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For these roadside attractions, big things are happening

Muffler men were erected across the nation decades ago to call attention to the businesses they towered over. Now they’re the ones getting all the attention.

Dave in Groveland.Eliot Powers-Maniscalco

Paul Bunyan stands outside of Valley Tree Service in Groveland. Well, he looks like Paul Bunyan, but his name tag says “Dave.” He watches over Salem Street, his bearded smile unchanging.

He’s 14 feet tall, more than twice as tall as Michael Jordan, and made of fiberglass. Among his brethren, he’s actually quite short; most are as tall as a giraffe.

Dave and his fellow fiberglass giants are known as Muffler Men. More than 250 Muffler Men remain across the United States and Canada, in front of restaurants or garages, and more turn up every year. Some, like Dave, still shine like it’s ’69. Others fall into disrepair, losing arms, heads, and legs. They’ve gained a cult following as people realize that that huge, creepy waiter outside the ice cream shop in Normal, Ill., is one of a decades-old collection that still keeps watch over the country. And they’ve become road-trip destinations in themselves.

International Fiberglass sent the very first Muffler Man from Venice, Calif., to Flagstaff, Ariz., in 1962. In an interview with the online guide “Roadside America,” International Fiberglass founder Steve Dashew recalled demand skyrocketing after the first Muffler Man was installed at a gas station in Las Vegas. “That was the start of the ‘invasion,’ ” said Dashew.


International Fiberglass stopped manufacturing the giants entirely around 1974. They lay dormant and unappreciated until the mid-'80s, when Doug Kirby and his college friends started the book series and website “Roadside America,” dedicated to the strangest roadside attractions in the country.

On their travels, the group saw the fiberglass giants, often holding mufflers in front of auto-body shops. So they started calling them Muffler Men. “Eventually, historians say ‘Hey! You guys are throwing off the trail here by giving it your own name!’” said Kirby. But the Muffler Man moniker stuck. Soon Kirby created an online map to track the locations of the statues using tips submitted by the site’s users. (The map can be found online at www.roadsideamerica.com/map/theme/86.)


For many current-day owners, the upkeep costs of a Muffler Man often outweigh the novelty. A recent restoration in Kentucky cost $2,500. But there’s a growing group of fanatics who are willing to do anything to keep the Muffler Men around, and search them out. “There are some people who love the Muffler Men so much that they just … dream about them all the time,” said Kirby.

Perhaps the biggest fanatic, and the mastermind behind that $2,500 restoration, is Joel Baker.

Baker’s Muffler Man story begins much like everyone else’s. As a child, he’d pass a giant headless brontosaurus statue in his hometown. A few years later he decided to do some research, and found Roadside America’s website. He found a Muffler Man just a few blocks away in Dade City, Fla. He’d caught the bug.

“It escalated very quickly from there,” said Baker. Two days later he made his first road trip specifically to see a Muffler Man. Baker’s work involved driving a television satellite truck all over the United States, and he soon planned his routes to integrate visits to Muffler Men into his work travels.

Since then, he’s visited more than 150 Muffler Men all across the country. He now uses his free time and money to take these road trips, rather than relying on the satellite truck. He documents his travels in a YouTube series called “American Giants," where his enthusiasm shines through — in one episode, the owner of a Muffler Man gives him a T-shirt featuring his giant on the front. Baker is so excited about the shirt, he forgets to ask for extras for his road trip buddies.


As time has gone by, the giants have become harder to find. Some are well-known in their communities, like Chicken Boy in Los Angeles (whose owners replaced his head with that of a chicken to advertise their chicken restaurant) and the Gemini Giant in Wilmington, Ill., (dressed in a spacesuit and holding a rocket to advertise a space-themed diner). Many others end up broken and chipped behind businesses that just don’t know what to do with them.

Dave in Groveland has siblings all over New England, in Shirley and Hancock, in Cheshire and Norwich, Conn., and Rumford, Maine. The Muffler Men are still open for a road trip, even if some of the businesses over which they watch are closed.

Baker and the American Giants team have become Muffler Men restorers. After a photo was posted on Roadside America of a headless, armless, 14-foot Muffler Man in Mortons Gap, Ky., in 2014, the team sprang into action. Baker started a Kickstarter campaign to restore it. He and his fellow enthusiasts dedicated two hours every day after working full-time jobs to learn how to work with fiberglass. They returned the statue to its owners with a new head, new arms, a new ax, and a new paint job. They’ve since restored Chief Bagnell in Lake Ozark, Mo., and a space cowboy named Buck Atom in Tulsa, Okla., among others. They’re doing their best to keep the giants around for as long as possible.


Baker says his obsession is not about how or when the giants were made. Each Muffler Man has a story, and the search for that story combines his loves of history, travel, and really big things, which he thinks are common interests. “I’m always blown away at how many people are making these giants part of their road trip,” said Baker.

For now, Dave continues to stand in Groveland, part of an army of Muffler Men across the continent. As the community of fanatics grows, hopefully so will the quality of care available to the ailing giants, and the drive to keep them looking and feeling their best.