1923 and a wooden-bodied Ford Station Wagon made in 1940. In addition to its popular winter transportation festival featuring antique snow vehicles, the museum’s other annual events include an aerobatic airshow, a motorcycle meet, an antique motor vehicle rally and rare vehicle demonstrations that often include free Model T-rides.

    Get a ticket: The Owls Head Transportation Museum is on Penobscot Bay in Maine’s Midcoast region. A good time to visit might be in mid-September, when the museum will be hosting a gathering of large construction vehicles at the Earth Movers & Shakers & Antique Aeroplane Show.

  • Mullin Automotive Museum: Oxnard, Calif.

    Image: Unrestored Bugatti
    Courtesy Mullin Automotive Museum
    This Bugatti sat at the bottom of a lake for 73 years.

    Opened in April 2010, the Mullin Automotive Museum displays art deco furniture and decorative art along with about 50 historic French classic cars from the 1920s and 30s, including Bugattis, Delages, Delahayes, Hispano Suizas, Talbot-Lagos and Voisins. A highlight of the collection is the unrestored 1925 Bugatti Type 22 Brescia Modifeé, which sat at the bottom of the Swiss end of Lake Maggiore for 73 years.

    Get a ticket: The new Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard, Calif., is currently open to the public one Saturday each month, and tickets must be purchased in advance. But don’t be shy: Museum officials say they’re willing to open the museum on other days by appointment.

  • The National Automobile Museum (The Harrah Collection): Reno, Nev.

    Image: Thomas Flyer
    Courtesy of the National Automobile Museum
    Jeff Mahl sits in the Thomas Flyer, the car his great-grandfather, George Shuster, was driving when crossed the finish line in the 1908 New York to Paris car race.

    More than 200 antique, vintage, classic and special interest cars are displayed in galleries and on themed “streets” inside this downtown Reno museum. Highlights of the collection include one of the oldest American-built automobiles, the 1892 Philion steam road carriage, and many other rare and one-of-a-kind automobiles, including cars once owned by Elvis Presley, James Dean, Frank Sinatra and other celebrities. The museum also displays the 1907 Thomas Flyer, the car that won the 22,000-mile New York to Paris race around the world in 1908.

    Get a ticket: The National Automobile Museum is open daily in downtown Reno. Through October 2010, the museum’s Motoring Tourist exhibit celebrates auto camping gear inspired by the National Park-to-Park Highway that connected 12 National Parks in the early 20th century.

  • Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum: Fairbanks, Alaska

    Image: Alaska’s first car
    Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum
    This two-seater from 1905 is not only the first car made in Alaska, it’s Alaska’s first car.

    The Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum in Fairbanks, Alaska, displays more than 70 rare and antique cars, including some that are the sole-survivors of their marques (brands), and the first car ever built in Alaska. The museum’s Alaska Gallery highlights the conditions faced by the state’s motorist, including glacial rivers, far-below-freezing temperatures, avalanches, and driving on and through heavy snow.

    Get a ticket: The Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum displays historic, auto-related photos and vintage clothing alongside its cars. Visitors can choose from a selection of period clothing to wear while posing for a photograph in one old car that sits in front of the museum’s Alaska roadhouse.

  • The Antique Automobile Club of America Museum: Hershey, Pa.

    Image: 1905 Cadillac
    Tony Hassinger, Wheatstone Production
    This 1905 Cadillac is one of the treasures among eight decades of cars, buses and motorcycles displayed in this Smithsonian Institution-affiliated museum.

    A showcase for car memorabilia, automotive collectibles and special exhibits, the Antique Auto Museum in Hershey, Pa., displays eight decades of cars in themed settings ranging from an art deco hotel to a gas service station and a drive-in movie. In addition to 100 vintage cars, the museum displays motorcycles and is home to the Museum of Bus Transportation, which features 12 full-sized buses.

    Get a ticket: The Antique Automobile Club of America Museum is open year-round and houses a model train display and what the museum believes is the only “Alphabet Ford Collection” — Model T’s with letter designations — in existence.

  • Muscle Car City Museum: Punta Gorda, Fla.

    Image: Red Corvettes
    J. Huber,
    Corvettes lined up at the Muscle City Car Museum.

    It takes a 99,000-square-foot building once occupied by a Walmart store to display the Muscle Car City Museum’s collection of more than 200 classic cars and hot rods dating from the 1950s to the 70s. Along with automotive memorabilia that includes vintage gas pumps, road signs and traffic signals, the museum display Camaros, Chevelles, El Caminos, Pontiac GTOs, Chevy Corvettes, Oldsmobile Cutlass 442s and other high-horsepower muscle cars — all in pristine running condition.

    Get a ticket: Located midway between Tampa and Naples, Fla., on the southwest Florida Gulf Coast, the Muscle Car City Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, year-round. A free car show is held on the 3rd Saturday of each month.

  • Petersen Automotive Museum: Los Angeles

    Image: Batmobile
    Courtesy Petersen Automotive Museum
    One of three studio-authorized reproductions of the Batmobile, the car driven by Batman (Michael Keaton) in "Batman "(1989) and "Batman Returns" (1992).

    This four-floor museum in the Los Angeles Miracle Mile district celebrates the role of the automobile in American life and culture with exhibits, dioramas and more than 150 rare and classic cars, truck and motorcycles. One floor traces the history of the automobile using car-centric Los Angeles as the backdrop. Another floor hosts changing exhibits featuring modern-day racecars, classic cars, concept cars and cars made famous by celebrities and movies.

    Get a ticket: The Petersen Automotive Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday. An exhibition about cars and clothing, Automotivated: Streamlined Fashion and Automobiles, opens July 24th. Fantasies in Fiberglass run through Oct. 3 and features Corvettes, dune buggies and other custom and production cars made from fiberglass.

  • The Henry Ford: Dearborn, Mich.

    Image: Wienermobile
    Michelle Andonian, Michelle Andonian Photography
    This giant hot-dog car, a rolling commercial for Oscar Mayer, is one of the cars at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Mich.

    Perhaps the best place to explore the history of cars and their impact on American culture is inside the 10-acre Henry Ford Museum, which currently has more than 140 vehicles on display. Collection highlights include an original Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, Mustang serial number 001 and its prototype, Henry Ford’s Quadricycle (the first automobile he ever built), the 15 millionth Model T, the bus in which Rosa Parks bus refused to give up her seat and the limousine in which President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Highway billboards, neon signs, a gas station and other artifacts relating to car-culture are here as well. The farmhouse where Henry Ford was born and a replica of the factory where he built his first cars are next door, at Greenfield Village.

    Get a ticket: The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Mich., is open daily. A fun hands-on activity is the museum’s “Build a Model T” program: Visitors can grab a tool and help build a real Model T, which gets completed by the end of the day and disassembled by morning, so visitors can start building it again.

  • Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame and Museum: Indianapolis

    Image: Marmon Wasp
    Courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway and
    The Marmon "Wasp" won the inaugural Indianapolis 500 in 1911 with Ray Harroun at the wheel. The car was featured on a postage stamp in the U.S. Postal Service's Transportation Series.

    Located on the sprawling grounds of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame and Museum displays trophies, timing and scoring equipment and vintage motorcycles and cars made in Indiana. On-site, there’s also an old-style garage, a NASCAR exhibit and more than 30 cars that have won the Indy 500, including the Marmon “Wasp”, which won the first Indianapolis 500 race in 1911. Visitors can also get their photos taken behind the wheel of a real racecar.

    Get a ticket: The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame and Museum is open daily and is one of the many transportation-themed stops on the Indiana 500 Tour.

  • Crawford Auto Aviation Museum: Cleveland

    Image: 32 Peerless Touring Sedan
    Western Reserve Historical Society
    This 1932 Peerless Prototype Touring Sedan was the last automobile produced by a Cleveland auto company.

    Part of the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, the Crawford Auto Aviation Museum owns 140 cars and 10 airplanes, as well as motorcycles, carriages, bicycles and other transportation-related artifacts. While the collection includes Model T Fords and modern-day Jaguars, there’s a special focus on Cleveland and Northeast Ohio-made cars, including what the museum considers it flagship automobile: the 1932 Peerless Prototype Touring Sedan. This one-of-a-kind luxury car was the last automobile produced by a Cleveland-based auto company and had doors that extended into the roof curve to allow hat-wearing passengers easy entry.

    Get a ticket: The Crawford Aviation Museum in Cleveland is open Tuesday through Saturday. In addition to the car and airplanes in the collection, the museum owns and displays Tinkerbelle, the small, hand-built boat Robert Manry successfully sailed from Falmouth, Maine, to Falmouth, England, in 1965.

  • Lane Motor Museum: Nashville, Tenn.

    Image: Two-headed Citroen
    Courtesy Lane Motor Museum
    This two-headed Citroën Cogolin was designed by a French fire & rescue squad that wanted to avoid having to turn around on narrow mountain roads.

    Housed in a former Sunbeam Bakery building, the Lane Motor Museum has a collection of more than 300 European vehicles and is the largest such collection in the United States. Among the cars and motorcycles dating from the 1920s to the current decade are amphibious cars, propeller-driven cars, cars that fold in half and the Peel P50 which, at 53 inches long, 39 inches wide and 53 inches tall, is listed by the Guinness World Records as the “Smallest Street-Legal Car.” The museum’s 1952 Citroën Cogolin is made up of two welded-together front sections and, with two engines, can be driven forwards or backwards. It was created by a French fire and rescue team which needed a car that could maneuver easily up and down narrow mountain roads.

    Get a ticket: Nashville’s Lane Motor Museum is open daily and displays about 150 of its more than 300 cars and motorcycles at any one time. Ninety percent of the vehicles run and receive annual tune ups and oil changes.

    Do you have a favorite car museum? Tell us about it in the comments section below.


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